The San Diego Rowing Club is kind of a cliche as far as story ideas go. Once in a while San Diego Magazine or one of the gushy Union Tribune writers will come down to the clubhouse on Harbor Drive, talk with one of the old-timer members, borrow one of the musty brown 1908 photographs hanging on the wall, and there it is — the Rowing Club is taken off the shelf alongside the other great San Diego nostalgic wonders (the Hotel del Coronado, Villa Montezuma, the Old Globe), dusted off, and held up for all to sigh and swoon.
But — to be honest — the Rowing Club is a pretty neat discovery, especially if one happens onto it without the build-up of a gushy story.
For one thing, the Club is such a bargain, recreation-wise. For far less than most athletic clubs (the Rowing Club is only S10 a month for students and military), one can use any of the Club’s facilities. These facilities include the boats (7 single wherries, 2 doubles, 2 four-oared; 3 single shells, 1 double, 2 four-oared) which are very seldom in use. The most crowded times are Saturday and Sunday mornings when 10 or so rowers (out of 210 members) come down for a little exercise. There is also usually someone willing to teach anyone who shows more than casual interest. Besides the boats there is an old-timey gym with a wooden floor, parallel bars, rowing machines, a few rusty barbells and dumbbells. There are a couple of wooden handball courts, a swimming pier, a sundeck, a sauna, a bar, called the Fo’c’s’le, and a Las Vegas Room.
Another reason the Rowing Club is such a discovery is its sheer location. Jutting out into San Diego Bay from Harbor Drive just above 5th. the pier that holds the clubhouse branches off into a walkway that leads to Brennan Island, the man-made island built by the W.P.A. which holds the Rowing Club’s handball courts. So. five minutes from downtown, one can sunbathe in solace, and enjoy a front-row view of San Diego Harbor — the aircraft carriers, the fishing, the occasional seal that gets misled into the Bay.
Probably the biggest attraction of the Rowing Club, especially for the first-time visitor, is its anachronism. Some people might think the place is just run-down or in need of repair, but it really is hard not to get swept up in the romanticism of the place. The wooden floors, the knotty pine walls, the wooden lockers next to the gym room. The sign of the sunporch that warns, “Members Must Wear Full-Length Trunks On The Island.” The elderly members sunbathing butt-naked on the sunporch, just beyond the sign. The bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, the comb that hangs on a chain next to the mirror in the locker room.
And of course the photographs. Photographs of the club around the turn of the century, photographs of different winning crews from the 1880’s to the 1970’s (including early images of the avuncular Richard Jessop and C. Arnholt Smith), and the innumerable trophies and plaques representing innumerable awards.
One of the largest displays is a line-up of photos of members of the Skeeter Club. The Skeeter Club is a sub-group of the Rowing Club composed of those members who have rowed the course from the Clubhouse to Buoy 24 in the middle of the bay in less than1) minutes 30 seconds. At least that was the qualifying time in 1914.
Of course then the goal was Beacon #12. and the beacon and the buoy have been moved around to the point where the qualifying time for a Skeeter is 8:20.
Even though there is this heavily documented tradition which confronts and overwhelms one as soon as he enters the doors of the Club, the active part of the Rowing Club doesn't seem to be any kind of tightly snobbish family clique. The worth of a man (or woman -there are 2 or 3 female members) depends on his or her accomplishments as a rower. Though there are the noon-time handball players from downtown who form the bulk of the Club's membership, the active, longterm members talk about the rowers. Just ask Kearney Johnston, the moving spirit-coach of the rowing part of the Club, about C. Arnholt Smith.
"Arnholt Smith. Yeah, he was quite a rower. He rowed the lap boats, then he rowed on teams."
It's this small, wiry. 64-year old retired Copley printer Kearney Johnston who would be your introduction to the sport of rowing if you were to come down and ask questions. If you asked enough questions. Kearney would have you down at the Club on the next Saturday or Sunday morning at 7 a.m. “That’s the best time. You wanta get out on the water when it’s still like glass. If you wait til later, the wind and the boats will churn up the water, and it’s too rough.”
You would check out a towel and a locker from Bruce or Manuel at the window, and get a short demonstration from Kearney on the rowing machine in the gym.
“Yeah, now bring 'em straight back. Elbows down. Elbows down. That's it. No. that’s not it. Okay..that's it."
Then, with Kearney’s help, you select a pair of oars, according to your height and weight, and you help him carry a two-man shell from the boathouse to the dock. You watch him adjust your seat and he gives you lengthy instructions as you both set the shell in the water, ever so gently. Trying to keep the pull of both oars equal, trying to coordinate with Kearney's strokes, and trying to keep both oars in the water while pulling and out of the the water and flat while returning, you still have to look where you’re going. The course, as it’s rowed by most of the regulars, takes you between man-made Brennan Island on one side and the rusty oilers and tuna boats being built and re-built by Campbell Industries on the other.
“Yeah, one day one of those old ships got loose and drifted down into our pier. Bent one of the pipes. Campbell sent a crew down to fix it right away and charged it to the ship. Pier’s been through a lot. The City put a gate at the foot of it and said we couldn’t use the Club until we reinforced some of the pilings.” (A casual glance shows a lot of the pilings have been worn and rotted away with time and weather.)
The hardest part of the rower’s course is getting across San Diego Bay unscathed. Especially if you got down late this particular Saturday morning, didn’t get out into the water until 8:30 or 9, and the Navy tugs and Coronado Cays pleasure boats have had time to stir up the water and make it rough. Balance is crucial to avoid capsizing. If a boat or ship passing by is rude enough to kick up a vicious wake. Kearney will instruct you to help turn the shell parallel with the wake — the shell takes the little waves a lot better that way.
“Yeah, I got turned over myself last summer. I was showing this kid how to get around and I just got around myself, and then I was on top of a wave with no water to keep the oars in, to keep my balance. So I reached for the water and the oar came out of the oarlock. But I got to shore - we were pretty close to the Oakwood Apartments in Coronado there. I got out of the water, got the water out of the boat, and went ahead to the bridge."
The Coronado Bridge looks as foreboding from a rowing shell right on the water as the water does from a car on top of the Bridge. The Bridge is the beginning of a 1400 meter course that ends up at the Amphibious Base in Coronado. The regulars use the course for timing. Once they make it over to a point at the Amphibious Base, there's another course of 500 meters from the Base, up Glorietta Bay. that they row four times. Then it's a rest on Glorietta Bay. poking in and out of the moored pleasure boats and yachts, exchanging rowing stories.
Back at the Rowing Club Dock, while hosing off the shell with fresh water, you meet another old-timer, a rowing buddy of Kearney's named Leo. It seems that Leo. Kearney, and another faithful rower named Roy Theraldson, who died a few years ago, used to come down every Sunday and row together. Kearney goes on:
“Roy was a really good rower. He used the ‘lay back' English style. He rowed til he was 85. . . Rowing is real good for you. It’s a healthy sport. I started in 1930 and I've taught rowing to just about everybody who's started here since then. I taught Jim Storm. He got a silver medal in the 1964 Olympics, then the 1966 World Championships. I won the 52 and over class at the International Veteran’s Regatta in Switzerland last year.... I walk down to the Club 3 or 4 times a week. It’s not so bad. I live up by St. Spyridon's — you know, the Greek church — on Park. I just come down by Roosevelt Junior High, across the Laurel Street Bridge, and then down through downtown. The businessmen in the old days used to take Streetcar #3 down here from work. Now everyone's got a car.”
Back up in the boathouse a man is applying some clear liquid with a paintbrush to a shell resting on two sawhorses “He’s bleaching it.” explains Kearney. “It helps fill in the cracks before he goes to varnish it... That’s his daughter's boat. She’s a member of the club here. She's a school-teacher in El Centro. She’s a great rower: she lifts weights and everything. I have a heck of a time beating her. She rows every day on this lake near El Centro.”
Just walking around the Rowing Club makes a visit worthwhile. The wooden planks creak and groan as one moves about the boathouse section. Cutting through the somewhat dank gym room, one enters the has Vegas Room with its natty green felt tables and Thomas Eakins print and wind facing the south end of the bay. Then out past the locker room and nude bathers (“Oh, here’s where they jump off for the annual New Year's Day dip”) to the walkway to Brennan Island. “The wind and tide almost washed this walk away completely about three years ago. The current was really strong. There – you can see where it’s moved.” On the island there’s an old abandoned rowboat, now planted with red geraniums; a swimming pier and the pilings left from a deteriorated swimming pier. “Used to use these all the time. But now, you know, people would rather use a pool. Me. I can’t stand the chlorine in the pools. Really hurts my eyes. And you can't really swim anywhere in a pool."
Rowing as a sport doesn't seem to be waning locally. What with the San Diego State and UCSD Clubs, the Mission Bay Rowing Club, and the society-page women's club (ZLAC). And with the San Diego Regatta held last month in Mission Bay and all the hoopla it generated. But the San Diego Rowing Club seems to have a pretty precarious future ahead. The City/Port Authority is looking hungrily at the bayfront property between Broadway and 10th Street for a glamorous, revenue-producing new marina/recreation area, and the month-to-month lease the Rowing Club has from the City doesn’t provide a lot of security. The City has told the Rowing Club to go to Mission Bay. The Rowing Club says that it has been rejected three times by the Mission Bay property owners and that it doesn’t make enough money to provide a Mission Bay landlord enough revenue. Now, as of April 29, S.O.H.O. (Save Our Heritage Organisation) has unanimously said it wants the Rowing Club declared a historical site, and the Rowing Club members, who look at change very hesitantly, see even this support as a real help.