LONGBOAT KEY -- Thanks to Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park and Manatee’s Fort Hamer, the sport of rowing has become a top priority for southwest Florida.
But a good 15 years before rowing promised to be an economic and tourism boon for the area, a Longboat Key resident was sharing his passion for the activity worldwide.
For Urs Wunnerli, 70, who lives on Tidy Island in Longboat Key, rowing is one of his top two priorities in life, second only to “making life as easy as possible for my wife (Renee).”
Wunnerli became devoted to the sport in 1997 after spotting a Virus Yole boat during a trip to his home country of Switzerland. He and his wife, newlyweds at the time, learned to row together just off of Longboat Key’s town beach.
Six months later, the Wunnerlis sold their first boat to a friend who also became captivated by the sport. The couple spent a few weeks touring the home base of Virus boats in Brittany, France, and quickly became the sole correspondent for Virus boats throughout all of North America.
Urs Wunnerli, who moved to the United States from Switzerland in 1976, also began manufacturing boat shells in Manatee County and offering private rowing lessons. He is now known throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties as the area’s most avid rowing advocate.
“All that man does is reach out and make contact with people about rowing,” says Dave Gustafson, executive director of Bradenton’s Downtown Development Authority and formerly Manatee County’s key planner on behalf of rowing.
Gustafson has also experienced Wunnerli’s passion personally: he and his 11-year-old son, Ian, have taken rowing lessons from Wunnerli.
“He’s a great ambassador for rowing,” Gustafson says. “He offers his time at no cost to help expand rowing in our community and really around the United States. He and his wife have jumped in their car and traveled throughout all 50 states to promote the sport.”
Bob Whitford, park manager at Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park, also praises Wunnerli’s rowing ambassador role and says Wunnerli has contributed advice and planning help as part of the park’s Regatta Organizing Committee.
“Urs has got a great personality, he’s just pleasant to be around, and he’s very passionate about rowing,” Whitford says. “He promotes it, he lives it, he breathes it.”
Wunnerli, a former advertising salesperson for a worldwide publishing company, is constantly reciting what he describes as the joys and benefits of rowing. For starters, he says, it’s great exercise, providing top aerobic benefit and pressing its participants to make use of leg power.
“Eighty percent of rowing is about the legs,” he says. “The arms are used primarily for steering.”
Rowing also forces a person to “be able to examine their past,” Wunnerli says, because rowers are positioned to see where they’ve been rather than where they’re headed.
And Wunnerli says rowing is a great facilitator of relationships.
“Marriages, friendships and partnerships stay healthy longer when people understand how to row together,” Wunnerli says.
He provides private lessons for $75 and promises that a few hours with him in a boat will prepare anyone to row.
Since becoming the North American correspondent for Virus, Wunnerli has sold a total of 600 boats throughout the United States and Canada, about 50 in Latin America and a handful in China. He averages about 60 to 100 sales per year of the Yole, which Wunnerli describes as “untippable” and therefore the perfect boat for beginners.
He sells another 25 to 30 each year of the SuperSkiff, which has the benefit of adjustable riggers and seats that can accommodate people of any size or weight.
Wunnerli is amazed and excited at how the area’s attitude toward rowing has evolved over the past decade. “If I would have gone to a county commissioner five years ago and talked to him or her about rowing, they would have said, ‘Huh? How do you spell it?’”
By contrast, Wunnerli says, today rowing holds so much local potential that he jokingly refers to himself as “E.I. Urs,” which stands for “Economic Impact.”
He continues to row almost daily and says his favorite pastime is to row from his Tidy Island home across the Intercoastal Waterway to Mar Vista, stop in for a drink, enjoy the water and then row home.
“You can’t get any better than that.”