“Where are my eyes?” Vince calls out to our quad scull.
It’s 7:00am on a gray, Sunday morning in early November. The Schuylkill River is calm. I am not. Neither is Vince, the other first-timer in the boat. He twists in his seat as veteran rowers Bill and Gary steer us clear of the docks at Boathouse Row. Like Vince, the awkwardness of blindly moving backwards is hitting me, but I don’t have to ask where to look.
I’ve wanted to row on the Schuylkill River since I can remember. And thanks to a high school friend who saw my plea for a rowing connection on Instagram, I’m in a boat with her husband, Bill, a member of Bachelors Barge Club. I’m finally taking it all in, laser focused on the skyline, the Museum of Art, the new Comcast Technology Center rising above it all. I’m so taken by the view that I hear only the tail end of Bill’s first instruction.
“…with your wrists. Got it?”
A former Drexel rower, Bill is measured and encouraging. He quickly instills enough confidence in us to do quarter strokes; our legs extend, pushing our butts along the runner as the oars dig into the water. Another stroke and we pick up speed. Another and the water ripples away from us. I feel the first tease of wind at my back. I chide myself for letting so many years pass, shrugging off the sport as reserved for the special and the Spandexed. I see meditative mornings ahead of me, maybe medaling in a regatta.
Thwap! The fat end of my oar catches the surface, the handle spins out of my hand. “Marc’s catching crabs!” Bill says. We’re stopped dead. “Remember that hand position.” he says.
I take hold of the oars again and vow to listen better. Even though I’m stuck in a space no wider than my hips, there’s a whole world to explore here.
Philly’s Official Sport
Long before the Sixers were trusting the process, before the Phillies were the Phillies or football even existed, the biggest sports ticket in town was to the grassy banks of the Schuylkill River. The first rowing regatta took place on April 14th, 1835 between two social clubs—the Blue Devils and the Imps Barge Club. This race (and the entire Philadelphia rowing scene) would have been for naught had it not been for the construction of the Fairmount Dam in 1822 and further engineering near East Falls, which submerged a series of rapids. The result is the world-class, slack-water section of the river that we recognize today.
By the mid-1800s, rowing was all the rage on the Schuylkill. Around the city, clubs formed. Races grew to attract thousands. It wasn’t long before the clubs grew tired of transporting boats or leaving them out in the elements, so they built storage sheds and docks along the river. From those humble beginnings, Boathouse Row was born.
“This is the trophy room,” Bill says at Bachelors Barge Club that morning. We’re in boathouse #6 (of 15), a Mediterranean style building constructed in 1894 and known for its tan brick arches and blue and red double doors. Stepping inside is stepping into a time machine. The club was founded in 1853 by members of Phoenix Engine Company (a volunteer fire fighting organization), and remains the oldest continuously operated rowing operation in the world. True to its name, the founders were also all bachelors.
Dozens of clubs, public and private schools, and rowing groups utilize these boathouses, but Bachelors is just one of 12 belonging to the Schuylkill Navy. Founded in 1858, the rowing association stands as the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States. Why did it form? Because those spectators in the mid 1800s were doing a lot more than cheering on their favorite club. Betting was big business and race fixing threatened to upend the “gentlemanly nature” of the sport.
Speaking of gentlemanly, it would take 100 years from the first race in 1835 for the first women to row on the Schuylkill (16 female Penn students in a newly offered class). Three years later, in 1938, the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club (PGRC) was founded by the wives of other club members. The PGRC remains the oldest all-female rowing club in the world and occupies house #14. Built in 1860, it stands as the oldest house on the river.
Throughout the years, clubs have been formed by a variety of groups. Penn students formed the College Boat Club of the University of Pennsylvania in 1872. The Fairmount Rowing Association was formed in 1877 by a small group of workingmen from the Fairmount neighborhood. Malta Barge Club was founded in 1865 by members of the Minnehaha Lodge of the Sons of Malta. The Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association (Penn AC) was by all accounts an average club until rowing legend John B. Kelly Sr. joined in 1920 following a fallout with Vesper Club. John was the father of actress Grace Kelly and winner of 126 straight races. Penn AC has been known as a hub for elite rowers and US National Team rowers ever since.
This association with excellence was a big reason I didn’t look into rowing earlier. I take to most sports well, but rowing is another beast. Especially here. So many trophies. A few houses down, The Pennsylvania Barge Club represented the US in rowing at the 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games. Vesper Club is the only club in America to have taken home three Gold Medals in super 8 competition. But this is by no means the entire scene, and certainly no reason to put off the sport. Just because I’m not Usain Bolt doesn’t mean I can’t go for a jog after work.
Memberships & Lessons
Bill lets me know that people can interact with rowing clubs and boathouses in a variety of ways. While some clubs like the Fairmount Rowing Association and Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association (Penn AC) are tryout-only for elite or master rowers, a few like Bachelors and Crescent Barge Club are open to new members. You can’t just hop in a scull and hit the river though. Boat proficiency and the ability to swim is a requirement at all clubs in order to utilize the boats. (Don’t worry, they don’t make you swim in the Schuylkill.) Also, like country clubs, most clubs require an applicant to be sponsored by one or two existing members.
Membership typically includes access to the club boats and dock, social events, and the ability to reserve the club for private functions. Houses also have ergometers (erg machines) and some have gym equipment as well. For adults, dues begin on average around $500 per year, although lessons are an additional fee.
Youth rowing programs are also very popular at certain clubs. Offerings vary from novice lessons and camps for middle schoolers on up, to sculling development for high school rowers, to under 23-year-old intermediate training for college grads seeking to compete. For the more committed rowers, clubs offer a variety of one-week and three-week camps, in addition to private lessons.
Because not everyone can afford the club offerings and lessons, the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department offers rowing summer camps out of Lloyd Hall for youth ages 13-17. For Philadelphia public school and charter school students, Philadelphia City Rowing, a non-profit dedicated to rowing education, offers free lessons and rowing opportunities.
Backwards, to Victory!
Bill and Gary have navigated us all the way to East Falls. They remain encouraging, despite the potful of crabs Vince and I have caught along the way. We’re enjoying each other’s company, joking about competing in a regatta. My knuckles are red from repeatedly mashing them together at the top of my stroke—a badge of honor, I say. All the what ifs and fears about rowing are gone. I’m in it, focused on the minutia of my movements, finding the freedom that comes when fully engaged.
We take on sets of ten full strokes to bring us back to the boathouse. I’m thinking about lessons, maybe applying for a membership. But my relaxed, romantic view of the river is gone. I want to see how fast I can go.
No medals today. Just the enjoyment of rowing on the Schuylkill, an experience worth its weight in gold.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on rowing lessons, check out: https://boathouserow.org/adult-learn-to-row/
And if you want to join the tradition and take in a regatta, check out: https://boathouserow.org/events/