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Seafaring in Seattle – Corbett scholar Julia Lindsay

Photo credit: Julia Lindsay.

April 30, 2019

It takes time to learn to navigate a new city, from the basics of  layout to cultural nuances. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the process: no one would argue that Venice is not best seen from a gondola, or Amsterdam from a bike saddle. My home city of Vancouver may be best discovered by driving along its many-folded coastline from mountains to beach, whereas the cobblestone streets of older European cities need to be wandered through slowly on foot. Immediately upon arriving in Seattle, however, it became apparent that this city was meant to be traversed by water.

A city of bridges, including the world’s longest floating bridge, Seattle spreads from the Puget Sound in the west to Lake Washington in the east and is divided by a series of canals and bays. Seattle is also home to more houseboats than any other city in the United States. But the main reason I applied for the Corbett Fellowship, the jewel in Seattle’s floating crown of nautical culture, is its vibrant rowing community.

Sunrise over the Fremont Bridge. Photo credit: Julia Lindsay.

Not only is the University of Washington home to the most dominant collegiate crew program in the world, but Lake Union and the surrounding waterways are dotted with rowing clubs for people of all ages and skill levels. Seeing a friend from a different club across the water, or hearing someone yell your name from shore as you row past, are truly unique Seattle experiences and testimonies to how much of the city’s lifeblood flows through the city’s waterways.

Nothing makes me appreciate the time I have spent in Seattle more than my daily rowing practice. Every morning, I stumble out of bed at 4:30 AM and pick up my teammates on our way to Seattle Rowing Center. Once there, we sit bleary-eyed over mugs of coffee (the city’s other lifeblood) for a few minutes, cringing at the early hour but also silently grateful for each other’s company. We carry our boats down to the dock and launch just next to a moored boat named the “Lucky Girl” – which, to me, serves as a daily reminder of how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to live and train here.

Practice normally starts at the Hiram M. Chittenden boat locks, where, after sunrise, boat traffic rises and falls to enter the city’s canal system. The locks are also home to fish ladders, so that some long-time Seattle residents (spawning salmon) can make it home for the summer. From there, we row as a flock of boats through the ship canal. We pass Ballard, where my friends and I go to play trivia every Thursday night, then Fremont, marked by its signature dinosaur topiary and the scent of molten chocolate from the Theo Chocolate factory. We turn the corner around Gasworks Park, home to remnants of the early twentieth-century gas processing plant that stand in memory of Seattle’s recent industrial heritage.

Once around the bend, the city’s leading lady comes out of hiding and we point the sterns of our boats towards the Space Needle to help us steer a straight course. We row past hundreds of houseboats, which range from rustic to artistic to luxurious, and past Pocock Rowing Club, founded by George Pocock—arguably the man who brought crew to Seattle.

My teammates during an early morning training session on Lake Union. Photo credit: Julia Lindsay.

From there, we make our final turn into the Montlake Cut. Despite rowing through it close to a hundred times now, it still takes my breath away. The walls of the canal are covered in rowing club names, logos and slogans, which range from funny to off-colour to inspirational. The bridge overhead groans with cars, their passengers drudging through a morning commute far less interesting than mine. The water around me reverberates off the sides of the Cut, and I can feel the legends who have come before me: those who shaped the history of my sport, starting from this very spot.

As we pull away from the Montlake Cut, we pass the university and frame of its football stadium, coiled as if waiting to pounce. The seventy thousand fans that fill the stadium during football season often refer to it as “the greatest setting” – and floating there, surrounded by my community, heart thumping from the morning’s work, gently rising and falling with the waves, it seems impossible to disagree.

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.