Memories of the First Ten Years
By David Lynch, Past President: 1987 through 1991
The modern-day Des Moines Rowing Club started in 1983 when a group of non-rowers, led by City Council member Ric Jorgensen, decided that Des Moines should have a regatta. They started the process of fundraising and incorporating, but saw no reason to wait until they actually had a club in order to hold a regatta.
1983 Sprint Race
The Morris Scholarship Memorial Trophy Dash was held in the fall of 1983. (The James B. Morris Scholarship fund provides financial assistance to Iowa’s minority students who are pursuing postsecondary and graduate degrees.) The new men’s basketball coach at the University of Iowa, George Raveling, was on hand to present the awards. A four-lane sprint racing course was set up with the starting line at the Botanical Center, racing upstream as far as the river was reasonably straight (i.e., to just below Boathouse Bend), almost 2,000 meters. The river level was rather low that year, so the course was marked with lath strips stuck in the river bottom, with the protruding ends painted orange. (These boards languished in the corner of the boathouse for the next ten years, until the Flood of 1993 disposed of them.) The regatta was reasonably successful for a first-time effort, with a handful of crews attending and a number of good races. The lack of a local rowing club probably explains the paucity of hometown winners, but we are assured a good time was had by all.
1984 Spring Head Race: A False Start
By early 1984, the club was incorporated, money was being raised, and another regatta was in the works—the Icebreaker Regatta, intended to be a head race in late March. However, the organizers hadn’t fully understood the effect of the spring runoff on water levels in the river. Strong currents forced the cancellation of the regatta about one week before it was scheduled, leaving the organizers with a bunch of cool posters and not much else. The club then turned its attention to planning a traditional fall head race with much better results.
Ready all? Row
In order to actually row before the first Head of the Des Moines, some of the money local businesses had donated to the start-up club was used to purchase a red Robinson 8 and 12 Dreissigacker oars from the University of Wisconsin. While many a club member would learn to curse the Robinson, it was a great boat for a club of people learning to row, as it proved its durability time and time again. The oars, on the other hand, were early efforts from the folks at Concept 2. They were a significant improvement over traditional wooden oars, at least in terms of stability and durability, but the edges of the blades were strong and very thin. As a result, the recovery phase of every stroke was similar to swinging eight swords across the water, creating a bit of a hazard for any unlucky swimmers. By about 1985, the US Rules of Rowing specified minimum blade thicknesses (5 mm. for sweep oars, 3 mm. for sculls), so the club’s only oars became illegal, forcing us to buy new ones.
The River Boathouse
The Robinson needed some place to rest when not being rowed and Ric Jorgensen’s connections with the City of Des Moines provided a solution. The City owned a metal building near the Birdland Marina that was used primarily to store picnic tables in the winter. Because it sat empty during the spring, summer, and early fall, the City agreed, by letter, to let the DMRC store its boat in the building “on a strictly temporary basis,” free of charge. At the time, the only overhead doors on the building were at the back of the main room, so the Robinson was stored on slings in the main room and carried out through the overhead door at the northeast corner of the building. In the summer, it was just about the only thing in the entire boathouse. The first private boat to appear in the boathouse was a blue Van Dusen single owned by Jeff Dodge and Jamie Wade. They hung it from the ceiling, keeping it out of the way of the picnic tables, when they returned each fall.
1984 Fall Head Race
The first Head of the Des Moines (a longer race than the initial sprint in 1983), was held in the fall of 1984. The course was upstream from the Botanical Center steps all the way to the pumping station at the upstream end of Prospect Park. (The course was shortened by moving the finish line down to the present location in about 1987, primarily because it was thought to be closer to three miles in those pre-GPS measurement days.) Records from these early days are scanty. We know that the HOTDM in 1984 and 1985 included a fairly rowdy kegger at the boathouse after the racing was done. We know that the regatta was run with no lane markers along the length of the course. Every crew raced along its own idea of the best route up the river and the crews that were headed down to the start just tried to stay out of the way. Those were wild and woolly days when it came to regatta safety, but no one got hurt, the crews did not crash (much), and not a single protest was filed.
Starting in 1984 and continuing through 1987, the regatta was sponsored by Mercy Hospital. The Mercy Health Cup was awarded to the overall fastest crew each year. This cup was retired when Iowa Methodist Medical Center became the major regatta sponsor in 1988. While we did not sell separate race sponsorships back then, we still made money on most of the regattas, through entry fees, t-shirt and poster sales, and the major regatta sponsorship. Club expenses were generally low, so the club was able to carry a reasonable balance forward from year to year.
The 1985 season started with 11 active rowers in the club and three club boats, the Robinson at the river and two double-hulled Omni-Cats at Gray’s Lake for adaptive rowing. New members joined, but rarely enough at one time to organize a new crew, so just about the only way newbies could row was by substituting for a regular rower in an established crew. Fortunately, substitutes were in great demand, as crews often had to row short-handed. Many blind eights (no coxswain) were rowed, or sixes with a cox (if two rowers failed to show). At least once, the Robinson was rowed as a blind six, with two empty seats and no cox; stroke would use a stick to push the tiller around and steer the boat, based on shouted directions from the rower in three seat. (There was a lot less rowing traffic on the river in those days.)
The Des Moines regatta was the focus for most club members. A few would attend the Waterloo Sprints, but we usually had to borrow boats due to lack of a trailer, making it difficult to justify travelling to farther regattas. (The Robinson could be separated into two pieces for transport on top of a van, but unbolting and bolting the two sections was a nasty job, best performed by people with very small hands with very great strength, a rare combination.)
Building the Fleet
There was a general feeling among club members leading up to the 1986 season that we needed more boats, an idea enthusiastically supported by Jamie Wade, who was president that year. The budget favored used boats. The club acquired an odd boat, a wooden Garafalo pair/double convertible with cox (and a “barn door” rudder). This was a bathtub of a boat, not a racer—it was more appropriate for carrying a picnic basket for a pleasant afternoon on the water. In some ways, it was a fun boat to row, but it never captured the hearts of the club members and was sold to a North Carolina club for ocean rowing within a year to two.
Also in 1986, we located some sponsors to fund the purchase of three club singles and had the money in hand by late June or early July. We had the choice of Julien Race-Trainers or Peinert 1500s for about the same price. Unfortunately, the Juliens were in stock and could be delivered within a few weeks, while the Peinerts would have to be ordered and delivery would be several months away. Lack of patience led the club to order the Juliens, even though the Peinerts were the superior craft, a source of future regret. Still, we had three club singles. After a hotly- contested “name the new singles” contest, the boats were imaginatively named Julien 1, Julien 2, and Julien 3. The idea was that new scullers should start at Gray’s Lake, where a couple of club members were storing private boats in another empty City building near the swimming beach (a shed that was removed around 2010). The club prevailed upon the city to let us build some racks along one wall of the building. Sculling lessons started and we soon learned that the Julien seats fell out of the boat just about every time a sculler tipped over and they did not float!! In fact, they sank like rocks. (Apparently we were supposed to put some foam pads on them to make them float.)
Needless to say, the sculling training program had some fits and starts. Membership was growing fast, although not all members rowed very much. Dues were low ($20 per year) and Novice Day was popular, so we were able to boast 100 to 150 members, but regular rowers were probably more in the 40 to 50 range. Still, the strain on the tiny fleet was noticeable. In 1988, Jeff Dodge located a wooden Kaschper 4+ for sale at the Wyandotte Boat Club in Detroit and we bought it for $2000. It turned out to be one of the very first K4’s imported into the US, back when they had impossibly narrow cox’s seats; few adults were ever able to squeeze both cheeks into that space! Many a club member suffered in that seat, but we had our first four. (In Detroit, the boat had been donated to the Detroit Boat Club’s junior rowing program by the Polish Roman Catholic Union, so “PRCU” was painted on both sides of the bow. Apparently the Detroit high school rowers called it the Puke Boat as a result. We never got around to re-naming it.) We also purchased another used boat from Wyandotte Boat Club—a wooden Kaschper 8 that we later re-named the Ric Jorgensen.
Racing at Home and Away
I became president in 1987 (the first of five years) and recall that 1987 and 1988 were drought years and the river was like a long, skinny lake, with negligible current. (Similar to what we saw in 2012!) As a result, HOTDM race times were wickedly fast; records were set that stood for years. Entry levels were climbing as we replaced the post-regatta beer fest with an inexpensive pasta dinner, much appreciated by university crews on tight budgets in those pre-NCAA days.
The Head of the Des Moines was developing into one of the major Midwest fall regattas. We started marking the course (just in the corners), with milk jugs painted orange. In 1989, we took a cue from the Head of the Charles and started using disposable bow markers; they had the name of our regatta on them and turned into a great advertising tool, as crews used them in many other regattas.
The course itself continued to feature the Great Crossover, a source of concern to some. Briefly, the racing course started at the Botanical Center on the west side of the river and ran along the west/south bank up to a point just south of Prospect Park, where the racers crossed over to the north bank for the shortest course to the finish (also getting them away from the docks at Prospect Park). This meant that when a crew launched and headed downstream for its race, it had to wait just downstream from the docks until there was space to cross between the oncoming boats that were racing upstream. The situation led to a little shouting once in a while, but no collisions. Still, it was not an ideal arrangement, and once we started buoying a larger part of the course, we were able to move the racing traffic to the north/east side of the river from start to finish.
At the same time, DMRC rowers started to have more of a presence at other regattas, with regular representation at the Topeka sprints in April, the Memorial Day regatta in St. Paul, the Waterloo Sprints in June, and in the fall at the Heads of the Mississippi, the Eagle, the Charles, the Rock, the Iowa, and others. Club members also competed in the Iron Oars regatta, a 15-mile singles-only head race they used to hold on the Chicago River, from Evanston to the lakefront.
Women Man the Oars
By 1989, the club was fielding a women’s 8 that was two years in the making. The crew was coached by Gerardo Goldberger, an Argentinian who had rowed at Rutgers and was attending the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Science (now Des Moines University). He started coaching the crew in 1988 with a strong emphasis on technique; they were rarely permitted to row at any rating higher than 22 strokes per minute. At the 1988 HOTDM, they were technically excellent, but didn’t really show what they could do. Still, they came back for more in 1989 and began to focus more on speed work. At the 1989 regatta, they finished second in the Women’s Open 8, surprising a number of top Midwest College and club crews in the process. Several college coaches, in particular, were rather embarrassed to discover their best crews had been soundly beaten by a club crew with zero collegiate rowing experience!
Members of that 1989 crew include (starting in the bow) Lynn _____, Sheila ______, Marcia Mahoney, Diane Jespersen, Margaret Friedl, Sue Friesth, Sharon Ridgeway, and Lori Heles. The cox was Frances Briseno, I think. (Apologies for omissions and spelling errors.)
Drake Crew Launches
Drake crew was getting started around 1989, initially as a club sport using DMRC equipment, but they proved to have excellent fundraising abilities and were soon buying boats and oars of their own. Again, these were pre-NCAA-crew days and the team was coed. For a while, Drake had its own master men’s’ rowing team, more or less competing with the DMRC, but that faded over time. Still, this is about the DMRC, not Drake. They can write their own history.
The Early Nineties
As the years rolled into the nineties, we we continued buying club boats, including the Maas Aero (later named the John Moon) in 1990. More private boats were showing up at the boathouse, as well. As our storage needs grew, we built more and more racks in the boathouse. Soon, there was no room for picnic tables, so they had to sit outside all winter, which saved us the hassle of having to move them all out each spring. The club membership varied from 100 to 175, depending upon the time of the year and how many Novice Days we had in any particular season. The regatta was similar in size to what we have now, with smaller regattas in the years when there was only three weeks between Labor Day weekend and the regatta and larger regattas when there was a four-week span. (Some college coaches are reluctant to take novices to a regatta with only three weeks’ experience, it seems.) Lori Heles became president in 1992.
The Flood of 1993
Julia Martinusen (Malloy) became president in 1993 for the first of her 11 years as club president. It rained. A lot. More than the club had ever seen before. A very wet fall of 1992 was followed by a cold, cloudy, snowy winter, and the flooding began with heavy rains and snowmelt in the early spring. The river was high and fast in March and just kept rising. By June, we were loading the boats onto the Drake trailer and pulling it out to a Midwest Power substation site near Southridge Mall. They were exposed to the weather, but they were on high ground and inside a secure fence, out of the way of the flood. Moving the boats was a good idea. On July 11, 1993, the river flooded the Des Moines Water Works Plant, causing 250,000 residents to lose water. Few noticed that it also flooded our boathouse; about 5 feet of water ran through the boathouse for the next couple of weeks. Fortunately, we had added an overhead door to the west end of the boathouse just a couple of years before so, with open doors at both ends of the boathouse, the water was able to flow through, rather than toppling the building.
The big question was whether we should cancel the regatta. Clearly we were not going to be able to hold it on the river, which continued to be very high and very fast. Club members investigated the options and decided to move the regatta to Easter Lake in southeast Des Moines, a 172-acre lake in a county park built on the site of Polk County’s last working coal mine (which was closed in 1967). We sent out registration packets to Midwest rowing clubs and teams telling them that the Head of the Des Moines was on!
Easter Lake is shaped like a backwards L. We decided to launch from the beach and put the starting line at the top of the L, then race down to make a starboard turn into the shorter leg of the L, go 180 degrees to port around a small island there, then race back to the beach for an exciting finish in front of the crowd. It worked well when we tested the course in singles, but on race day, we found out that 8s do not make 180- degree turns quite as effectively as singles. Smart coxes learned to swing wide before making that turn; other coxes had to stop, back, spin, and start up again.
The regatta was going really well for a new venue and everyone was having fun. Still, this was 1993, so rain was inevitable. Lots of it. Enough so that the lake level rose about a foot in less than an hour, swallowing up most of the beach. The water was running into the lake near the starting line, actually creating a significant current (and bringing in a lot of sticks and other trash). There was no lightning or thunder, so we kept racing, everyone got soaked, and the fun level started to rise even faster than the water! Pretty soon some of the college rowers had identified a grassy slope that dropped off into the water and a natural Slip ’n’ Slide was created. Then the grass kind of got worn out and it turned into an even better thing, a mud slide! A couple of coaches got involved and pretty soon the majority of the rowers present were covered in good old Iowa dirt. (I’ve often wondered what it was like on the bus ride back to Kansas State!)
Ranger Rick was a little bit unhappy with what we had done to his park, but we promised him a bunch of sod and he became somewhat pacified or at least stopped yelling. The Des Moines Rowing Club proved that we could not only survive the Flood of the Century, we could even have fun with it! Still, it was nice to get back to the river in 1994, and that’s a story for another time.