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The Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association (BAWRA) is made up of clubs with men's, women's and mixed teams based in San Francisco, Oakland, Vallejo and Benicia. The teams compete during racing seasons in the spring and fall.

The boats we row in are Monomoy Surfboats, technically lifeboats of U.S. Coast Guard design. However, they are the descendants of whaleboats that were carried out through the rough surf of Monomoy Island.

The rowing and racing of these heavy, fixed seat boats on San Francisco Bay comes from multiple traditions.










Shore-Based Whaling in Colonial Times


Our Monomoys are descendants of the shore-based whaleboats used off Cape Cod and Monomoy Island. Here is a print of Colonial shore-based whaling off Cape Cod. On the right is the whaleboat with it's high sides, symmetrical bow and stern, and the cox standing at the stern with the steering oar.

By the mid-1700's, the decline of whales off the coast led to the development of sailing vessels that could pursue the whales into deeper water. You've read Moby Dick, haven't you?









That Others Might Live


As early as the 1700s in America, dories were launched from shore by lifesavers to save shipwrecked people in distress. In 1871 the United States Lifesaving Service was established, which became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. The Coast Guard today serves as the nation's front-line agency for enforcing our laws at sea, protecting our coastline and ports, and saving life. The boats used for lifesaving co-evolved with whaleboats, and are the ancestors of the boats we race in today.








Ships in Port


As the great windjammers and steam ships of the mid-1800’s came to the Barbary Coast, the rapid increase of commerce led to the demand for the earliest possible information about their entrance into the harbor. In 1849, a house on Telegraph Hill was erected for the purpose of making signals visible throughout the city. “A couple of arms, which could be raised or lowered at pleasure on a high pole, indicated by their position whether any water-craft was coming in at the Golden Gate, and, if so, what its character; if a steamer, whether a side-wheeler or screw steamer; if a sailing vessel, whether ship, brig, or schooner. All the business men and many of the women and children were familiar with the signs....” --Nineteenth-century historian John S. Hittell

With word of approaching vessels, competing ship’s chandlers raced each other as they rowed out to be the first to sell their outfitting services. Once in Yerba Buena Cove, the ship's crews often faced long layovers while their captains negotiated for cargo to carry on the return voyage. With wages spent and time on their hands, the crews would race each other in their ships' lifeboats.







In the pre-motor days of life saving, surf men from a life-saving station would first try to rescue stranded sailors and passengers with a breeches buoy life ring, hung from a line between shore and the shipwreck, and pulled to shore. If the breeches buoy was not usable, they rowed to the shipwreck, sometimes taking hours to reach the survivors.

They had two types of vessels -- lifeboats that were very heavy but self-righting due to air bladders in the bow and stern, and surfboats that were much lighter, but were difficult to right if tipped over. Because of their lighter weight, surfboats were used whenever possible. Only the heaviest of seas brought out the heavy lifeboats.

Monomoy Surfboats, which we row in, were designed for the high surf off Monomoy Island and Chatham, Massachusetts (Cape Cod).

“Made to both transit the most unimaginable waters that nature could conjure and to return through the same surf loaded with the storm's victims, these boats required a degree of skill unparalleled among mariners. Keen knowledge of the vagaries of breaking surf, instant, explosive power to take advantage of the interval between combers and relentless grit to continue rowing while beyond exhaustion were prerequisites to a crew even entering a surfboat.” -- Hull Lifesaving Museum

The Monomoys are 26’ long with a 7’ beam and draw of about 2‘ with the crew on board. Most weigh over 2,000 lbs. The rowing configuration is double-banked, that is, the eight rowers sit in four pairs side-by-side on fixed thwarts (benches). (In single-banked boats, like racing shells, rowers sit fore and aft of each other, each on their own seat.) Each rower handles a single 12’ wooden oar. The oars range in weight from 11 to 15 lbs. A coxswain stands in the stern and steers with a 16’ oar. In a BAWRA race, a 10th person rides in the bow for added safety.

“The Monomoy design is an evolution of the classic utilitarian whaleboat: a double-ended, lightweight, cheaply constructed boat to be rowed or sailed under all conditions in pursuit of whales and for use in general ship's work. In 1934 the U.S. Coast Guard standardized the design for contract purposes, and thousands were built for use as lifeboats and gigs aboard not only naval and military ships but also commercial freighters and ocean liners.....The boat is quite simple and Spartan.” -- From Wooden Boat Magazine, A Tale of Two Sisters: Carvel vs. Cold Molding, January/February, 1982 By W. Tay Vaughan, III



Competition took its current form in 1965 under the sponsorship of maritime companies, using U.S. Coast Guard Monomoy Surfboats (aka whaleboats) built in the 1930’s and 40’s. By 1982 the Bay Area Whaleboat Rowing Association (BAWRA) was formed to provide standards for safety and competition as well as coordinate regattas and other activities. By the early eighties, new whaleboats were built for the specific purpose of racing. Liability insurance is provided to all BAWRA rowers through the Masters Rowing Association.

About Iron Oars


Iron Oars and the other boats raced in BAWRA regattas are Monomoy Surfboats, descendants of the sturdy vessels used on the Eastern Seaboard. Their design was standardized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1934, and they were used for seamanship training and as general utility boats aboard Coast Guard cutters and merchant ships.

Iron Oars is one of eight fiberglass whaleboats commissioned by BAWRA club members in 1985. They were made by Harborside Marine in San Diego, California and delivered in 1986. Utah International, the mineral and mining company, commissioned and christened their boat Iron Oars as both a play on words as well as to describe their heavy ash oars! The price of the boat and hardware, including a boat cover and bottom painting, was $18,346.25. It could cost over $40,000 to build one of these whaleboats today.






About Iron Oars Rowing Club

We started out as ITCRowing -- sponsored by the International Trade Council, an international business association in San Francisco. ITCRowing was formed in 1979 as a mixed team (men and women rowing). We quickly acquired a set of oars, and worked with other clubs to use their boats in practice and in races.

In the 1990’s, ITCRowing partnered with Utah International (which later became BHP) to use Iron Oars in races. In return we shared the labor and expenses associated with maintaining the boat. BHP raced in the men’s and women’s divisions, ITC raced in the mixed division. At this point we became completely self-funded, but didn't change our name.

When the BHP team stopped rowing in 1999,we bought Iron Oars. At that point we expanded our membership to participate in all three divisions: men's, women's and mixed.

At the Alcatraz Whaleboat Race in 2014, we debuted our new logo and name: Iron Oars Rowing Club!



The BAWRA Fleet

Monomoys are found today in many U.S. Naval and Maritime Academies throughout the U.S. However, between BAWRA, the Sea Scouts and the California Maritime Academy, the biggest concentration of Monomoys in the world is here in the Bay Area.

Most of the BAWRA Monomoys have been built in the last 25 years. Some are owned by individuals, some by clubs, and some by corporate sponsors. Some are wood, some are fiberglass and some are combinations of the two. Despite the different construction methods, in the end it’s the crew that wins the race, not the boat!




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