By Jeff Bechthold
Innovation and Washington Rowing have gone hand in hand for more than a century. From Hiram Conibear and George Pocock to Michael Callahan and Yasmin Farooq – and many more in between – the Huskies’ programs have been headed by creative, inventive leaders whose innovations in stroke mechanics, boat design and training and evaluation techniques have made Washington home to the greatest collegiate rowing program in the country.
With that spirit in mind, last fall, several members of the program, including rowers, a manager, coaches and the director of operations hatched a plan to take advantage of a UW grants program to germinate what they all hope will lead to another innovation: the use of electric boat motors in coaches’ launches.
The UW’s Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) was originally conceived in 2009. According to the CSF website, “the original idea for a student led, student-funded Green Fund came from a group of students in the fall of 2009. A grassroots campaign was waged across the campus collecting over 5,000 petition signatures, 100 RSO endorsements, support of faculty and student senate, and incredible institutional support. Due to this unprecedented level of student support, a $339,000 fund was established through the Student Activities Fee (SAF) for the 2010-2011 school year.”
Each year, the CSF hears grant requests from various campus groups interested in gaining funding for projects geared towards sustainability. Many of the grants are in the three-figure range, while the largest of the 14 allocations for 2017-18 topped $26,000.
Led by men’s team manager and former rower Weston Brown, along with team members Amanda Durkin, Andrew Gaard, Dana Brooks, Molly Gallaher and Jennifer Wren, and with the staff sponsorship of director of operations Sarah Keller, the contingent from the UW rowing team made its pitch for $8,000 to purchase a new type of electric boat motor made by Seattle company Pure Watercraft. Founded by former Stanford rower Andy Rebele, the company has begun to design electric motors powerful and efficient enough to replace many gas-powered, outboard motors, including those used in rowing coaches’ launches.
The new motors, which run on rechargeable batteries, are actually faster and more powerful than the gas motors currently used by most rowing coaches’ launches. Electric motors had been in the news in recent years and the seed to seek a grant to get one was germinated in the shellhouse by the coaches, who took the idea to Brown and, in turn, to the rest of the team.
“Most people going into the project had an interest,” Brown said. “We asked who on the team was interested, so those who said yes had an eye for sustainability.”
“I’m an environmental health major,” Durkin added, “so I’ve always had an interest.”
Guided by CSF staffers Kyle McDermott and Ian Rose, the group put together its presentation, with each of the individuals handling specific aspects. In the meantime, former UW and U.S. Olympic rower Ed Ives, ’83, who works at Purecraft, helped guide the UW team through the intricacies of the new technology.
“We thought it was a long shot,” Brown admitted. “Traditionally, CSF funds low-budget projects, and this one was on the higher end of what they’d funded in the past. And, whereas a lot of projects are very clearly campus-wise, ours was pretty niche.”
Nonetheless, when the CSF announced the 14 projects it had decided to fund, the rowing team’s was included.
While the grant that the UW rowers received will only buy one new motor, the bigger idea is to get in on the ground floor and also to start the process of making such motors a viable alternative, one that will save gas and have a much lower impact on the environment.
In the grant proposal submitted by the UW rowers, it was estimated that Washington coaches’ launches put in a total of nearly 43,000 kilometers each year, burning about 2,145 gallons of gas. In green science terms, that’s about 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted by those motors, a total that would drop to about 322 pounds if electric motors powered all of the UW launches.
Replacing all of the UW’s boat motors would be a costly pursuit, but what this grant does is allows the program to get one, possibly the first step that might lead to more.
“Once we have it implemented, it’s much easier for us to get more funding for the future,” Brown explained. “It’s much easier than someone taking a gamble.”
Also, as a part of the grant, the UW rowers committed to a series of education and outreach opportunities. After all, the UW’s launches are just a few of the many used by other rowing clubs on Seattle-area lakes, not to mention the many college and club programs across the country and the world. As a part of the project, UW rowers will host information booths at next season’s Head of the Charles and Windermere Cup/Opening Day regattas while also presenting information to local rowing clubs, among other things.
“We’re hoping to interest the local clubs,” Durkin, a senior coxswain with the women’s team, explained. “This one launch will have a minor impact, but it shows we’re making a big effort to be more sustainable. If everyone starts, it’ll make a big impact.”
The future could include a full fleet of electric boats, with the battery charge supplied by solar panels on Conibear Shellhouse. While that future hasn’t yet arrived, the CSF grant earned by the UW rowers might very well the first big step in that direction.