Saturday Mornings Are Busy at the Jack London Aquatic Center

The Jack London Aquatic Center is anything but quiet on a predawn Saturday morning.


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Photo by Sean Havey

 

If there’s ever a quiet time in Oakland, it’s just before dawn on Saturday mornings. One can hear church bells across town, trains rumbling a mile away, a lone Chihuahua barking in the neighborhood. Everyone in town, it seems, is in deep slumber.

Except at the Oakland Estuary. There, amid the chill and damp, arises a mini-city of hundreds of rowers, coxswains, and coaches, crowding the wharves in the pre-dawn darkness like it’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Some are tromping across the docks with boats hoisted on their shoulders. Others are toting armfuls of oars. Some are stretching or grunting away on rowing machines. Everyone is in a rush to hit the water while it’s still in a pristine state of flat, quiet calm.

“It’s cold and early, but the calm water is so nice when you’re gliding across it,” said Olivia Walsh, 16, a junior at Oakland Technical High School who rows with Artemis, one of the dozen or so crew clubs based at the Jack London Aquatic Center. “We see seals, pelicans, manta rays … And my friends are here. Sometimes I really want to sleep in, but then I remember all my friends are down here waiting for me to hop in the boat.”

The calm water might be a draw, but rowers say camaraderie trumps everything. Without teamwork, the boats just go in circles.

Mark Jansen, a 61-year-old attorney from Berkeley who rows with the East Bay Rowing Club, said he’s often tempted to sleep in.

“Sometimes it’s foggy and cold and hard to get up, but if you’re part of a team, you have to do it,” he said on a recent Saturday, while stretching on the docks before heading to the water. “They need eight guys in a boat. You’ve got to be there.”

Rowing is increasingly popular in Oakland. Three boathouses along the waterfront host teams ranging from the Cal men’s varsity to dragon-boat squads to middle-school kids just learning to keep the boats upright.

Some of those rowers are there for the exercise and friendship, and some are among the most competitive in the country. Oakland Strokes is a perennial national power, while Artemis, a newer club, is gaining regional traction. The crews from Oakland Tech and Berkeley High also row on the Estuary—two of the only public schools in the United States to have their own teams.

The Cal men’s and women’s teams are nearly always among the top in the Pac-12, joined by rowers from around the country who are training for national and international competition.

The Estuary isn’t quite as storied as the Charles River in Boston, but it offers some of the country’s most challenging conditions for serious rowers: choppy water, fast-moving tides, wind, and plenty of company on the water: container ships, sailboats, kayakers, water skiers, ferries, Coast Guard cutters, and other watercraft that require expert navigation skills to avoid.

Not everyone along the waterfront Saturday mornings is crazy about rowing. Randy Babcock, 64, a self-described “traveler” who camps near the boathouse, enjoys watching all the pandemonium from his hammock.

“It’s never quiet here Saturday mornings, not even when it’s dark,” he said, surveying the scene with a bemused shrug. “But I guess everyone needs a hobby.”

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