Honoring a life-saving heritage one stroke at a time

The U.S. Life-Saving Service, the precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard, had two main means of rescuing people aboard distressed ships stranded near shore: by small boat and by a strong line stretched from the beach to the wrecked vessel. Each vessel was a 700 to 1,000 pound, self-bailing, self-righting surfboat pulled by six surfmen with 12 to 18- foot oars, or a two to four ton lifeboat. These sturdy surfboats were pulled on a cart by crewmen, or horses, to a site near a wreck and then launched into the surf.

Today, replicas of these historic boats, the Joshua James and the Ida Lewis, are moored up in the shallow side of Coast Guard Island nested within the Oakland estuary in Alameda, Calif. The Joshua James and the Ida Lewis were created from the same hull design as the old Life-Saving Service’s Monomoy Surfboats, which descended from whaleboats used for whaling in the eighteenth century.

In the early 1990’s, the Coast Guard purchased these two boats with appropriated funds for the purpose of morale, wellness and recreation. The boats were used to teach the art of rowing and also to teach Coast Guardsmen a little history about their service. As the rowing program continued to evolve on “the island,” a few leaders emerged that have strengthened and sustained the program over the past few decades. One such leader has been retired Coast Guard commander Bill Davis of Alameda, who continues to coach and teach surfboat rowing to the many active duty, reserve, and civilians. Despite the great leadership and love of rowing shown, the rowing program on Coast Guard Island experienced a fairly long lull and fell off in the years following 9/11 as the Coast Guard took on additional missions in homeland security. However, in 2008, Capt. Keith Turro came aboard as the Integrated Support Command Alameda (now Base Support Unit Alameda) commander and took stock of the program having it up and in full swing by January 2009. Rowing workouts and a little history were again offered to Coast Guardsmen in Alameda in a unique way.

Fully revitalized, the men’s, women’s and co-ed whaleboat teams regularly compete in whaleboat races in and around the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association. Racing these boats can be traced in Coast Guard history, when crews aboard cutters would come into port and blow their hard earned cash within the first couple hours and would then need something to occupy the rest of their time in port. The crews felt that racing their boats were not only fun, but good exercise and good training.

Today’s whaleboat rowers compete in approximately 10 races per year ranging from 2,000 meters to 5 ½ miles. Once a year Coast Guard rowers can participate in a 10 ½ mile trip across the San Francisco Bay, from Coast Guard Island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. Each boat has eight rowers plus a coxswain.

“It is hard to field a highly competitive team because of the turnover that military life creates,” said Turro. “Our goal is to maintain an experienced, competitive team well beyond my departure this summer. We are in a constant state of training and recruiting.”

On April 30, Coast Guard Island hosted the annual Coast Guard Challenge Whaleboat Races. Twenty-one teams rowed approximately two miles circling Coast Guard Island. The Coast Guard men’s team won first place, the women’s and co-ed teams took third. The Coast Guard men’s team remains undefeated since the fall of 2010.

Not all rowers are in it for competition, but purely for health benefits.

“Rowing is a full-body sport and is aerobically demanding,” said Turro. “I know of at least three people who were able to meet the Coast Guard’s weight standards, in-part because of their involvement with the rowing crew.”

Rowing clinics are held during the lunch hour Mondays and Wednesdays for beginners. Once the rowers get some practice under their belts, they are able to join the more competitive rowers and row up to three times per week Monday through Friday. Crewmen range in rank from admiral to seaman and can include other members of the Coast Guard family including spouses and children.

Since its emergence from a long hiatus, the rowing program has had hundreds of participants rotate through, now having approximately 50 active rowers . Active duty Coast Guardsmen get first priority for participating, however, auxiliarists, civilians, family members and others who work with the Coast Guard are welcome when there is an opportunity.

Hardwired to be responders by culture and by training, Coast Guardsman who are on-duty or off-duty are lifesavers. For this reason, rowers practice man-overboard and steering casualty drills. Fortunately, the rowers haven’t been diverted to a rescue situation while in training, but they keep a constant eye out for anyone in trouble being that the estuary is within striking distance of the Alameda marina and is a popular area for water sports.

“Because the Bay Area has an active rowing community, keeping this program is important to all those involved,” said Turro. “These assets are a great community outreach tool and again a great opportunity to honor the history and profession of our service”

Other than sighting the moored whaleboats off the docks in Coast Guard island, those who transit the entrance are also greeted by a bright electronic billboard that reads, “If you don’t row you don’t know!”

What does this mean? It’s an invitation to all – to come get some knowledge about our lifesaving heritage and a little workout along the way.

In hindsight, the rowing program is well positioned to continue well into the future because of the great love and commitment shown by those currently involved as well as Alameda’s heritage now married to the Coast Guard when it was designated a Coast Guard City in 2006. Most recently, the base also recently added a brand new boathouse to store the whaleboats and oars during inclement weather.

“This boathouse is important in order to preserve and show respect to the equipment that represents the history of our service,” said Turro. “Our service today is dedicated to those who died – so others may live.”

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