As the Windermere Cup returns for its 30th year, we take a look back at the most notable events in the rowing regatta’s storied history — selected by the UW crew coaches themselves.
Détente. Defection. High drama on the Montlake Cut.
The Windermere Cup, which marks its 30th year Saturday, has generated a noteworthy highlight reel since its inception in 1987. The following are flashbacks to an elite eight of the regatta’s most memorable moments.
1987: UW vs. USSR
The Windermere Cup’s origins can be traced to a 1986 Seattle Times column by Blaine Newnham, who bemoaned the dearth of high-level competition for Washington’s renowned rowing program.
Windermere Cup 2016
Ideas soon hatched, a sponsor (John Jacobi, founder of Windermere Real Estate) stepped forward, negotiations ensued and, in 1987, men and women of the mighty Soviet Union were in Seattle. The world’s dominant rowers came to compete in the inaugural Windermere Cup, the new centerpiece of the city’s annual celebration of boating culture, Opening Day.
Consider the context: The Cold War, while ebbing, was still on. The Berlin Wall would not fall for more than two years. The U.S. had boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The USSR boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. So with the Soviets coming to Seattle, even the U.S. State Department got involved in the planning.
“It was the biggest thing that had happened in rowing in Seattle since probably 1936, the ‘Boys in the Boat’ year,” said Bob Ernst, who during his 41-year coaching career at Washington guided UW women’s crews to six national championships and coached the U.S. women’s eight-oared crew to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. “It was really cool.”
The race was broadcast live on local television. Keith Jackson handled the call. To no one’s surprise, the Soviet men smoked UW’s varsity eight by 15 seconds. The Soviet women won by nearly 10.
But it was a big win for diplomacy and for the Cup’s legitimacy as a major civic event. Rowers from both men’s and women’s boats swapped jerseys. For the post-race paddle down the Montlake Cut, four men’s rowers switched boats and the internationally blended crews rowed together back to Conibear Shellhouse.
1990: UW vs. China
After appearances by Australia (1988) and Italy (’89),the Chinese men’s and women’s national teams came to Seattle, along with crews from Cambridge and Navy.
“It was the first Asian crew Washington hosted, which I think is pretty significant,” said Michael Callahan, the UW men’s coach.
What you need to know
What: 30th annual Windermere Cup
Where: Montlake Cut
When: 23-race schedule begins at 10:20 a.m. Saturday. Montlake Bridge closes to vehicles at 9:20 a.m., reopens at 3 p.m. Seattle Yacht Club’s Opening Day boat parade follows the last race.
Parking: $15 (E-12, S-1 lots). Overnight parking: $10 one day, $20 two days (E-18 lot; starts Friday).
Featured races: Women’s Windermere Cup, 11:40 a.m. — UW varsity eight, Cambridge University (England), University of San Diego. Men’s Windermere Cup, 11:55 a.m. — UW varsity eight, Russian under-23 national team, Stanford University.
Award ceremonies: On north bank of Montlake Cut.
China won both the men’s and women’s races, but the men’s race was tight, with China, Navy and UW finishing within a half-second of each other.
The men won their first race a year later in the fifth Cup, defeating Czechoslovakia. The women won their first Cup in 1988 vs. Australia.
1995: UW women defeat Princeton
The UW women claimed one of their biggest wins in Cup history by defeating the defending national champion, Princeton, by nearly two seconds.
“It was a big deal, beating the defending champion,” recalled Jan Harville, the UW women’s coach from 1987 to 2003. “We hadn’t won a national championship since 1988, and we were on the upswing, trying to get back into the mix of things. You just hope to have a peak performance when you’re racing the best in the country, and we did.”
South Africa, that year’s international entry, finished third.
1997: UW men upset Australia
The UW men defeated the Australian national team, which a year earlier had won a gold medal in the four-man event at the Atlanta Olympics.
“That’s probably the most important race that the Huskies have won in the Windermere Cup,” Ernst said.
Ernst, at the time coaching the UW men, had worked as an analyst for NBC during the Atlanta Games and invited the Australians to Seattle in 1997.
“They brought five guys who had Olympic gold medals from the year before and, holy cow, I was scared to death,” Ernst said. “We had a really good team that year, but these guys had five gold medals.
“As luck would have it, I think part of their training regime was partying. Our guys got a really good start and got a half-boat length on them in the first 500 (meters), and just managed to hang onto it all the way down the race course.”
The UW women also won the NCAA title that year.
1998: UW men defeat Nottingham
In the summer of 1997, UW rowed in England’s Henley Royal Regatta, considered the world’s best-known rowing event, and lost to Nottingham by a few feet.
“When we go to Henley, we stay in B&Bs,” Ernst said. “They don’t have hotels on the same scale that we have here. We had five guys sleeping in the same room. We had some bad weather, a couple of guys got colds, so all our guys got colds.
“The Nottingham guys were good, no doubt about that. But losing to them at Henley was kind of an irritant,” Ernst said with a chuckle. “It was kind of good to turn it around for them (winning by 6 seconds), so they couldn’t go on for the rest of their lives thinking they were that much better than we were.”
1999: UW women top Brown in bad weather
Brown, the eventual NCAA champion that year, fell to the UW women on a course so choppy that it was shortened from 2,000 meters to 1,500.
“We had whitecaps,” Harville said. “Your (oar) blade comes back and just slaps the wave, which is kind of disturbing. It’s like playing basketball with a bunch of warped boards; the ball bounces all over the place.”
But, as Ernst said: “The show has got to go on. If you have crummy weather, you still have got to make something happen.”
“Brown’s coach, John Murphy, was the women’s novice coach at UW before I took over the women’s team,” Ernst said. “He’s a really good guy, but he hasn’t come back since.”
2001: Croatian men set course record; Romanian women defect
Croatia’s men won a bronze medal in eight at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and rank among the strongest international entries to ever row at a Windermere Cup.
Ernst had seen Croatia while serving as a commentator in Australia during the Olympics.
“They were legit,” he said. “I think to a man it was the same lineup that medaled in the Olympics in 2000. They had a lot of veteran guys. Some of them were 35.”
The Croatians’ time of 5 minutes, 31.75 seconds topped Washington by nearly 9 seconds, and snapped a 10-year Windermere Cup win streak for UW.
In the women’s race, UW defeated Romania by 5 seconds. As explained in a book that commemorates the event’s anniversary, “The Windermere Cup” by Gregg Bell, the Romanians spent their postrace time on a local’s yacht, but six never boarded a shuttle bus to return to the team hotel.
“They disappeared,” Ernst said in the book. Two later rowed for UW.
2014: Great Britain comes to Seattle
In the men’s race, UW (then the three-time defending collegiate champion) raced against the defending world champion. The British men won by 2 seconds.
“That was a formidable crew,” Callahan said.
The UW women, meanwhile, won by four.
“They have the best senior rowing team in the world, particularly on the guys’ side,” Ernst said of Great Britain. “They have women who will win gold medals in the Olympics this summer, but not the eight. Their eight was pretty good, and we managed to beat them. That regatta, in my mind, was the third-most important of all the Windermere Cups because their head guy, Sir David Tanner, was really impressed with Washington rowing.
“British kids who wanted to come to the United States would get trashed because it was thought they wouldn’t be trained well enough to participate in the British system. So I thought, OK, let’s just invite the Brits over here.
“I wrote right to Tanner,” Ernst said. “He asked if I wanted him to bring his elite rowers, and I said, ‘Of course.’ The plan was to get them to bring their very best rowers and get their bosses to come with them, and Tanner did come over for it, and have them see what a sophisticated program the University of Washington has so they would be more interested in encouraging their kids to come here rather than threatening them if they came here. It worked perfectly.”
1989: Strangest Windermere Cup in history?
Ernst votes for the 1989 win by the New Zealand women, who hit a buoy early in their race, as the most unusual Cup victory.
“They were way better than we were,” he said. “We had loaned them a really nice boat, and they hit the green navigation buoy right adjacent to Foster’s Island and broke the bow of the boat.
“It didn’t break off. It just bent,” Ernst said. “They stopped for a couple of seconds. They saw that they also broke the hell out of one of the riggers on the side of the boat, and then they just kept on going.
“They beat us with a boat that had the bow pointed at the sun. They were so good. I think it cost around $10,000 to fix the boat.”