ROWING the Heirloom Sport

By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Jarrod McCabe

What if you could give your children the gift of health, a calm mind, a connection with the environment, leadership, responsibility, and A lifelong passion? What if you could teach them how to row?


There are alligators in the Androscoggin, but the guys can’t wait to get in the water. “Alligator coming!” one of them shouts as the three men advance down the pontoon and ease a 45-foot racing shell off their shoulders onto the dark, glassy river just an inch below the edge of the float. The boat’s hull is thinner than a pencil. The alligator, a dark mass gliding toward us, knocks and scrapes against the dock. One of the guys bends over and directs the submerged log on its way. It’s the final day of winter—a perilous time to row.

Last fall, on November 11, when the guys put up their shells for a season spent on cross-country skiis and rowing machines, they placed bets on when they’d hit the water again. Bill Heinz and Mike Totta, doctors at Orthopedic Associates, and their friend Peter LeBourdais, a dentist—wrote down different dates in May. Today is March 20 and it’s beautiful, but the water is cold. “If you go in, you have ten minutes before your body begins to seize up,” says LeBourdais, who speaks from experience. “You don’t want to flip.” And they don’t. LeBourdais and Heinz leave the dock in a double—a two-person shell with four sculling oars, outriggers that provide a pivot point, and the characteristic sliding seats and foot stretchers (complete with shoes) that further differentiate the racing shells from other watercraft. Their voices carry across the water and mix with the honks of geese even as they disappear around an island. From the dock, the boats look stable, but that’s an illusion. “It’s like being a tightrope walker with a pole,” Totta says. “The oars help you balance. Without them, you flip right over.”

When they return to the boathouse, LeBourdais and Heinz hug each other with hearty thumps. They’ll have an extra month of rowing this year and they’re excited. Nine years ago, these three guys, along with about twenty other rowers, kept their boats in a Quonset hut further up the river near downtown Brunswick, on land that their group, the Merrymeeting Rowing Club, rented from the town. But when a storm destroyed the building and a town selectman took issue with a private group using public land, the club fell apart. That’s when the band of rowers decided to do something everyone says friends should never do: They invested in real estate together. They bought 20 acres in Brunswick off Old Bath Road and, with a fourth investor, developed it into a neighborhood of saleable lots. Their motivation made it work: “We thought, ‘If we can make this worthwhile, we could end up with a boathouse—free,’” says LeBourdais. “It worked perfectly because we were in it for the rowing, not the real estate.” They built one house to rent out, designed on top of a walk-out basement with 14-foot ceilings—high enough that you can carry
12-foot long oars in hand—facing the river.

On the boathouse wall most of the oar blades are green flags with white diagonals—the emblem of the Maine Rowing Association. But one hatchet face shows an L, for Laura. The pair of oars was painted by LeBourdais’s daughter. The guys have all taught their kids—seven among them—how to row.

 

Unlike Europeans, who have rowing clubs in many of their towns, most Americans don’t have a cultural experience with the sport, except in small pockets with ideal conditions and, often, colleges or private schools. Rowing—the kind that’s also referred to as “crew”—is hard in Maine. The ideal conditions are long, flat stretches of water, without strong currents or motorboat wake. And, preferably, the water is fresh. Anywhere on the ocean and you have to contend not only with corrosive salt, wind, and waves but also with tides. Then there’s the fact that the boats must be stored: they’re so long that you need a special trailer to transport them. The cost of all of this, and the boats themselves, adds up.

But no one has ever rowed because it’s easy. Every competitive oarsman talks about will—testing your will, and taking yourself beyond a physical breaking point, sometimes without even understanding how you’ve done it. They’ll also tell you that the experience will make you a convert. The people that row around here have seen the light for different reasons. One had too many close calls with cars while cycling. Another was too small to make the college crew team but held on to the belief that they could do it. Some high-schoolers who lacked coordination or speed for other sports got in a boat and had a revelation—they were athletes after all. A few never gave it up even when the going got tough. Others turned away from rowing, only to return to it later in life.

Rowers are devout athletes. And their quest for the perfect stroke and synchronization can be spiritual—but it is also hard science: muscle, max, and physics. Rowers then, marry religious dedication with physical endurance, producing a singular kind of faith practiced under the temple of the sky. They row with bending knees, genuflecting to the heavens, the fleeting imprint of their effort dissolving behind them in the gathering distance. It is an unusually graceful sport.



In the three-story light-filled atrium at the heart of the Waynflete campus in Portland, there’s a loud wooshing sound—like thousands of pounds of sand pouring through pipes. The Waynflete crew team is on their “torture devices,”also known as ergometers or ergs: stationary rowing machines. They are in four-man relay teams, racing each other to 10,000 meters. Of the rowers: Some have the look of placid detachment, others distort their faces with snarls; some are silent, some grunt. Of their teammates: They all lean in, tapping the screen that ticks off the strokes and distance, shouting encouragement, standing on the treads so that the machine doesn’t rock on the floor as the kids pull their hearts out.


“It’s something that gets in your blood,” says C.C. Stockly, Yarmouth Rowing Club member and a coach for the only two high school rowing teams in Maine—Yarmouth and Waynflete (the Hyde School was forced to cut their program due to lack of funding last year). “I gave it up for 25 years. Then I was visiting my brother at the Head of the Charles Regatta and I saw a very tall lean man standing on the dock in a Yarmouth Rowing Club jacket. I went up to him and said, ‘Are you from Maine? Where-how-when can I do this?’”

Stockly returned to crew and rowed in the regatta the following year. Two of her three children, who were entering high school, Savannah and Walker, then began to row. Stockly volunteered to coach at the fledgling Waynflete School program that had been started due to student demand around 2004. “I had to teach my husband or we were never going to see each other again,” she says. “A year and a half after he started, he rowed in the Head of the Charles. It’s something you can take up later in life with great success. In the Beijing Olympics there were four athletes from Maine. Three were rowers and two of them—Anna Goodale and Elle Logan—won gold medals. Anna hadn’t even rowed in high school.”

This year, the Waynflete and Yarmouth teams both have 36 kids. For Yarmouth that’s nearly 10 percent of the high school and for Waynflete it’s 15. “Kids want to row,” says Stockly, even when no one in their family has ever tried. Stockly described it to one inquiring mom as, “Synchronized Nordic skate skiing—if you were to tie everyone together.” It’s difficult to describe because it’s difficult to name another sport that requires such sustained extertion—“VO2 max”—along with rhythm and balance.

Stockly and Amy Smith, the guiding spirit of Yarmouth crew and one of several other volunteer coaches, both agree that part of what makes crew so appealing for kids is that the learning curve is steep—the results are dramatic. Unlike someone who tries out for the lacrosse team only to stick out among kids who have been playing for years; with a little bit of perseverance, novices can blend into the four-man boats. And with that focus and physical discipline comes philosophy: kids don’t just learn about the sport, they also learn water safety, tides, and basic mechanics. The boats involve many moving parts, which the rowers are responsible for rigging and maintaining. “With computers and iPods and all the rest, some kids have never held a wrench in their lives,” says Smith, “It’s a very tangible sport. If you don’t tighten an oarlock properly, you can end up flipping.”

It’s also a sport where there’s never a star. “It’s all about teamwork,” Smith says. “The whole goal is to be exactly like everybody else in your boat. I can’t think of another sport like that.” If a kid doesn’t show up for practice, his teammates can’t row, so there’s an element of accountability. It’s also coed. And when it comes to coxswains—the fifth person in some boats, the person that steersand shouts commands­­—there are more life lessons. Smith says, “You’ll get a little freshman girl telling four big senior boys, ‘I’m in charge, you listen to me, because it’s for everybody’s good.’ It’s a great dynamic.”

For the coaches, it’s gratifying to feel that they’re offering something unique. “With our first team of 21 kids, I would say 15 of them wouldn’t have done a sport otherwise,” Smith says. “We’re filling a need nobody knew was there.” She’s also started to help train a crop of parents. Sometimes the Yarmouth team goes out in family boats—including Smith, her daughter Emily, Emily’s boyfriend (whom she met through crew), and his mother. The parents are now good friends.

 

Back in Brunswick, Totta and his 17-year-old daughter Ali are out in a double, sculling on the Androscoggin in the bright light of winter’s dying day. Even from the dock you might guess that they’re related. Their movements are fluid. It is the kind of physical understanding that comes from a lifetime’s choreography of movement, the harmony you hear when sisters sing, and that particular kind of grace—the kind that comes from rowing.


rowmaine.org | rowportland.org | yarmouthrowingclub.com

 

ECHO ROWING

The boathouse in Kittery Point (above) is part of the legacy left by Arthur Martin, “the father of recreational rowing.” Martin, who passed away in 1990, developed the Alden Ocean Shell in 1971, bringing the sliding seat of racing shells into a stable, open-water boat capable of negotiating swells and wakes.

Racing shells used for crew are designed for going as fast as possible for a short distance across flat water. Before the seventies, most shells were made of wood and were too fragile for the combination of salt spray and rough waves found on the ocean. Martin, who had grown up rowing in all types of boats, from his first, the Barnacle (shown above with a very young Martin inside and today in front of a red Echo Rowing shell) to dories, peapods, and collegiate racing shells, was inspired to combine the best of both worlds. He put a drop-in sliding seat into his own fiberglass kayak designs, and the idea for the Alden was born. Martin created a recreational open-water shell that is shorter, wider, and therefore more stable than a racing shell but still utilizes a sliding seat, long oars, and the stroke technique. The Aldens were built exclusively by Ted Perry, the founder of East-West Custom Boats in Eliot and the husband of Martin’s daughter, Lorna Martin Perry.

In 2003, the Perrys, along with Lorna’s brother Doug Martin, founded Echo Rowing in Eliot to continue the family legacy of innovative, accessible rowing craft. The Echo boats are portable (they fit on a car) and can launch from any beach or dock. Racing shell rowers refer to them as the “mountain bikes of the rowing world,” as virtually anyone can hop in and learn the stroke technique on any body of water without the complication of instability that comes with racing shells.

Now in their 60s, the Perrys continue to row from the boathouse on Chauncey Creek, out through the Piscataquis and on to the ocean. “Rowing enhances the inner and outer connection,” Lorna says. “Nothing else compares.”


The boathouse in Kittery Point (above) is part of the legacy left by Arthur Martin, “the father of recreational rowing.” Martin, who passed away in 1990, developed the Alden Ocean Shell in 1971, bringing the sliding seat of racing shells into a stable, open-water boat capable of negotiating swells and wakes.

Racing shells used for crew are designed for going as fast as possible for a short distance across flat water. Before the seventies, most shells were made of wood and were too fragile for the combination of salt spray and rough waves found on the ocean. Martin, who had grown up rowing in all types of boats, from his first, the Barnacle (shown above with a very young Martin inside and today in front of a red Echo Rowing shell) to dories, peapods, and collegiate racing shells, was inspired to combine the best of both worlds. He put a drop-in sliding seat into his own fiberglass kayak designs, and the idea for the Alden was born. Martin created a recreational open-water shell that is shorter, wider, and therefore more stable than a racing shell but still utilizes a sliding seat, long oars, and the stroke technique. The Aldens were built exclusively by Ted Perry, the founder of East-West Custom Boats in Eliot and the husband of Martin’s daughter, Lorna Martin Perry.

In 2003, the Perrys, along with Lorna’s brother Doug Martin, founded Echo Rowing in Eliot to continue the family legacy of innovative, accessible rowing craft. The Echo boats are portable (they fit on a car) and can launch from any beach or dock. Racing shell rowers refer to them as the “mountain bikes of the rowing world,” as virtually anyone can hop in and learn the stroke technique on any body of water without the complication of instability that comes with racing shells.

Now in their 60s, the Perrys continue to
row from the boathouse on Chauncey Creek, out through the Piscataquis and on to the ocean. “Rowing enhances the inner and outer connection,” Lorna says. “Nothing
else compares.”


echorowing.com

 

VOICES OFF THE WATER

Dr. Geoffrey Gratwick, 66 | Bangor

Lifetime oarsman, rowed bow in the Harvard eight featured on a 1964 Sports Illustrated cover as “The World’s Best Crew”

I still love to row and do so nearly every day. It is the ultimate carryover sport from youth: you can do it at any age, at any stage of conditioning, with any kind of boat. Sometimes I am very competitive and inhabit a Walter Mitty world of athletic glory while other times I ghost along with loons, sunshine, and quiet thoughts. My grandfather who graduated from Harvard in 1900 occasionally rows beside me in spirit; at other times it is my nephew who was in the U.S. Olympic eight in Barcelona in 1994. We work well together.

I still search for the perfect stroke. I am 66 now and I have taken many of them since I was young. I remember five that were really good—my boat picked itself up and flew effortlessly without my even having to be there. I am looking forward to continuing the quest for yet another epiphany this spring.



Emily Smith, 19 | Yarmouth
Student founder, Yarmouth Youth rowing program

I first witnessed this unique sport watching my mom maneuver a single through the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. Watching the boats glide past, I was struck the the beauty and collaboration of the sport and I left eager to discover more. I found us a one-week rowing camp—in Italy—for the same price as my usual Y Camp. My mom and I learned the nuances of form and concentration from a stereotypical, large Italian man who spoke little English yet instilled in me a passion for rowing. We went to Florence and got to use the facilities and boats at the Florence Rowing Club. We rowed the Arno River to catcalls and curious gazes, then relaxed on the club lawn as we watched the 9-year-old beginners take their first strokes. Rowing is not only personally rewarding, it’s a pastime that can guide you throughout your life.

 

Gil Birney, 60 | North Yarmouth
Lifetime rower, Bowdoin College Crew coach

Crew is often called the ultimate team sport—the friendships that develop from the shared training and discipline are wonderful. That, and the characters the sport attracts and the beauty of the river are what make it so much fun. One beautiful still morning about two miles out on the New Meadows River, I was coaching a couple of boats when we were surprised by a pod of porpoises. We often have seals and eagles, but this was quite unusual. I stopped the practice and we all just enjoyed the antics of these creatures as they rose and dove all around us for about five minutes, then went on their way.


Hallie Gilman, 37 | Portland
Former collegiate rower and former coach for Radcliffe Crew, founding member of the Portland Community Rowing Association

Before attending law school, I coached and competed with some of the finest crews in the country, but I only started rowing because I was tall and awkward and someone told me crew was a way to get out of the humiliating freshman athletics program at my high school. Admittedly, rowing has a reputation as a refuge for kids who can’t throw or catch, and not without some basis: is there any other sport where you sit and go backwards? Still, it’s a sport where the hardest workers get the best results. Rowing is part lactic acid tolerance, part basic physics lesson and part mystical adventure: leaving shore, usually in near silence as the sun rises or sets, trying to achieve a kind of weightlessness. When my husband and I moved to Portland, we thought: “Cool city! Water everywhere! Where’s the rowing?” With some friends, we started the Portland Community Rowing Association with donated equipment, handmade racks, and the goal of making competitive rowing a real option for kids and adults in our new town.

 

Julia Pope, 18 | Cumberland
Rowing for three years, stroke seat for Waynflete girls four

No one in my family had been a part of crew, but I like being on the water and I liked that rowing is a lifetime sport. Joining our team seemed like a good opportunity. I’ve done a lot of competitive team sports like soccer and basketball, but what I like about crew is that you identify with one boat and one coach—a very small group of people that you always go out on the water with. Crew focuses you acutely. It is a huge dedication sport. You can’t get 800 meters through a race and say, “Well, there are three other girls pulling—whatever.” If you let one corner down it all falls apart. Your motivation has to come from an internal place because sometimes you have to mentally will yourself to keep going— it’s like life. And it stays with you.


Stu Miller, 62 | Falmouth
Began rowing as a “plebe” at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1966, treasurer and organizer for the Maine Rowing Association

A whole lot of years ago, I met a woman at a social event on a Saturday night in February, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Much later in the evening, evening I decided that this woman needed to really understand me, so I asked her on a short ride to the lakeshore. We drove down to the local college boathouse and I got out of the truck, unlocked the doors, turned on the lights, and invited her into the building. She waded though about two feet of snow, came through the door and looked around. I pointed up to the ceiling where she could see two rowing shells hung from the rafters, and said, “If you really want to date me, you have to understand that those are my passion.” Her response: “We’ll see about that.” Several months after, I took her to Craftsbury Sculling Camp for a week of lessons. We began rowing together, and a few months later, we married. She knows the joy, and knows that I love the joy, of another beautiful day on the water.