Coastal Rowing’s Rise

Coastal rowing bears little resemblance to the flatwater version of our sport. But with rowing facing an increasingly uncertain future within the Olympic family, this rollicking open-water alternative is gaining momentum.

By: Alan Oldham
Photography: Peter Spurrier

While coastal rowing’s roots in the fishing villages and outports of the North Atlantic point to an even deeper history than the flat-water version that dominates today, a 21st century twist on rowing’s offshore tradition is breathing new life and opening new perspectives into a sport so many of us thought we knew inside out.

And now, with Tokyo 2020 only a year away and the eyes and efforts of rowing’s top brass already turning to Paris 2024, coastal rowing is suddenly front and center in the race to secure our sport’s place in the Games for years to come.

So far, so good. But with its seemingly meteoric rise to Olympic hopeful status, I found myself wondering, why coastal rowing? And what exactly is coastal rowing anyway?

Same stroke, different pain

My search for answers began with a call to Ben Booth, who in 2015 became the first American to race at a World Rowing Coastal Championships.

“Coastal rowing is unpredictable,” he told me. “I never know where the water is going to be from one stroke to the next. You are not looking for the calmest, quietest water possible. I do row my coastal boat in the river, but once you get offshore a few miles, not seeing land, it is a whole different space—a different mental space.”

“For racing, you are in a course with no lanes that is going around buoys. So you are hitting all the sailboat racing tactics while going backwards and you are in pain. While pain is something common to rowers in both settings, it’s not the same,” said Booth, whose rowing resume includes some flatwater racing experience at Mercyhurst. “It is different because it is starting and stopping. If you want to experience that, get on an erg, do a 6k piece, and get someone to tell you to stop randomly and then start again. You just get that post-race pain mid-race.”

“It is different because it is starting and stopping. If you want to experience that, get on an erg do a 6k piece and get someone to tell you to stop randomly and then start again. You just get that post-race pain mid-race.”

-Ben Booth

Add to that any number of competing crews on top of the sometimes raging surf and racing is anything but boring. “The boats behind you are all gunning to get that hairpin turn at the same time, barely able to see,” Booth told me. “That’s a whole different ball game. Other than that— the basics of the stroke, the ergonomics—it’s the same.”

For John Wik, USRowing’s director of coastal rowing, the wind, waves, and surf are part of the appeal, but safety is front and center. 

“Coastal rowing uses boats designed to handle significant waves, current, and wind,” he told me. “Instead of a straight, buoyed 2k course, coastal races require the athlete to race around buoys following courses that vary in length from short sprints of 500 meters to long races of 4-8k. Competitors must be able to adapt to changing wind, tide, and current as they navigate the race course, taking the best line while avoiding other boats. Waves are both a challenge and asset, allowing the athlete to either surf ahead of the competition, or broach and swamp.”

“Unlike flatwater rowing, coastal boats are limited to singles (C1X), doubles (C2X), and quads with coxswain (C4X),” Wik explained. “All boats require a towing line during racing. Crews, with the exception of the coxswain, are not required to wear life jackets, but they must be on board.”

Much of the standardization in coastal rowing, from equipment to rules and regulations, has come about since FISA hosted the first official World Rowing Coastal Championships a little over a decade ago.

The introduction of “beach sprints” as an alternative start and finish to races with a member of the crew literally sprinting on foot across the sand has made coastal rowing a fan favorite at multisport events around the world. 

“One of the major benefits of our sport is being out on the water and enjoying the natural scenery of Canadian waterways. There are so many places we can’t currently access with flatwater shells. Coastal rowing is one way to do that.”

-Jennifer Fitzpatrick

It took a few years, but USRowing finally entered the coastal scene in 2014, hosting an international coastal regatta in Pensacola, Fla. “The event was small,” said Wik, “drawing only 35 to 40 athletes from several countries, but successful.”

The real test for Wik, however, was boating an American contingent. “I didn’t have anyone in the United States at that point who could be a member of the U.S. team,” he recalled. Enter Ben Booth, who had been doing his own coastal rowing training in Massachusetts, but nothing really big yet.

“I came across Ben,” said Wik, “and I also grabbed hold of James Dietz II, who didn’t make the Olympic team, so I asked if he wanted to try this out.”

Recruiting the women proved just as tricky, but Wik found them. “Just by happenstance, I found that some people in Long Island has bought some Swedish coastal boats. Sinead Fitzgibbon and her friend Jenny Gatts had decided on their own that they wanted to row coastal off the shore of Long Island. So I recruited them as the U.S. women’s team.

It was that introduction to the world of international competition that spurred Booth to enter the following year’s World Rowing Coastal Championships in Peru.

Jumping into the unknown

“It was just overwhelming,” Booth told me when I asked about his first worlds in Peru, “having no idea what to expect, nobody to coach me, nobody to give me a tip, just that blind jump into the total unknown. I just remember getting to that first buoy turn and thinking, ‘Hey, where’d everybody go? … Man, I’ve got some work to do.’”

Booth has kept on improving, attending the worlds every year since then and making the A final most recently at the 2018 event in Victoria, British Columbia. With Hong Kong 2019 just a few months away, the 42-year-old Booth is only getting faster, his success adding to his growing reputation as a coastal rowing guru. So far this year he placed fourth at the Swedish Coastal Rowing Championships and won gold in his local 20-plus mile Blackburn Challenge coastal race, an event that has become a must for aspiring coastal rowers from far beyond Massachusetts. 

Christine Rubino is one such rower, hoping to make her mark in a sport that has already transformed her life. “It is easy now to reflect on it and see what I was doing,” the Florida-born rower told me on the phone from Boston, having just moved north to live her dream of becoming a coastal rower. “I had filled up my schedule and didn’t have time to stop and think, what is it I want to do?”

One of her jobs, coaching rowing at Sarasota-Bradenton’s Nathan Benderson Park, led to Rubino crossing paths with the U.S. lightweight women when they came to train there this past winter.

“I met Hillary Saeger and she inspired me to take a look at what I was doing and that I can stop everything I am doing and become an athlete,” said Rubino. “I chipped away at all the things I was doing, and all that time opened up a lot of opportunities.”

“When you go out into the big blue, you have a lot of feelings rush over you. The more people who try it or even start off on this side of the sport, I think you will see the culture of rowing shift.”

-Christine Rubino

The move to Massachusetts to train alongside Saeger at Boston’s Riverside Boat Club was a no brainer for Rubino. “Having her around has skyrocketed my rowing as far as technical stuff goes,” Rubino said of her practices on the Charles River that she does primarily in a flatwater single for now. “Being up here also has me close to Ben Booth and a strong coastal scene,” she adds. “It has accelerated my dream. I realized that I can do it too. That was a big shift for me.”

While the 2019 World Rowing Coastal Championships in Hong Kong are Rubino’s first goal, her dream, like her mentor and friend, Saeger, is to stand on an Olympic podium for the United States.

“It is important that women do this and it is important that people see someone small like me going to do this,” she said. “I think it can excite a lot of people who say, well, I can beat that girl and maybe go out and try it. To be a part of it and push this sport in the beginning stages is icing on the cake.”

As far as Olympic dreams go, Rubino’s timing couldn’t be better. Amidst the rumblings of lightweight rowing’s exit from the Games after Tokyo 2020, coastal seems poised for an Olympic debut as early as Paris 2024.

Olympic dreams

To find out more, I reached out to FISA President Jean-Christophe Rolland, who spoke to me from the FISA offices in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“First of all we must say that coastal rowing is rowing,” Rolland tells me about FISA’s interest in enhancing the stature of coastal within the global rowing family. “It is a different discipline from the Olympic rowing we know, but it is certainly rowing.”

“It is a fantastic opportunity to grow our sport,” he continued. “First of all, it will give access to rowing for countries or locations that are not familiar with the sport. Many countries have a sea coast and some places like North America have big lakes. In coastal rowing it is really important to have conditions that prevent traditional rowing.”

As far as coastal rowing’s Olympic prospects, Rolland is cautiously optimistic. “There is no guarantee here,” he acknowledged. “We started this process about 18 months ago with the IOC [International Olympic Committee]. We are going step by step. So far so good, I would say, but we are not at the end.”

“The IOC runs the most successful sports event in the world, but they have some challenges because of the complexity of the organization,” he said. “They have 28 sports; there is pressure on all the sports to adapt and lower the complexity of staging the Olympic Games.”

Fortunately for Rolland and the sport of rowing, coastal checks most of the IOC’s boxes for an exciting, simple, and cost-effective event that can be done by pretty much every nation of the world.

A big part of it also comes down to the issue of lightweight events on their way out after Tokyo 2020. “The IOC don’t see the rationality of having a weight category for rowing at the Olympic Games,” said Rolland. “Lightweight rowing is very, very important for the sport and for development of the sport. We have defended it for a long time, but we must accept this and move on. The decision is not FISA’s to make.”

Yet, even if coastal is approved for inclusion in the 2024 Games, rowing’s total numbers must still take a hit as every sport will be asked to slim down their athlete quotas. As for the Olympic dreams of lightweight rowers, the loss will been keenly felt, but here again, coastal rowing, with its focus on endurance and tactics over brute force, may provide an appealing alternative. 

While there aren’t any official numbers yet, Wik has watched the growth in coastal interest step up significantly in recent years. “There are large pockets and clubs of coastal rowers in the New England, Florida, New Jersey, Seattle, and San Diego areas,” he told me. “Several races are run each year, which are growing in popularity. There is strong interest in developing additional coastal programs around the Great Lakes. However, many members of the coastal rowing community do not currently race. They enjoy recreational outings or workouts along the coast.”

“With the assistance of USRowing, in 2018 a national coastal rowing committee was formed to develop the sport,” continued Wik. “The committee has provided guidance in the planning and development of several coastal events for 2019. 

These three events will take place in Norwalk, Conn. in September, San Francisco, Calif. in October, and Sarasota, Fla. in November. As for the upcoming 2019 World Rowing Coastal Championships in Hong Kong in November, Wik says that a formal coastal team selection process in line with what happens for flatwater rowing is something in the works for future years.

Generating momentum

It’s a similar story north of the border, according to Jennifer Fitzpatrick, Rowing Canada’s director of partnerships and sport development. “Coastal rowing is certainly more developed in other countries, but it has had a long presence in Canada, even before the 2018 World Rowing Coastal Championships in Victoria. Hosting that event has definitely promoted a renewed interest.”

“It was just overwhelming, having no idea what to expect, nobody to coach me, nobody to give me a tip, just that blind jump into the total unknown. I just remember getting to that first buoy turn and thinking, ‘Hey, where’d everybody go?…Man, I’ve got some work to do.’” 

-Ben Booth

“Victoria was an incredible success,” she said. “It was the result of local volunteers who have been involved in coastal for many years, recognizing the opportunity here and really making it happen. The whole event was incredibly welcoming and fun. It was a great way to showcase rowing.”

As with their southern neighbours, Canada’s coastal rowing strategy is in the development phase, although selection documents for international events such as the World Rowing Coastal Championships and 2019 World Rowing Beach Sprints Final are available online for those looking for more information. 

“I think that coastal taps into something attractive to a different kind of personality in many regards,” said Fitzpatrick. “One of the major benefits of our sport is being out on the water and enjoying the natural scenery of Canadian waterways. There are so many places we can’t currently access with flatwater shells. Coastal rowing is one way to do that.”

Pure fun

“Coastal rowing is pure fun,” said Rubino. “You have all of the good stuff that comes with rowing, but you are not on this straight line with known factors. There are so many unknowns, and for me that is fun. I know a lot of people do have fun [with flatwater rowing], but for the majority of people I talk to about a 2k, ‘fun’ is not really the first word they use.”

“I think it is about the adventure,” she concluded. “When you go out into the big blue, you have a lot of feelings rush over you. The more people who try it or even start off on this side of the sport, I think you will see the culture of rowing shift.”

“I may be a bit biased here,” said Wik, “but why wouldn’t you [try coastal]? Coastal is a new experience for most rowers. Having a wave crash over your bow as you continue to race, without swamping, is an exhilarating experience. The challenge of navigating a course, understanding the effects of wind, tide, and current, as well as the ability to surf the wave to gain position on your competition brings a whole new dimension to the sport of rowing.” 

“People say it’s too slow,” Booth told me, “but so far, my fastest 500-meter time is 1:03 in a single. I like to surf waves as much as I can. You can get out in almost any weather and, if you want to, you can really test your courage out there.”

“That’s what I love about it,” he concluded. “You can actually get your adrenalin up and actually be afraid out there. I teach youth coastal rowing and the coolest thing is watching a bunch of kids catch their first wave and they are just yelling and then after just silence and they are beaming with smiles. It is such a wonderful moment just to have so much joy from the shared exhilaration of what they are doing.”

Want to read more stories like this one?