The Profiler: Whaleboat rower Sue Lim

The Profiler: Whaleboat rower Sue Lim

Kristen Hanlon
Team Ketos

Sue Lim and the rest of Team Ketos, a local whaleboat rowing team, pose with the mayor of Warrnambool, Australia at the Australian Whale Boat Championships. Photo courtesy of Sue Lim.

Alameda resident Sue Lim is a parent of two who works as a chemist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. A longtime rowing enthusiast, she is a member of the all-woman Ketos whaleboat racing team, which competed in February at the Australian Whale Boat Racing Championships. The Ketos team participates in local races during the fall and spring, with their first estuary race of the season, the Coast Guard Challenge, taking place April 12.

What is whaleboat rowing, and how did you become involved with it?
Whaleboat rowing is focused on preserving and honoring maritime history and is very local to the Bay Area. Whaleboats were launched from ships to row out to the whales that were harpooned and brought in. In the mid-1800s the whaling ships would come in to the Port of San Francisco and the whalers would get paid and then have nothing to do until they could get signed on to their next ship. So they came up with the idea of racing the whaleboats – they’d race them for drinking money. The expression “losing your shirt” originated with these races. The winning ship's crew would take the defeated crew's shirts right off their opponent’s backs.

Whaleboats are 2,000 pounds – very sturdy and stable – and are used for search and rescue operations by the Coast Guard and other search and rescue agencies. The oars are about 15 pounds and are historically made of wood. We have the oldest boat in the BAWRA (Bay Area Whaleboat Racing Association) fleet, the “Razzle Dazzle,” named after a Jack London story. A lot of the other boats in the fleet are made out of fiberglass, so they have to add weights to those so all of the boats are even.

I’ve rowed and paddled in many different styles of boats, and what I love about the whaleboats is that you can be any size, any shape, any age and any fitness level and be able to do it. I’ve been participating in water sports since I was 12, but I hadn’t heard of whaleboat rowing until 1990, when I moved to the Bay Area from San Diego. One of my coworkers at EBMUD (the East Bay Municipal Utility District) alerted me to it, and I’ve been a whaleboat rower ever since, though I took some years off when my sons were young.

Tell me about the Oakland Estuary Whaleboat Rowing Society. How many teams are there? What competitions are held locally?
There are two teams – Ketos, which is the women’s team, and Port of Oakland (“POO”), which is a mixed team. There are two racing seasons, fall and spring. The first race of the spring season is on April 5, sponsored by SOMIRA (Straits of Mare Island Rowing Association) out in the Mare Island channel near Vallejo. Then we move to the Oakland Estuary for a few races, and then the last few races of the season are in San Francisco.

Our spring season culminates in the Bridge-to-Bridge race, where we row from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. It’s really challenging and there are a lot of conditions you can’t predict, including the shipping traffic. The race can last anywhere from 45 minutes to and hour and 10 minutes. What’s unique about the race is there is only one heat, and typically nine boats compete.

I understand you competed “Down Under” recently, at the Australian Whale Boat Championships in Warrnambool, Victoria. What was that experience like? How did your team do?
Our team was comprised of rowers from three different organizations within BARRA, with all different levels in terms of years of experience, and we had four days to practice together before the races. It’s a different style of racing there – here, there are 10 people in the boat, including a coxswain and bowhook. In Australia, you have five people pulling oars and a coxswain – so you have three on side and two on the other side. Their boats are only 1,000 pounds and (they’re) shaped differently. Even the oars are different.

It’s amazing there because the Warrnambool community is really into their maritime history and is super involved with the races. The mayor shows up, the townspeople show up to cheer the rowers on. We did come in last, but we had a great time!

If someone is interested in trying whale boating out, what do they need to know?
Just go to our website and contact our president, Carolyn, and come on out to a practice! Our dock is by Quinn’s Lighthouse on the Oakland side. The women’s team practices Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, and the men’s team practices Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. Bring your enthusiasm and we will train you. We’re always recruiting new rowers.


Submitted by Peter Abbott (not verified) on Mon, Mar 31, 2014

Well done Sue. Your Warrnamboolian friends had a great time when you came down under also.

How to send a Aussie te to your races again soon!

Check out the YouTube clip and details of our whaleboat races here

Submitted by Misty Young (not verified) on Tue, Apr 8, 2014

What a great story about a great woman! I'm thrilled to learn more about whaleboats and the indomitable spirits who row them! Thank you for the great profile on Sue Lim!