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The Spirit of Rowing on the Duwamish River

July 19, 2016

On July 9, 2016 the Duwamish Rowing Club held the first rowing regatta on the Duwamish Waterway, a five-mile industrialized estuary of the Duwamish River that runs through the South Park neighborhood of Seattle.   Local crews from Renton and Lake Stevens were invited and paired up in head-to-head matches — from 12-year-old boys in single sculls to four-person crews with rowers into their 70s. 

While a rowing regatta may not be an unusual site along the many canals and waterways of Seattle on a summer weekend, the lower five-mile stretch of the Duwamish River has been less associated with recreational use and more associated with the industrialization of the rivers’ banks and resulting pollution of the river for over a century.  Michael Merta, a resident of South Park and founder of the Duwamish Rowing Club in 2011, wants to change that.  “For years, this river has been hidden away from folks … Now we’re getting people out on to the river to see what it actually is.”

The Duwamish Waterway has been designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 2001, meaning that the stretch of river has been placed as a priority for cleanup.  While cleanup efforts continue, the EPA cites in a 2010 report that the Duwamish is safe for recreational use, though recommends avoiding contact with mud beside industrial areas.  The mud along public access areas such as the site of this year’s regatta is deemed safe to touch, its banks safe for children to play.  Many rowers cited that the Duwamish is ideal for rowing because low boat traffic translates into smooth waters with minimal chop.

Along with redefining the reputation of the Duwamish Waterway, Michael Merta wants to make the sport of rowing accessible to all of the local residents of South Seattle, particularly for youth from the South Park neighborhood. 

“Anything associated with boats and the water, can get very expensive. We don’t want rowing to be this exclusive sport.,” he says.  The Duwamish Rowing Club has a mission to make rowing accessible to all interested and remove financial barriers to the sport — membership fees for youth rowers is a suggested donation of $250 per season, and if a family cannot afford the fee, they pay what they can or volunteer. The Duwamish Rowing Club continually fundraises and seeks out grant opportunities to cover its expenses. 

The Duwamish Rowing Club’s first regatta signifies the return of a river to the local community.  And Michael Merta hopes it will be the first of many regattas to come.


Made possible in part by

Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

More stories by Aileen Imperial

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What Mike has done through his incredibly hard work is awesome!
Now he needs a dock so the kids don't have to wade in the mud, and more space to store boats so he can get more people out onto the water.
Accessing the river means more than just being able to look at it. Rowing and paddling sports get people out onto the water and develop "river keepers" or stewards of this resource. People need to get out there and do things - and develop the community of supporters ranging from the people in the boats to their parents and friends and members of the South Park and West Seattle communities.
Go Mike, way to go!

Bill Pickard, co founder, George Pocock Rowing Foundation, Seattle

As a member of the Renton Rowing Club, we want to thank Duwamish for a wonderful Regatta! We had so much fun. They have such a great program. And it was beautiful to row the Duwamish, a river that will now have a second life. We look forward to inviting them to our Lake Washington to compete again. All the best to their program. Mike, nice job!