Since the USSR’s participation in the first Windermere Cup during the Cold War, Seattle’s annual crew extravaganza has remained a prestigious rowing regatta across the globe. Now the Russians return for the race’s 30th running.
The following is an excerpt from “The Windermere Cup: A History of One of the World’s Premier Rowing Regattas,” a new book published by Windermere Real Estate. The book is available for purchase online and at UW’s University Book Store.
Seattle, the entire West Coast, plus rowers and rowing enthusiasts from Massachusetts to Moscow, can thank John Jacobi for reading the Sunday paper.
Jacobi is the aggressive, gregarious former owner and CEO of Windermere Real Estate, based in Seattle. Jacobi purchased the company in 1972, and by 2015 Windermere was the largest regional real estate company in the Western U.S.
30th Windermere Cup on Montlake Cut, 10:20 a.m., followed by Opening Day Boat Parade at noon
The genesis for the Windermere Cup Regatta came on a sunny Sunday morning in mid-May, 1986. Jacobi was on the back patio of his Seattle home he and his wife, Roz, shared near the Windermere home office, thumbing through his copy of The Seattle Times to the Sports section. His eyes came upon a column written by Blaine Newnham, long an advocate for University of Washington athletics, and Husky rowing in particular.
Windermere Cup 2016
Newnham had written about Opening Day, the beginning of Seattle’s boating season and the corresponding rowing regatta Washington had held the previous day on the Montlake Cut, the waterway bordering UW campus between Union and Portage bays.
“In front of an enormous Opening-Day Regatta crowd at the Montlake Cut, the Huskies beat up on Oregon State,” Newnham wrote. “They squandered the moment, boring tens of thousands of spectators. They simply couldn’t attract top-flight competition.”
To Jacobi, this was a call to action.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to find some way to get connected with the university,’ ” Jacobi said of his company. “Football wasn’t the way. I love football and I love basketball, but those programs already had a plethora of corporate sponsors. Unlike rowing.”
Reading about UW’s snooze of a crew race that anchored Opening Day hit him like an oar broken free from its lock.
“This just came out of the blue with this article,” he said. “I thought, ‘My gosh! This is so natural for us. And it would be so much fun.’ ”
Finding the perfect fit
Seattle and rowing is a natural fit — has been since before 1911, in fact.
That’s when Hiram Conibear, then Washington’s rowing coach (and the man whose name is on the Huskies’ impressive boathouse Windermere helped fund) got Englishmen George and Dick Pocock to come build crew shells at UW. The Pocock Rowing Center, across the University Bridge from UW where Portage Bay meets Lake Union, now is renowned as the premier masters- and junior-rowing facility in the Pacific Northwest.
And Jacobi, a Northwest native, had some experience on the water, though not in ultracompetitive rowing.
“No, actually I did row. I was in the Coast Guard and I rowed an eight-man whaleboat,” he said. “I was the stroke and almost died. Ever row a whaleboat? Jesus. Weighs about 4 tons.”
Jacobi explained his father, Lee, played football at Washington, though “he wasn’t very successful.” Indeed, on UW football’s all-time rosters, there are no records of a Jacobi earning a varsity letter in football. “But I wanted to be a part of the university. Our company is very involved in the university, always has been,” John Jacobi said. “We have a lot of friends and members of Windermere that are in various positions there.”
The day after Jacobi read Newnham’s column, the real estate chief traveled a mere five minutes from his Windermere office down Seattle’s Sand Point Way to the UW campus.
There he met with Dick Erickson, the iconic, tireless, drill-sergeant-like director of rowing for the Huskies. In 1970, Erickson and his Washington crew were invited by the Seattle Yacht Club to create a regatta as a “warm up” to the SYC’s annual Opening Day boat parade. The Huskies proceeded to win 12 of the first 16 Opening Day regattas against local and regional competition. In that time, they also won two national championships. It was Erickson who opened the sport to women at UW in 1975.
Jacobi’s meeting with Erickson that day also included Bob Ernst, the affable, energetic women’s crew coach at Washington at the time.
“He said, ‘Oh, my God! You’ve got this great event. You’ve got this great venue. And you are racing Oregon State,’ ” recalls Ernst, a born talker, recruiter and rowing advocate who eventually took over for Erickson and led Husky crew until 2015.
Erickson knew he and his athletic director at Washington, Mike Lude, needed another group on board with Jacobi’s idea to bolster the Opening Day Regatta.
“Bob, Dick and I met with Frank Young of the Seattle Yacht Club,” Lude said. “They were really interested in making Opening Day of the boating season bigger, too.
“Let me tell you something: I don’t know squat about rowing,” said Lude, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, assistant college football coach and head baseball coach at Hillsdale and Maine. “But it didn’t take me two weeks to see that rowing was a traditional and very big part of Husky athletics. My thought was to help rowing.”
With that, what had for 16 years been regional crew races coinciding with Seattle’s Opening Day boat parade became the Windermere Cup, a world-renowned spectacle along a unique, man-made cut of water south of Washington’s Husky Stadium.
“I had no idea it would grow into this. I didn’t even know we’d be allowed to call it the Windermere Cup,” Jacobi said. “I thought, they will probably want to name it after some famous rower or something. So that was a big deal.”
So was the real estate man’s ambitions for his new event.
Beginning a legacy
“It was great to have the Soviets for the first (Windermere Cup). It was a world event,” Lude said. “And with Bob’s connections we’ve had crews from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the Balkan states, Italy … all of them come to Washington to race in the Windermere Cup. We didn’t know if we’d have John’s support beyond the first year, but after that first one, he was so excited it was easy to get his blessing for the second year.”
And the third. And the fourth, the fifth … the 28th.
“As long as he’s upstairs in that office at Windermere, no one else will sponsor and put on this race,” Lude said.
Windermere and the Huskies invited the former Soviet Union and its subsequent independent states back to four more Windermere Cups.
In 1992, the newly independent Lithuanians finished second to both UW’s men’s and women’s crews. In 1996, Russia’s men’s team finished second to UW and its women finished third behind the winning Huskies and second-place Yale. In 2003, Belarus beat Washington and Notre Dame in the men’s final of the Windermere Cup, and in 2006, the Russian Rowing Federation’s men’s and women’s teams won the Windermere Cup.
Now, in 2016, the Russians are returning for the event’s 30th year. Racing begins at 10:20 a.m. Saturday at the Montlake Cut, with the women’s and men’s Windermere Cup races launching at 11:40 a.m. and 11:55 a.m., respectively, followed by the Opening Day parade of boats.
All this started from Jacobi reading Newnham’s column in the Sunday paper, the Windermere chief going to Erickson and Ernst the next day, and the coaches going to UW athletic director Lude to carry the first, grand Windermere Cup from idea to ideal in 12 months.
“It was a dream that became a reality, because it went great,” Lude said. “All of the credit to Bob and to Dick. The rest of it — all I had to do was convince people.”