When Steve Gladstone returned to Cal for his second stint as the head men's rowing coach in 1997, one of his first orders of business was to find his program a true racecourse to host competitions.
"You train, and you train diligently for long periods of time," Gladstone said. "On raceday, you're going to just leave it up to chance? That doesn't make much sense."
Until then, the Bears' home course was also their training center – the Oakland Estuary. It was, and still is, a terrific stretch of water to practice. But the uncontrolled nature of the public waterway makes conditions too unpredictable to host competitions there on a regular basis.
But these continue to be abnormal times, and the limitations inherent with the COVID-19 pandemic will allow the program to relive some of its history on Saturday when it hosts UC San Diego for a varsity eight race on the estuary. It will be Cal's first competition on the Oakland Estuary since 1996.
"The need to be creative in COVID times is a great opportunity to tap into the history of the program and relieve our previous home course of racing on the estuary," Cal head coach Scott Frandsen said. "I think it will be a good trip down memory lane."
The Bears began competing at Redwood Shores in 1997 (on San Francisco Bay, south of the San Mateo Bridge), and it's been the team's home course ever since. It's a controlled, straight course without any other launches or interference from other commercial boats.
"The estuary is a fabulous place to train crews," said Gladstone, now the head coach at Yale. "It's terrific. But you can't really have a fair race. The most important thing is the athletes."
Saturday will mark Cal's first race on the Oakland Estuary since it defeated Stanford in the Big Row on May 11, 1996. That marked the end of almost 100 years of competing on the estuary. The first collegiate competition on that water came in 1902, in a fours competition between Cal and Stanford.
But it was never easy. The program had to deploys alums, staff, club rowers and more in different spots to stop other boats from entering the course.
"When a boat is coming out from a marina, hopefully they share a common love of all things aquatic," said Mark Zembsch, who was the Bears' head coach from 1992-96. "We had a total Navy out there of recent grads in 8-foot dinghies kind of channeling the racecourse. You just had to ask them to wait for five minutes. They also got a pretty good look at an athletic event, as well."
At the time, Cal's oarsmen didn't realize their victory over the Cardinal was going to be their last competition on the estuary. It was only when Gladstone returned that the process began to move to Redwood Shores.
"I don't think anybody said that this is now going to be the way for the next 'x' amount of years. It was just like, 'Hey, we're racing at Redwood Shores,'" said former oarsman David Rhein, who rowed the seven-seat for Cal in 1996. "We certainly got it. It was a commercial waterway and a bit of an industrial mess. I know it's improved a lot over time, but you had container ships, Coast Guard ships. It was a bit of a mess, but it was our mess."
While fans won't be allowed to attend Saturday's racing because of local health protocols, the Cal rowing community is well-aware that it is taking place and is getting a kick out of the program's return to its previous home.
Cal's women's rowing team will host Stanford in the Big Row on the estuary next Saturday, April 24.
"I'm just so stoked for the oarsmen that are rowing in that race," Rhein said. "It's something that hasn't' happened in 25 years and I hope they kind of embrace what it means and what it is, and just enjoy every moment. I was certainly bummed when we moved away from it, and I'm so glad to hear they are doing it again."