American Club Rowing Experience, Part 9: The Schuylkill Navy Regatta

At home with Potomac Boat Club (Photo: PBC/Flickr)

I still have nightmares about the East Park Canoe House.

Just past the Strawberry Mansion bridge over the Schuylkill River race course, the Spanish Mission-style building, completed in 1914, is where you typically park and launch from at the smaller Philadelphia regattas, like Saturday's Schuylkill Navy Regatta. The end of its first century was rough.

In the early '00s, the bathroom stalls were covered in layers of graffiti so deep they provided a geological record, and broken glass in your bare feet was the best case scenario for traipsing around the surrounding area. It was a Pixar movie hell-scape, so comically vile and so casually menacing that surely delirious lightweights have hallucinated it growing a mouth and red eyes and yelling about the Mummers Parade (probably).

The Temple rowing family deserves all the credit they received and more for restoring that place, credit I planned to give them in a speech I'd make to no one in particular after racing them Saturday. Sadly, for administrative reasons, Temple was unable to race—so a team that's 100 miles up I-95 we'll have to travel across an ocean to scrimmage. Go figure.

But even had we raced, would the data have been helpful? The Owls set a course record winning Dad Vails this year, but Potomac is entering the Thames and Wyfold challenges, Temple the student events. And, their student fours entry will presumably be coxed, while ours won't.

"Sometimes I wish we treated every race with the tunnel-vision focus and John Wooden 'you need to tie your shoes like this' micromanagement that some organizations have, because I am very tightly wound. But, also because I am very tightly wound, I'm glad we don't." 

We had a few of our U23 athletes—recently joined for the summer—entered as two open fours for their first races with the team; our Wyfold crew, now with a cox, and a second four in the Intermediate Four event; and our Thames crew and 'B' boat entered in the Intermediate Eight. (Note: Your author has returned to the Thames 'A' boat, having been pulled up due to health issues for another rower.) Most importantly though, is that after scrimmages with UVA and Hobart in Charlottesville, Gonzaga and the Georgetown 150s on the Potomac, and University Barge and Riverside pulling out of a late-May dual, this was our first regatta of the year.

So of course, the moron factor was high. Four seats didn't make it to Philadelphia, prompt arrival was observed fairly casually, and someone threw out a WaWa six-inch hoagie because they "didn't think anyone would want it" (I was beside myself with rage, as I'm sure you'll understand). Naturally, the warm-up was a mess even though there were about three other crews on the whole river by the time the eights launched. Three-seat yanked a foot out of his shoe during the start sequence. (Well, maybe that last one’s to be expected.)

But none of that actually matters. Physiologically, you need to warm up before a race, but in all my years I've never felt properly warmed up. I would have bet my 401k that not everyone had a uni, and while everyone who went to high school or college in the mid-Atlantic region has been to Boathouse Row dozens of times, not everyone has driven themselves (or should be trusted behind a wheel, come to think of it). Sometimes I wish we treated every race with the tunnel-vision focus and John Wooden "you need to tie your shoes like this" micromanagement that some organizations have, because I am very tightly wound.

But, also because I am very tightly wound, I'm glad we don't. I have enough trouble making friends already.

So yes, nine morons made it to the start line. Having done our homework (of course), we had a good sense of who the Temple-less field was: Vesper, historically a factory that makes Olympians and with a stronger track record of U23 eights than our own; Baltimore, an eight full of former teammates from Yale (and PBC); and our own B entry, which we expected to defeat based on the order of the alphabet but all the same would keep us honest.

The Open Fours had both been beaten by a Vesper four, which was now combined into the eight we were racing. The Intermediate Fours had a much more exciting race, taking the first and second spot in a very close race; a dead heat at the 1000m mark, with the two crews a length up on third. Luckily for our coach, the Wyfold crew pulled ahead in the second half of the race and took it by a second. So we had a team 1-2 win in the bag already, giving us some momentum.

In the eight, our start was sharp and efficient, and our transition to base as good as we've had in practice. The wind was mild, but with enough of a cross-head to muck with blade work and steering, and keep the final time to the north of six minutes (the speed coach would later confirm what I felt; we were about 1:26 for the sections out of the wind before the bridge and next to the island; 1:33 when it was hitting us in the middle of the course).

In Lane 5, we were the last crew in the stagger. (For those unfamiliar, there's a bit of a bend in the first half of the Schuylkill course, and as the lanes progress from 1-6 a few seats get added on to account for the bend.) The furthest over, in Lane 5, we knew that to grab a lead before the bend meant that we'd be able to really capitalize on the turn—and so when the bend came, we went from having our nose in front to having open water by the time everyone came off the rudder.

"In 2012—the last time Potomac sent an eight to race the Thames Challenge Cup—we had a much shorter preparatory phase." 

By the time we passed the Canoe House, we were in a commanding lead and continuing to move away, though we did get to enjoy our 'B' boat coming back and snatching a second place finish from Vesper in the last hundred meters. Baltimore rounded out the field, and given the number of guys on both squads that rowed together previously (to include a member of our 2012 Henley crew, that raced with Baltimore at Henley recently in 2016) we hope to set up something more informal and regular with them, another dual race perhaps.

(We would, of course, like to have raced University Barge—with whom we established a pretty nice trophy, donated by Finish Line Shell Repair—but as with the May dual we had planned, they were unfortunately unable to make the trip.)

Highlights so far:

Wins for the Wyfold and Thames crews at the Schuylkill Navy Regatta, and some wins in scrimmages against various colleges and high schools. Second fastest club eight at the Head Of The Charles, winner of the Head of the Potomac (which we hosted). I'd love to have something more compelling, but our whole hat-and-fake-mustache scheme for ACRA never came together. Here we are, all our results before Henley Royal Regatta now behind us.

In 2012—the last time Potomac sent an eight to race the Thames Challenge Cup—we had a much shorter preparatory phase. We selected the crew a little later, had fewer competitive opportunities, and much less depth to sort through (or use to our advantage). Our only races together were the 1,000m Open Eight at the Stonewall Regatta in early June that year, and the Intermediate Eight at the Schuylkill Navy Regatta. That year, as this year, we finished 1-2 in the eight—lucky for us, that was enough for the Stewards, who selected and seeded us into the Thames bracket.

In 2012, we raced through to Friday and ultimately fell to the Royal Chester Rowing Club by less than a length. Naturally, the goal is to improve on that performance this year. I know the erg average is far better (isn't everyone's these days?), the sum total of years of membership at Potomac larger (who besides us ought to care?), and the pedigree of the crew more conventionally Ivy League (what's that worth?), but still—the best we can do is cross our fingers and hope that, like 2012, Schuylkill Navy was sufficient.

-Peter Clements

Coming up next: Who are the guys willing to put themselves through all this, anyway?

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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