For years, the Embarcadero Rowing Club, a 31 year-old club that specializes in the niche activity of whaleboat rowing, has been hosting recreational rows on Tuesdays and Sundays, free and open to the public.
The boats are more Captain Ahab than Winklevoss — they're 26-foot whaleboats optimally made for 10 people: 8 rowers, a coxswain and a bowhook. They hearken to an era when hunting whales was acceptable sport, but now are used as part of an invigorating and novel team sport in the Bay Area.
Whaleboating is its own world, with its own unique language and rituals. On the row, I didn’t understand about 80% of the commands that were barked out to us, although by the end of our 90-minute trip, I was starting to get the hang of it.
Recreational rows are free and open to anyone who is interested in giving whaleboating a try. I called ahead to plan my trip, but walk-ins are completely acceptable. You’ll row on one of the two 26’ whaleboats that the club owns, the Renegade or La Sirena. If you get hooked on it — and many rowers do —the club asks you to become a dues-paying member after a month.
I had a blast. Here are a few tips for how to best enjoy a recreational row with the Embarcadeo Rowing Club:
1. Show up on time. I got there at 6:40, and was the last one to arrive. When the boat leaves, it’s gone, so make sure you’re there early and ready to go.
2. Bring gloves, layers, and athletic shorts for comfort. When you row, you slide all over your seat, which gets uncomfortable. I can’t imagine doing that in jeans. I wore padded bike shorts, and still came home with a “chootie,” a butt sore that is unique to whaleboating. Totally worth it though.
3. Bring your camera, for the views. It’s incredible to row out in the Bay. We snuck in between two docking military boats, the Cape Horn and the Cape Hudson, which was really cool. We also rowed into McCovey Cove alongside AT&T Park. According to Rec Row Coordinator Gigi Fajardo, if it’s a game night, the boats are almost guaranteed to be on the stadium’s Jumbotron.
4. Ask questions. At the beginning of the row, I was seated next to Mark McMillan, who rows competitively with the club, and talked me through the basic rowing stroke with the patience of a saint. The rowers love what they do, and they love to talk about it and teach newcomers. Old-timer Vern Smith told me, “there’s no halfway with rowing.” The rower’s enthusiasm is contagious, so the more you engage, the more fun you’ll have.
5. Bring your sense of humor. The rowers are a fun and lively group. There’s a ton of double entendre (think: stroking), and uncomfortable sores on your butt to talk about.
6. Prepare for a new hobby. Every member of the club I talked to stumbled into rowing accidentally, but hasn’t look back. Sarah Graham said she wasn’t even looking for something new to add to her schedule, but now, after only 3 years of rowing, she’s the club president.
The Embarcadero Rowing Club launches from the docks next to The Ramp restaurant, located at the intersection of Illionis St. and Mariposa St. They host recreational rows on Tuesday evening at 6:45pm, and on Sunday morning at 9:30am.
This story is part of our summer exploration of The Scuttlefish’s Definitive Guide to Oceanic Fun in San Francisco, which helps you maximize your enjoyment of our local waters. The Scuttlefish is a website celebrating the lovely, terrifying, powerful, mysterious, soothing, angry, calm, merciless, and awe inspiring sea.