Take all in all, we may well be proud of Bowdoin’s record at the oar… Our victories have been honorable victories and of our defeats it may be said that it were better to have rowed and lost than never to have rowed at all.
– Frank Nathaniel Whittier
Captain of the Bowdoin Rowing Team, 1884-1885
Bowdoin’s first Athletic Director
The Beginnings of Rowing at the College
Rowing has had a long and intimate relationship with the College; first appearing in 1858. The first iteration of the Bowdoin Rowing Team consisted of two separate class clubs: the class of 1860’s the Bowdoin and the class of 1861’s the Quobonack.
The Bowdoin had sixteen members and acquired an eight-oared boat that was “fifty feet long, painted a straw color with a blue stripe and carried two flags, in the bow a white Jack with Bowdoin inscribed in blue letters, in the stern the American ensign.” Conversely, the Quobonack had a six-oared boat that was forty-two feet long had a “bow a white Jack with Quobonack inscribed in red letters, in the stern the Union Jack.”
The two clubs’ purpose was mainly recreational, however, and they faded as a result of the War of Rebellion and graduation of the classes of ’60 and ’61.
Rowing was revived at the College in the 1870s, when a Boating Association was formed with funds raised by alumni and undergraduates to purchase boats. In 1871, the sophomores at the College purchased their first four, and the College purchased another, the “Forget-Me-Not.”
Building the Team
The “Forget-Me-Not” was entered in the state regatta, marking Bowdoin’s first participation in regional competition. However, as it was the 1800s, human illness struck the team–the bow seat had boils and the stroke caught whooping cough. Instead, the sophomores were sent to represent the College. On June 11, 1871, at their first regatta entry, upon reaching the starting the line, one of the sophomores broke their oar, causing Bowdoin to forfeit the race.
This would be the beginning of “the traditional Bowdoin ill-luck of which boating men have always complained,” quoted Louis Clinton Hatch, historian of the College.
Despite an unfortunate start, the Bowdoin team soon built up their skills and reputation, competing in inter-collegiate regattas with Amherst, Harvard, Williams and Yale throughout the decade.
In 1872 a college crew represented Bowdoin at the Intercollegiate Regatta held in Springfield, MA. Bowdoin finished fourth, behind Amherst, Harvard, Amherst Agricultural, and ahead of Williams and Yale. Intercollegiate racing had begun!
In 1876, the Bowdoin Rowing Team withdrew from the National Association and began work on building a new boathouse. During this period of renewal, the Boating Association promoted inter-class races. The class of ’73 donated a cup that was rowed for annually. Notably, R.E. Peary ’77 captained the winning team in 1877.
The new boathouse, finished in 1879, cost $800 to build. It marked a new beginning for the Bowdoin Rowing Team. In the Orient, the team said, “by sending a crew one year and withdrawing for the next year or two, we lose half the benefit and all the interest of the races. We are continually starting afresh.”
In 1882, Bowdoin joined Cornell, Penn, Princeton, and Wesleyan to create the Rowing Association. Later, they would also partake in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association in New York City with Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Princeton, Rutgers, and Wesleyan.
1887 marked the last year that Bowdoin competed in a four-oared intercollegiate regatta. That year, the team followed suit after Cornell and Penn switched from fours to eights. Now rowing in eights, Bowdoin would row for the last time in a regatta against the Boston Athletic Association in 1890.
The End of an Era
The varsity team dissolved in 1890 as a result of heavy expenses, and an institutional switch in focus toward football and baseball. While class races continued until 1894, they also dissolved with the absence of widespread interest. The Rowing Team fully departed the College’s memory when the boathouse was torn down in 1898, bought by the Lewiston, Bath and Brunswick electric railroad, and converted in a bowling alley in Merrymeeting Park.
The Restoration of Rowing at Bowdoin
Bowdoin Rowing owes its modern founding to Brad Lisle ‘87 who learned to row during a term at Columbia in 1985 and determined that when he returned, Bowdoin should have a rowing club. At the same time, Phin Sprague ’50, who founded the Bowdoin Outing club earlier on, was interested in introducing rowing to the college, and found Bill Brown and Bill Harding to assist the effort. Brown was a legendary Harvard oarsman, and founding coach at Phillips Andover, where he developed powerhouse crews, and though he had retired to Maine, was eager to help establish and coach rowing at Bowdoin. Harding, who had been a standout pole vaulter at Yale and headmaster at Pike Academy, served as administrator. These three formed the Bowdoin Rowing Association, which oversaw operations of the Bowdoin Rowing Club for its first ten years, from 1985-1995. During these years, Brown served as coach, but the club was truly student led, as officers managed the many details of day to day scheduling, equipment, travel and competition. The club rowed on the Androscoggin River in Brunswick and Pejepscot, before moving to the New Meadows River based in John Fitzpatrick’s marina just upriver from Brunswick’s Sawyer Park.
In the spring of 1993, a March snowstorm dropped heavy wet snow which collapsed the fabric shelter where the club stored its four shells. All the boats were significantly damaged. That could have been the end of the club, but for the tenacious determination and generosity of the student leadership, and parents Hal and Barbara Smith, whose son Tyler ’96 was an officer. Two shells were repaired, (one still hangs in the boathouse as a memorial to the founders), and the Smiths arranged to purchase a third from the Dirigo company in Biddeford, whose owner and builder, Charlie Dibble, produced the boat in time for spring racing. The Smith family then arranged to build a modest boat barn at the marina and in the spring of 1995, the crew moved in. The Smiths’ enthusiasm and generosity were pivotal in assuring rowing would continue at Bowdoin.
Gil Birney joined the club as coach as it was celebrating its 10th Anniversary in the fall of 1995. He arranged with BRA to coach just for that fall season to give the team time to find a more permanent coach. He continued to coach for 22 years until retiring in the summer of 2018. Over those 22 years the team enjoyed noteworthy growth and success.
At the Head of The Charles in 1999, Bowdoin won a third place medal in the Men’s Club Four, the first of many over the next two decades. In the spring of 2000 the men won gold at the New England Rowing Championships, and went on to win the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, and the regatta’s Henley Prize, which enabled them to travel to England to compete in the Britannia Cup at Henley Royal Regatta. But honors for the first Dad Vail medals went to the Women’s Four, who were receiving their bronze medals at the Awards Dock, as the men were coming through the last 500 meters to win the gold.
Bowdoin Rowing had splashed onto the national scene, and over the next twenty years would distinguish the club and the college in regional, national and international competition. Of the many accomplishments over those years, two deserve special recognition.
In 2003, Bowdoin earned 4 medals at Dad Vail, including wins by the Women’s Four and the Men’s Pair. That Summer the women competed at Henley Women’s Regatta, and the men returned to HRR, where the first boat was awarded the honor of being named one of 8 Select Crews for the Britannia Cup. This crew raced through the semi finals of the event where it lost by 3/4 length to Goldie, who won the event that year. The Goldie coach praised our men by saying, “You guys were the only crew that worried us. Our race with you should have been the Grand Final.”
The second crew deserving special recognition was the women’s four of 2014. After winning the Head of The Charles in 2012, and Dad Vail in 2013 and 2014, the crew traveled to England to take its shot at winning the Senior Four at Henley Women’s Regatta. This crew won the Elite event at Reading Amateur Regatta the week before HWR by defeating London’s Thames Rowing Club and Boston’s Riverside Rowing Club, both premier programs. In the semi at HWR Yale just beat our women, ending our hopes of a Henley win. In the final, Riverside advanced from the other bracket to lose to East London, who had beaten Yale the day before.
While the crews of 2003 and 2014 were extraordinary, they emerged from a team culture of training and racing which valued and inspired commitment to one’s boatmates across the whole program. When those crews took to the Thames, they carried the efforts of every rower who put blade to water in the Bowdoin Rowing club.
During the summer of 2002, the college constructed a “phase one” boathouse on land purchased from the town in Sawyer Park. It was named Smith House to honor the family who worked so tirelessly to secure the club at Bowdoin. The Ricciardi family generously donated its construction crew to put up the building and in October of 2002, the crew moved out of the marina onto the Sawyer Park site. The boathouse was always intended as a transition to a more complete development of a facility. Plans were drawn and the college approved the project in 2007, but the Great Recession of 2008 put the development on hold. The club’s growth in athletes and equipment makes completion of a new boathouse more urgent than ever.
Out of The Past
Doug Welling joined Coach Birney as assistant in the fall of 2011, as the club was celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Reintroduction of Rowing at Bowdoin. A gala gathering of alumni and parents in October recognized the origins of rowing in the 19th century and the contributions and support of so many who have dedicated themselves to providing rowing at Bowdoin.
When Coach Birney retired from the college in 2018, a similar crowd gathered at Smith House to celebrate the many generosities that have made it possible to proclaim, “Bowdoin Rowing Forever.” Phin Sprague ’50, was at the gathering; the last living founder of the club was there to celebrate the past and look to the future. The event was organized by Coach Birney’s wife, Edie ‘83, and not even the briefest of histories of the club is complete with acknowledging her many behind the scenes contributions to the club’s life and success.
At the retirement gathering, Coach Welling was introduced as the next Head Coach of Men’s and Women’s Rowing. Doug brings a wealth of experience and skill to the job, as well as an appreciation of the culture and spirit that has grown the club since 1985 into the community it is today. With his leadership and dedication and the support of so many who carried an oar to the beaches and docks, the future of rowing at Bowdoin is bright.