Few Portlanders know the Willamette River like members of the Portland Women’s Rowing (PWR) boat club. The team can often be found out on the water hours before most of our alarm clocks are set to wake us up for work, school or other commitments. These women brave the cold, the fog and the traditional Portland rain, each of them there for different reasons, but striving for the same winning spirit. The masters rowing club has been home to weekend warriors, novices, veterans and Olympians, and their successes are born from a love of the sport.
The club has somewhat of a storied beginning, with roots in many other historic clubs and boathouses that call the banks of the Willamette home. With learn-to-row programs and recreational boat clubs already scattered along the river, there was a gap to fill for experienced women rowers who wanted to train seriously and focus on the sport. Essentially, PWR was created as a place for women to just row.
Though the founding members of the team number about five women, Jeanne Niemer is considered by most in the Portland rowing community as the team’s “owner” and primary founder. In 2006, she dropped $14,000 on a sleek, pre-owned Vespoli 8+ racing shell and oversaw the process of outfitting the boat with oars, locks and other costly fittings. The boat’s sleek, solid-black hull earned it the name The Black Pearl in reference to the fictional pirate ship captained by Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Many years before she purchased The Black Pearl, Niemer and a number of other women who would eventually form PWR rowed with Stumptown Rowing, a small co-ed crew team that practiced and raced out of the Lake Oswego Boathouse. From there, Niemer and a few others began racing with Station L Rowing and eventually found a home at the Willamette Rowing Club. By this time, Niemer says that many of the women on the team were growing stronger and competing well locally and nationally. However, she notes that the Portland rowing community is small, the competitive spirit is intense, and the sport is prone to fueling rivalries.
Niemer recalls feeling that some of the clubs that she rowed with in the past lacked an even-handed approach to how they operated. “They were very male-dominated and it felt as if we women didn’t really have a say in how the club was running — and as strong, competitive rowers, we were frustrated by that.”
Acquiring The Black Pearl was an impulsive yet crucial first step toward something new, but at this point, one of Neimer’s biggest challenges was finding a place to store the large crew boat.
“I had this 50-foot boat and nowhere to really put it. For a while, I thought I was going to have to put it in my living room,” she says.
Fortunately for Niemer, in 2004, the Portland Development Commission had set aside funding to renovate 14,775 square feet of the Holman Building located on S.E. Clay Street. This space was designated to be the home of the Portland Boathouse. By the time Niemer had purchased her boat, the building was completed and had become home to the Station L Rowing Club, Wasabi Paddling Club, Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, University of Portland Rowing, Rose City Rowing Club, Willamette Riverkeeper and Portland State University Crew.
Nick Haley, who coaches youth crew teams for Rose City Rowing and is on the Portland Boathouse board of directors, helped arrange for Niemer’s newly formed rowing club to have a space in bay 2 of the boathouse, beside Rose City and Station L. The Black Pearl would never have to spend a night outside or in Niemer’s living room.
It was at this point that Niemer and a handful of other rowers had to start thinking of a name.
“One of the ladies on the team was a graphic designer and designed the lightning bolt graphic on our oars and we knew we wanted to maintain the energy and focus that we’d built up with this group of women, so ‘Portland Women’s Rowing’ seemed to fit,” says Niemer. “Then someone pointed out ‘P-W-R’ was kind of like ‘power’ and then everything kind of slid into place.”
The team currently fields an eight-woman boat (8+) and a four-woman boat (4+) in competition and has posted impressive results in many of the local head races. Last year, PWR swept the Portland Fall Classic women’s masters competition by placing first with both their 8+ and their 4+ boats and won first place in Seattle’s Head of the Lake, the largest fall regatta on the West Coast. By their own standards, the team hasn’t fared quite as well so far this year, finishing in fourth place in the women’s masters 8+ during this year’s Portland Fall Classic held last month. This year is a building year for the team, with several of the team’s key rowers having relocated to different cities and clubs.
Notwithstanding, the team has built a solid reputation for excellence, attracting women from all over the country with experience levels ranging from one semester in college competition to several years of competition on the U.S. National Team.
“These days, I’m not out in the boat as much as I used to be, but I can clearly see that there are plenty of other women out there who are looking for a no-nonsense environment like this,” says Niemer. “And I can definitely see PWR growing based on that reputation.”