Rowers make their mark on Montlake Cut in a time-honored ritual

In the dead of night, athletes creep below the Montlake Bridge to scrape moss and ivy off the seawall. With bright purple paint, they make their mark on Seattle’s Montlake Cut, the ship canal connecting Lake Washington to Lake Union and the Puget Sound. It’s about tradition, bonding, team building and (most importantly) extremely catchy slogans.

“Mine was ‘Full Tilt Boogie 1996,’ ” says UW men’s crew coach Michael Callahan, ’96, referring to the words he and his fellow class of ’96 teammates painted on the concrete walls. “When the alums come back, one of the first things I’ll ask them is, ‘What was your class slogan?’”

Team historian Eric Cohen, ’82, isn’t certain when the ritual began, but it has probably lasted more than half of the 124-year history of the UW rowing team. Here’s how it goes down: On Class Day weekend, the team separates into classes and heads down below the Montlake Bridge. “They’ll do it in two days,” Cohen says. “You have to clean it first because it’s covered in moss and dirt and stuff, and the paint won’t stick.” They wait until nighttime when no boats are headed through the canal, making waters choppy. Then they grab a dinghy and some paint, come up with a killer slogan. And hope it doesn’t rain.

“You have to have the right timing,” says Cohen. “Back in my day, it was an adrenaline rush because if the police came by, you’d get told to go home.” His class slogan: “Awesome Crew of ’82.”

Callahan had a slightly different experience in the mid-’90s. “One time, we were [painting a slogan] and the police went by, and they were like, ‘Hey, straighten up those letters!’ ”

Both agree the experience means more than a covert adventure. “People are coming [to row at the UW] from all over the world, so we’re trying to get them to buy in together and understand the camaraderie,” says Callahan. “You’re going through this experience not just as an individual but as a group and as a team. Sharing your teamwork and sweat all together.”

“It is that collective hard work that leads to the camaraderie … the dark cold mornings day after day pushing yourself to be better along with the rower in front of you and the rower behind you,” says Cohen. Hiram Conibear established those values of hard work and camaraderie (as well as a snappier stroke method) when he arrived at the UW in 1907. Hard work and camaraderie are still as essential to UW rowing as the Conibear stroke over 100 years later.

As for whether painting braggadocious (yet shrewd!) slogans on city property is illicit, Callahan sees the bright side. The team has a partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers (whose purview includes the cut) in which the rowers clean up the landscaping and trash. They’re thoughtful about their presence in the cut, which depleted the salmon population as it drained Lake Washington by nearly 9 feet in 1917. “It’s our home course,” says Callahan, “and we want to take care of it.”