American Club Rowing Experience, Part 3: Rogues, Rivalries, and Traditions

Potomac Boat Club training in Virginia (Photo: Andrew Neils)

The Boston Marathon had a long tradition of tolerating "bandits," or runners sneaking into the race, bib-less, without having paid. They had to crack down eventually of course, but I assume it was seen as in keeping with the amateur roots of the event and the local traditions involved—let those lovable rogues have their fun!

I don't think there's an analog in the rowing world. It's awfully hard to sneak a single into the Head Of The Charles starting chute, for instance; it's surprisingly difficult to sneak an eight into the Georgetown lightweights vs. Temple lightweights dual (we tried). And American rowing has no shortage of rogues, some lovable, some not; the 'Rude and Smooth Crew,' the "Dirty Dozen" eight, the Riverside Meatwagon.* We have the mischief-makers—so, where's the mischief?

Sure, every once in a while, perhaps a college crew gets to race at a World Cup as USA2 (see video below), and we all enjoy it. But in general, there's just not a lot of opportunities for club rowers to do much of anything, let alone anything 'rogue-ish.' I don't think I could sneak past Gregg from Ann Arbor a late ACRA entry from a bunch of 30-year olds in Montgomery College Rowing Club tanks ("C'mon Gregg, we're the Orange Coast of the East!"). Although Frank from Charlottesville might get a kick out of it.

Which brings us to the challenge of the spring season. For colleges and juniors, spring is a season of dual races and cups and shirts and trophies, followed by conference championships, maybe nationals if you qualify, and then maybe Henley if someone's decided you've earned it (read: decided to pay for it).

"Maybe club teams should have their own group to race against. What if we had a Conference of Competitive Club Programs (CCCP)? It's a working title." 

For clubs, spring is…well, what exactly? The Crew Classic is at the end of March. The next 2,000-meter race on the East Coast that I’m aware of is…mid-June? You probably won't see heats and finals until Independence Day Regatta ("what weekend is that?" asked a U23 oarsman last summer, and that's a true story).

The problem is, there's no club rowing Pac-12 or EARC Sprints. I get it—not everyone has a strong eight every year, and some years maybe no eight at all, but so what? When I rowed in college, there was a long stretch there where Amherst didn’t send a men's eight to Little Threes and then all of a sudden they did again and who cares? Race who shows up, and if someone takes a year off, race them again when they come back. This isn't the Premier League; no one's getting relegated here. Maybe club teams should have their own group to race against. What if we had a Conference of Competitive Club Programs (CCCP)? It's a working title.

It’s not a crazy idea, though. In 2014, a bunch of guys from Evergreen Boat Club capitalized on the interest in the Head Of The Charles alumni eight and ran an 'Alumni Sprints' regatta in Greenwich, CT... and opened the course up to 2,000m for a club eight event. Potomac trucked up from Washington, D.C. (and made it back in time to see the Capitals actually go undefeated against Pittsburgh in the postseason). NYAC sent an eight, and Union Boat Club, in their Charles-record-setting heyday, sent an eight, too. Lincoln Park showed up, and borrowed an eight from us. NYAC might have taken the subway, but the crew from Chicago sure didn’t—they invested some time and money into coming out for a pretty untested regatta.

So, demand for club racing was so great that people would show up to a regatta only in its second year, that only added a club event by request, and on a race course probably none of these clubs or their rowers had ever raced on before. Huh.

Maybe, rather than earning a lifetime ban from Mercer by the IRA stewards after illicitly dominating the second varsity third-level final (absolute domination!), rather than be bandits, we should be… kind of... legit?

"You might have an erg room full of guys that individually never miss a chance to smash an hour of power, but to keep a team motivated? You need someone to race. You need rivals, and you need something on the line. So make something up."  

If American clubs are breathing down one another's necks, it's a deliberate effort, and not just a result of proximity. We don't have the natural conditions for the home counties pressure-cooker of the English clubs. Potomac, Riverside, Union, Lincoln Park, NYAC, Riverfront, Baltimore… this is just a starter list of clubhouses that more often than not have an eight they can field at more than just Head Of The Charles. But, while we nearly all sit on the I-95 corridor, that's not the same as the Tideway. Boston to D.C. is a reasonably-priced shuttle flight, but Molesey and Thames are about 12 miles apart (not to mention London Rowing Club, Vesta, and all the other Tideway clubs), and Upper Thames is a quick shot west on the M4.

Proximity breeds rivalry, and theress nothing like a rivalry that puts pride on the line to keep a team motivated. The Brits have the edge there, no question. You might have an erg room full of guys that individually never miss a chance to smash an hour of power, but to keep a team motivated? You need someone to race. You need rivals, and you need something on the line. So make something up.

PBC training in the eight (Photo: Andrew Neils)

Want someone to race you? Make a trophy, talk trash on social media, and be patient in waiting for them to get back to you because the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and we're still not really back to running at 100% in Philadelphia (see you on May 20th, University Barge!). Lots of traditions work because of momentum—that’s kind of what traditions are. I have no doubt that the 30th year of Riverside and Potomac vying for the Stars and Stripes trophy will happen in a more clockwork-fashion than the third year. But I also know the third year seems easier to pull together than the first. And to be clear, this isn't some idea that Potomac is taking credit for. I know Baltimore scrimmaged Loyola on Sunday, so other folks are clearly keen to make some club-college crossover happen; I heard rumblings of something happening between Riverside and Riverfront as I was writing this column.

I can't tell you how this all is relevant to preparing for Henley, honestly. How to macro-cycle in preparation for five 100% races five days in a row is way, way above my head. But I do know that not racing is a really bad way to prepare for five races. Getting super-fit is a lot of work, but not exactly solving a riddle. Taking a lot of strokes together is tough to coordinate but not a mysterious process. Pulling together talent and experience takes effort, but it's not hard to Google someone's race results. But racing, as a club athlete, is hard in a way it wasn't in college. Lots of clubs and individuals are working to change this, but for now it's still hard. It's not quite a full-time job, but it's a lot of work.

So how do you do all this and still take care of your four-month old, or study for the bar, or even show up for a real job in a real suit and everything, every day?

*The Rude and Smooth Crew—not just a great collegiate crew but a great international crew—won the 1974 IRAs in 5 minutes, 55 seconds, breaking the previous course record of 6:01. This is simply unfathomable.

-Peter Clements

Coming up next week: What does it mean to not just be a club rower, but also a member of a club with a diverse array of opinions, experiences, and penchants for whinging about the 'old days?' In the meantime, you can check out the RR Travelogues page to get first-hand experiences of Henley from the Ohio State women's team, the Virginia men's rowing team, and Potomac Boat Club in 2012.

Note: This series will be regularly published on Tuesdays between now and 2018 Henley Royal Regatta. View all posts in this series by clicking the label 'ACE Series.'


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