Despite never having rowed a day in his life, Thom Hamilton found himself immortalized in Bainbridge rowing history last weekend.
Bainbridge Island Rowing dedicated its new $34,000, 56-foot racing shell to Hamilton, and formally christened the shell with a ceremony at Eagle Harbor.
BIR, which started out with a $500 boat and only six rowers, now struggles to accommodate more than 110 members on the water.
“It’s a level of recognition one never expects to receive,” Hamilton said. “You don’t go into something like this with that in mind.”
Hamilton, an avid sailor and shipbuilder, purchased his first wooden sailboat in 1967. After working in the corporate sector, he and his wife, Karen, decided to take their children on a five-year sailing tour.
When the Hamiltons returned, they moved to Bainbridge. Their daughter, Kacy Struzzieri – then Kacy Hamilton – enrolled in Bainbridge High School as a sophomore in 2000, and brought a new sport with her.
“I was fed up with the competitive nature of Bainbridge High School,” Struzzieri said. “As long as we have bodies (for rowing), that’s all I really cared about.”
When Struzzieri told her father she wanted to start a rowing team, he jumped behind the idea, even though he knew little of rowing.
“You always have to have someone step up to the plate,” Hamilton said. “I put a lot of focus on kids to try to nurture their wants, and point them in the right direction.”
Even though the informational meeting attracted at least 20 students, the grueling practice schedule deflated most of the interest.
“Everyone was gung-ho until they found out you had to get up at 4:30,” Struzzieri said. “Everyone left – literally, they all just walked out.”
Despite only having six rowers – including Struzzieri – BIR was formed.
“It was within 90 days from the concept, to where we had equipment,” Hamilton said. “Fortunately, I had full time I could I devote.”
On winter mornings, the team held meetings huddled in the glow of Hamilton’s headlights as they prepared for cross-training at Battle Point Park.
“We went running, did the stairs at the stadium, did whatever we could do,” Struzzieri said. “We got better and better and more and more people started to show up. That’s when you get people talking about it.”
Before the rowers could hit the water, they had to learn proper rowing techniques by practicing on ergometers, or rowing machines.
While most teams have intermediate and advanced rowers to help novices, Bainbridge used ergometers.
“(Usually) every third person is advanced,” Struzzieri said. “They’re stabilizing for you and you’re watching them, you’re following their motions. But we didn’t have that, so we used the ergs for techniques. We showed people the motions before we even got into the boat.”
Since BIR did not own any ergometers at first, Hamilton struck a deal with a local gym. BIR would raise funds to purchase their own ergs, and the gym would match the purchase.
“We’ll let you use them, and we start our workout program there,” Hamilton said.
The rowing machines also became pivotal in fund raising. In addition to car washes, the team conducted “ergo-thons” at the Pavilion, where rowers raced to 5k.
“Some were marathons, and you got 10 cents per (kilometer)” Struzzieri said.
The rowers soon became impatient to get on the water, and Hamilton was there to obtain boats and oars.
“He’d always be the mind behind the fund raising,” Struzzieri said. “He started things rolling with equipment, the ergs, the rowing machines.”
The team raised enough money to purchase a $500 shell, and another was donated.
The original shell was a 65-foot-long sectional, which could split in half for transportation.
Once the rowers hit the water, however, they had to contend with the dangers of an unprotected harbor.
“We had no launch because we were on the south end of the island,” Struzzieri said. “So we had huge waves, ferry waves to deal with, little boats. We got swamped at least twice and had to call for rescue.”
Hamilton, however, was always there to help.
“He’d be down there every practice on the beach at 4:30 in the morning,” Struzzieri said. “He’d watch us and make sure we didn’t flip or do anything crazy.”
Less than a decade later, BIR has grown to more than 70 junior rowers, and has added a master’s program of nearly 40 adults. It owns 13 boats of various sizes, and now rows in Eagle Harbor.
“We have more butts than seats,” BIR board president Grant Dull said. “We’re actually leasing a boat from Seattle just so we have enough seats to accommodate the number of junior programs. We desperately need more seats.”
BIR plans to purchase another competitive shell similar to the Thom Hamilton.
From his Eagle Harbor home, Hamilton can see the results of his work racing by.
“I’m in boats every day, vicariously,” Hamilton said. “As I look out on the water, I see Thom Hamilton go by with a load of young kids. How cool is that?”