Man deserves gold medal for rescuing UW crew boat ‘The Conny’
Jan 31, 2024, 10:12 AM | Updated: 10:42 am
(Photo: Kirk Knapp)
The book and film “Boys in the Boat” has brought worldwide attention to 1936 gold medal-winning crew from the University of Washington. A vintage custom powerboat that was key to that team’s success – and that once almost went to the dump – has been restored and will be on display this weekend at the 2024 Seattle Boat Show.
This particular vessel is not a rowing shell. “The Conny” is a coach’s launch, named for Hiram Conibear, the legendary UW rowing coach who served from 1907 to 1917, and who changed the UW program and college rowing in general.
There is a lot to this story and we can’t cover it all here. However, there will be a panel discussion about The Conny and UW crew history this Sunday, February 4 at 1:00 p.m. at the 2024 Seattle Boat Show at Lumen Field.
The Conny is a specially designed and built powerboat used by coaches in the UW rowing program from the early 1930s to 1971, including for coaching the team that became Olympic gold medalists in 1936. A coach’s launch lets the coaching staff follow alongside the rowers out on the water, and do things during practice that might happen from a bench in a land-based sport, like swap team members into and out of the game.
Schertzer Boat & Machine Works designed and built The Conny circa 1932 at their old yard and shop at foot of Stone Way on Lake Union. The Conny is 28 feet long and on the skinny side, so that it creates only a minimal wake, which is better for the rowers, of course. It has a forward cockpit where the coach can sit or stand, and a separate rear cockpit for the driver where the steering wheel is mounted.
The Conny is featured multiple times in the “Boys in the Boat” movie, but the coach’s launch seen in the film is stand-in from the UK. The real-life all-American Conny belongs to a Snohomish County man named Kirk Knapp.
Knapp should probably get a gold medal himself for saving The Conny from the scrapyard.
Knapp first set eyes on the legendary launch nearly 50 years ago when he was a student at the UW and a former coxswain who had transitioned to team manager for the crew. Part of Knapp’s job was maintaining a newer coach’s launch built in the 1950s and called “Husky II.”
One day in 1975, the Husky II needed some parts for a minor repair. Crew coach Dick Erickson had an idea about how Kirk could get the parts he needed: by visiting a fenced in, outdoor storage area not far from where the UW driving range now stands.
“’That’s where Conny is, and there might be some stuff on that,’” Knapp says Coach Erickson told him.
“And I went over,” Knapp said. “Here was this boat lying in the dirt with a big hole in the side. And at that point, she’d been out in the rain and sleet and snow (and) exposed for five years.”
What Knapp soon learned was that back in 1971, a pair of UW rowers and their dates had taken The Conny out for an unauthorized pleasure cruise on Lake Washington. Near Madrona, they collided with another boat and The Conny was almost cut in half. There were injuries, and the two rowers who had commandeered The Conny got into serious trouble, according to Kirk Knapp.
Meanwhile, the wounded Conny – or what was left of the launch – was towed back to Montlake and then ultimately stuck away in the storage yard where Kirk Knapp first saw her.
Something about seeing that old wreck – some hard to define feeling that perhaps only lovers of history or owner/lovers of wooden boats can fully understand – really grabbed ahold of Kirk Knapp and didn’t let go.
Knapp was truly smitten. Before long, Knapp became a persistent advocate dedicated to convincing the powers that be that he was the guy to save The Conny. He credits multiple 29-hour drives steering a truck and trailer carrying racing shells between Seattle and crew races in San Diego – and 29-hour drives back home – where he often got to bend the ear of Coach Erickson about the possibilities.
This one-man maritime salvation – and salvage – campaign went on for months. Finally, the red tape was cut, and Kirk Knapp was given the green light to come and collect the remains of The Conny. Only, it had to happen on Saturday, or the once glorious pile of wood was headed to the dump.
All Knapp had was his trusty Toyota Landcruiser and a woefully tiny trailer.
“I took a bunch of three-inch pipe and made an a-frame for the front of my jeep with a winch, so I could pick it up,” Knapp explained. “And I had a little 14-foot trailer for hauling my Sunfish (sailboat) around. I took that little trailer and stretched it out with a bunch of three-inch pipe and made it 30 feet long.”
“And on that Saturday,” Knapp said, “we were in the yard and loaded it up and got out of there.”
Knapp didn’t have a garage or a workshop or any other covered storage lined up for The Conny. So, at his rental house in the U-District, he tore down the fence in the alley for access, and then stuck the world-famous coach’s launch right there in the residential backyard near I-5.
At that house and the next rental that Knapp (and the boat) lived in, nobody was the wiser.
“I was always pretty good at hiding it,” Knapp said, relishing the memory of concealing 28 feet of Northwest, Olympics and world history. “I don’t think my landlords ever knew it was there, in either place.”
And so began a decades-long odyssey from those rental properties, to his eventual home in Arlington in 1990, and then to a boat restorer in Whatcom County in 1996. Along the way, Kirk Knapp stumbled across what’s believed to be the original engine, and he acquired that, too. Finally, in 1998, the restored Conny was launched on Lake Whatcom. The historic vessel has been a fixture ever since at special events with the UW crew, including regattas and opening day of boating season.
Eric Cohen is a former UW rower and is the official historian of both the men’s and women’s program. He’s written extensively on more than a century of rowing at the UW, and his research on the 1936 team was a key source of information for “Boys in the Boat” author Dan Brown.
Eric Cohen says one thing is very clear: saving The Conny was simply meant to be.
“All of these things are very serendipitous, but they all happen for a reason,” Cohen said. “And I think Kirk and I would agree that it has to do with the magic of the program and the community – the Seattle community has always been there to support us.”
“Everything he’s saying here just reminds me of that Seattle community,” Cohen said. “That engine was saved, you know. And the boat – they knew not to throw that away for some reason.”
“They could have easily hauled that off to the dump,” Cohen continued, getting more excited. “It didn’t go to the dump.”
And the actual The Conny also didn’t go to England for filming of the recent movie. The movie boat is different, as it only has a single cockpit. Kirk Knapp says it apparently is a vintage boat the producers found at a boat rental in England and then had painted to look as close to The Conny as possible.
When he saw the faux Conny on screen, Knapp says he bit his tongue rather than point out the inconsistencies. He also said he had offered to fly the real Conny to the UK along with himself as technical advisor – at the producer’s expense, of course. They did not take him up on his generous offer.
As to why Kirk Knapp went on this decades-long odyssey to save The Conny, why he continues to invest time and expense to maintain it, and why he worries about what will become of it someday when he’s gone?
Well, perhaps that’s just a silly question.
“For me, it’s just . . . it’s love,” Knapp said. “I mean, I love that boat. I don’t know how to answer it any other way.”
IF YOU GO
The Seattle Boat Show at Lumen Field is a local institution. It kicks off this Friday, February 2 and runs through the following Saturday, February 10. The UW rowing history panel will be held this Sunday, February 4 at 1:00 p.m.; The Conny will be on display for the entire run of the show.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.