The Textile River Regatta

The Textile River Regatta
October 2, 2016
A Spectator’s Guide to Rowing – By Bob Checkoway
Edited for Fall Season by Chris Coughlan 

Here’s an introduction for parents and friends not yet familiar with rowing — something to read during breaks in the racing Sunday.

Rowing is America’s oldest college sport and in the last half of the 19th Century was one of the first professional team sports, but professional races became troubled by gambling, fix allegations and riots, and lost popular following to baseball and the other modern professional sports. The sport was kept alive at the colleges and private schools, which had developed programs and built boathouses by about 1900, and they continued to supply American crews for the modern Olympics which began about the same time, but its growth was limited until later in the century.

Even with that limited foundation, American crews won the Olympic Eight without interruption from 1920 until losing to West Germany in 1960. The US won in 1964 but not again for nearly 50 years, and during that period the US Olympic Committee instituted a national development program and clubs and schools around the country began to bring more people into the sport. Between men’s and women’s events, and the different boat designs, rowing now has 14 Olympic events.

(Daniel Brown’s best-selling book “The Boys in the Boat” about the 1936 Olympic crew from the University of Washington will be followed later this summer by a movie, “The Boys of ’36.”)

Title IX of the 1972 civil rights law required schools and colleges to provide equal athletic opportunities to both sexes and many colleges inaugurated rowing programs; schools which formed new women’s varsity teams often made it easier for men to form new club teams. In bigger cities community groups started offering rowing to youths in public school systems, and many public school groups formed youth crews like ours, allied with an existing facility serving older “masters” rowers who became youth coaches. The sport has grown exponentially nationwide and women’s rowing is the fastest-growing collegiate sport in America.

Yarmouth’s was the first youth program in Maine for public school students but newer clubs in Portland, Brunswick and Camden (Megunticook RC) are developing junior programs, in addition to private schools Berwick Academy and Waynflete School — although none of those crews has entered this race. All Maine youth programs except Berwick Academy are open to students from other local schools.

There are two main types of rowing shells and oars: Sweeps, where each rower handles one
12-foot oar with both hands, and sculls, where each holds a 9-foot oar in each hand.

Following the Olympic designs and classes, races are held for 8, 4 and 2-person sweep boats and 4, 2 and one-person sculling boats. Programs often abbreviate boat classes with the number of seats and either “X” for sculling, “+” for a coxed sweep boat and “-” for an sweep boat without cox — so, for example, “4+” is a coxed four while “2X” is a double scull.

Yarmouth youth crews ordinarily race only coxed sweep fours, “4+,” although they sometimes borrow an 8-oared shell for beginners and spring races, and a few students have pioneered single and double sculling boats.

Modern boats are made of specialty cored fiberglass or carbon fiber and, like the carbon fiber oars, are the same general designs used in Olympic and other competition. Eights are about 55 feet long and weigh about 200 pounds (rigged); Fours run about 42 feet and 120 pounds. All Eights and the Fours used by our youth crews are coxed from the stern while some other Fours use a “bow-loaded,” recumbent cox; some think the bow-loaded design trims better while others prefer the conventional stern tiller because it allows the cox to see and manage the rowers.

At Lowell separate events are held for the different types of boats by gender, with separate races for Novices in their first year of competition. There is only one event for Junior Girls 4’s and so our two girls’ crews are now designated “A” and “B” and will race in the same race. The boys are all still in their first year of rowing and therefore qualify for the novice race.

Language problem: The US Rowing Association uses the word “junior” to describe all athletes between 14 and 18 years of age, so a boys first boat, for example, is called a “Men’s Junior 1st Varsity” — the term “junior” modifying men rather than varsity. Second Varsity boat events are designated Men’s or Women’s Junior 2d Varsity.

Very few public schools in New England operate their own crews with public financing, although many are recognized as varsity sports. Almost all are “501(c)” tax-exempt organizations funded entirely by participation fees and gifts with no direct taxpayer support. Most, like Yarmouth, operate in conjunction with masters clubs, and many combine students from more than one school or draw from an entire metropolitan area.

In NH, Concord HS has been rowing long enough that its 100-strong crew has its own boathouse and pre-season training in South Carolina. Bedford has 100 students and Manchester (Central Crew) another 60, both rowing at the Amoskeag Boat Club in Hooksett, a community organization on public land which hosts several public and private schools. Great Bay Rowing is closest to ours geographically and serves a combined population of students and masters from Seacoast NH at a boathouse shared with the University of NH crews on the Oyster River in Durham. 120 students in the Hanover NH area row from the Upper Valley club and the Dartmouth boathouse, although they are not sending team boats to this regatta.

Massachusetts crews include single-school teams like centuries-old magnet school Boston Latin, teams from consolidated schools and some from two or more schools which combine only for rowing, and broader all-ages clubs like Cambridge Boat Club, Community Rowing, Inc., Essex Rowing and Greater Lawrence. Worcester Public HS draws from all seven schools in that system, with community non-profit support. Other community-based or combined school crews include Bromfield-Acton-Boxborough, Wayland-Weston, Westford Littleton, Pioneer Valley (Springfield) and Northampton. Community Rowing Inc, (CRI), originally formed as a popular foil to the old-time private clubs and schools in greater Boston, is now one of the largest rowing clubs in the country with over 1,000 members and an eight-figure budget. Its youth program serves students enrolled at schools without their own programs and also acts as something of a “superclub” or advanced program for students throughout the region; expect a strong showing from all of their crews. 

Similar clubs in CT are represented by Riverfront Recapture from Hartford, Saugatuck from Westport and Norwalk River, while Narragansett includes youth crews from all over RI.  New additions this year include “Row America” clubs from Greenwich and Rye NY and Manchester NH; these are novel combinations of community non-profit groups with support from CT-based equipment manufacturer WinTech.

This regatta is a one-day event and medals will be given to the top 3 finishers in each event.

As you might imagine from this, competitive rowing is not structured like other scholastic sports and there are no classifications by size of school or program — just about anyone can race anyone else at regattas — and some of the crews you will see at the Textile are all-stars including students from more than one school. Yarmouth is at some disadvantage from both a slightly later start on the water than most and limited availability due to tides as well as a relatively very small population base, offset by growing experience in the varsity crews, intensive early-season land-based conditioning, high-quality administration and coaching and good, dedicated attitudes among the students.

Rowing is a better sport for participants than for spectators. In the fall racing season, crews will cover distances of 3 miles or so in “head” races. It is a race against the clock as each crew is called into a starting “chute” according to bow number and brought up to “race pace” by the officials before the hull crosses the start line. There are no lanes and the best course is simply the shortest path down the river. The course has a number of tight turns as it follows the river downstream. The coxswain’s steering can play a big role in the final time. For example, taking the turns “wide” can add up to 10-15 strokes per turn to an already lengthy race. Wind and current can also be a factor in pushing crews wide or off course. Passing can happen as faster crews overtake slower crews. The overtaking crew has the right of way and the crew being overtaken must yield their line to the faster crew. Good sportsmanship is essential and refusal to yield to a passing crew – or interfering with another crew – can lead to time penalties or disqualification. Strategy and timing of passes has to be well considered to maximize the crew’s endurance over the 3 miles. The best crews use other competitors to “push” them, either in an attempt to catch and pass a crew or hold off a boat that starts behind them. It can make for some exciting racing as the crews jockey for the best line down the course.

The crews will pass by the viewing area quickly, with crews on the far side several hundred yards from the viewing areas. Although the crews wear uniforms and the oar blades are painted with individual designs, even those can be hard to identify until the boats are well down the course. (Binoculars are helpful.) You won’t be able to take photos of crews during their races without a serious telephoto lens, although professionals will post theirs for sale on-line later in the week — or check the Facebook page for “Yarmouth Youth Crew.” If you want to take your own with less advanced equipment, try the launching and landing areas where you can get closer to your subjects. Or the bridge! Great candid photos can also be taken as the crews return to the dock in the travel lane. They will pass right by the wall very close to our tent area.

Even novice crews will mostly be able to move together without getting tangled up in their own oars but if you look closely you’ll see that some crews just look sharper than others and a few will give a clear impression of unity, power and speed even across several lanes of open water. The differences between crews in timing as rowers slide fore and aft, the angles formed by the oars and the amount of splash coming off them will run a wide range between the loose association of a country line dance and the precision of a military drill team. The really good crews will all square and feather their blades and enter and exit the water at exactly the same time, carry the feathered oars at the same height above the water and splash only a few drops of water with the entry and none on exiting the water — no plumes on entering the water or cascades of scooped-up water at the exit. Less experienced crews may struggle with “crabs,” the term given to the hydrodynamic force which occurs when a stroke is taken without fully squaring the blade to the water, pulling the blade under with enough force to slow or stop the boat and sometimes eject the rower.

If you get close enough you can even hear differences; some passing crews will just sound sharp and others more like a sloshing washing machine. The slightly curved oar blades move through the water something like a scoop through ice cream, and the puddles they create are actually a distinctive vortex around a central depression: greater force leaves a deeper puddle. You can see the program — complete with thumbnails of the oar designs on some screens — at Select the tabs for “Regattas,” then this one by name and date, then “Entries.” Selecting Yarmouth from the drop-down will bring up our crews, and checking the box for “show competition” will do just that.

There will be an updated copy of the day’s race schedule at the Yarmouth Rowing Club tent.

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