The Great Outdoors
Sixty years after its heyday, the sport of rowing again makes a splash on the river.
The Great Outdoors:
Rowing On The
Joining the Crew
For more than 50 years, the Hudson was the site of the nation’s most prestigious rowing race. Today, the sport of crew is once again making a big splash on the river
By Mary Forsell
It’s a sight that competes with the sunrise. A skinny, 60-foot-long dolphin-nose boat glides under the Mid-Hudson Bridge; it is filled with eight rowers who sit mere inches off the water and lift their oars in unison.
Peer through the early morning mist rising off the river, and you’ll see a motley crew: people ranging in age from 12 to 70 working together to keep their shell on course. Teachers, lawyers, psychologists, policemen, fishermen, retirees — they’re all in the same boat.
“What a nice group of people,” says Sue Tallardy, a director of a nonmedical detox facility who came to rowing after cheering on her son in high school crew. “Sometimes I’ve found that, when you go into a sport, there’s cattiness. But here everyone’s so welcoming and helpful.” One of 240 members of the 10-year-old Hudson River Rowing Association (HRRA), Tallardy has been rowing for only a year, but has already competed in regional regattas.
“About 70 percent of our new adult members are women who have never rowed before,” says Program Director Tracy Mauer, one of HRRA’s founding members. “Many of them are looking for something new as their children get older.” One HRRA member learned to row at age 55, and by 58 had earned a gold medal at the 2006 World Rowing Championships of the International Rowing Federation.
Mauer estimates that in spring, there are 650 rowers embarking from the Hudson River Community Boathouse, just north of the Poughkeepsie train station. Built by HRRA in 2006, the boathouse has reinvigorated rowing on the Hudson. It’s a place to socialize, practice indoors in water-filled “tanks,” shower after a long stint on the river, even take a Row-Ga class (which splices yoga and Pilates) to increase flexibility.
“We provide one of the few ways people can get out on the river without owning their own boat,” says Mauer, who cites the Hudson’s improved water quality as another draw. Beginners can get their feet wet at a free monthly Learn to Row clinic — held both indoors and on the water (an extra session is scheduled for this June 7 to celebrate National Learn to Row Day). Others can pursue the sport through an indoor rowing league, or join a team suited to their level of expertise. The association also runs a four-week program every April called “We Can Row,” for women who are dealing with cancer in their lives.
But rowing is not just for people who are navigating midlife or other crises. Visit the boathouse on a Saturday morning, and it’s bustling with high school kids. “Fifteen years ago, there were three high school programs in Dutchess County. Now there are seven,” says Mauer. Her husband, Andy, is HRRA president and coaches varsity boys crew at
Rich Humphrey, coach of Rhinebeck Crew, remembers life before the boathouse, when the team would have to wade into the frigid waters off Norrie Point in Staatsburg every March. “The water temperatures were 38/40 degrees. But the kids never really complained about it,” he says. (Now, they practice indoors until spring.) Humphrey has seen an increase in team members from 22 last year to 34 this year, with an equal distribution of boys and girls. “Girls are gravitating more and more to this sport,” he says.
“There are many opportunities for college recruitment.” Women’s varsity rowing for schools in the NCAA has grown from 74 programs in 1997 to more than 140 today, according to Brett Johnson, communications director of USRowing, the national governing body for the sport. “Masters” rowing (ages 21 and up) is picking up momentum as well.
This July 19, HRRA will hold its own competition. The Race Between the Bridges, in which rowers will travel between the Mid-Hudson and Kingston-Rhinecliff bridges, is set to coincide with the Mid-Hudson Balloon Festival. In a sense, the race revives the fanfare of the fabled Poughkeepsie Regatta, a collegiate race which was held annually from 1895 to 1949.
“It was a big deal, with as many as 100,000 people descending on Poughkeepsie,” says John Ansley, head of archives and special collections at Marist College. Ansley describes picnickers by the thousands and a flatbed train on the west side of the river equipped with “rolling bleachers” for spectators.
In 1950, after the regatta moved to the calmer waters of a lake in Ohio, the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association (MHRA) was founded to promote high school crew. Over time, the club shifted its focus to adult rowing and (specifically) sculling. In sculling, rowers hold one oar in each hand; it is done in singles, doubles, and quads. By contrast, in sweep rowing, each rower holds a single oar with both hands; it is done in eights, fours, or pairs (the latter two configurations can row either with or without a coxswain to steer and coach). A 60-member organization, the MHRA also operates out of the community boathouse, and offers coaching and clinics for both rowing and sculling.
Members are demographically diverse. “We have college students who want to row over the summer when school is out,” says MHRA member Candy Davies. “Several couples with young children are involved, but they tend to take turns. There aren’t a lot of babysitters at 5:30 in the morning.”
Fifty miles to the south, in a parallel universe, the River Rowing Association also specializes in sculling, but in the broader, windier waters around the Tappan Zee Bridge. Founded in 2003, the club promotes high school sculling, drawing teams from New Jersey and elsewhere. “Our program grows every year,” says Director Ivan Rudolph-Shabinsky, who took up the sport again after a 20-year hiatus from his days as a rower for Cornell. “This fall, we’ll probably have 60 or 70 kids.” (About 15 adults are involved as well.) With no boathouse to call its own, the group stores its craft in a parking lot; they train on the tanks at Nyack Beach State Park and sometimes at West Point during the winter.
Not having a boathouse doesn’t stop the Rondout Rowing Club (RRC) from getting on the water daily from spring through fall. The 40-member group stores its boats at Kingston’s Hudson River Maritime Museum, walking the eight-station behemoths through the waterfront district as amazed restaurant patrons look on. “Most people ask a lot of questions,” says member Dan Ginder. “They want to get involved.” One of the club’s advantages is its location. They can venture onto the Hudson when conditions are right, but also get more rowing hours on the nearby Rondout Creek when rough water makes the river unnavigable.
RRC supports the Kingston High School Crew Club and supplies its boats. For adults, there’s a learn-to-row program. Ginder, a 50-year-old consultant and ski instructor, enjoys the easygoing style of the group. “I can send out an E-mail and find someone to go out on the water that afternoon,” he says. Organized events include the annual distance row, in which RRC members meet the MHRA at Norrie Point for brunch and then row home.
Ginder sums up rowing’s appeal: “You can get a cardio workout without breaking or hurting anything. Plus, you’ll catch a gorgeous sunrise or harvest moon rise, see the eaglets overhead, the fish jumping out of the water — and you’re in great company.”