PHOTO AND STORY BY ED MORAN
Not far into the pine woods along the Squamscott River in Stratham, N.H., at the end a car-wide dirt road that branches off Boat Club Drive, is a small wooden double-door shack that once served as a hunter’s retreat, but for more than 36 years has been a boathouse for nine single shells.
It can’t be seen on a Google overhead satellite map, but most mornings the sun penetrates the green canopy to cast enough light for Michael McGill, 86, and Mary Beth Weathersby, 70, to prepare their matching Carl Douglas wooden single shells for their daily row.
At least five days a week, sometimes six, McGill and Weathersby arrive at about 6:30 a.m. and set their boats out on slings. Then they carry their oars a few dozen yards down a narrow path to a small dock that juts past the reeds out into the water. There, they launch on the Atlantic-fed river and choose their direction of the day.
Once launched, they can head toward the Great Bay or toward downtown Exeter and under the bridge that carries NH-101. A round trip either way is about six or seven miles. Either route seems fine to the retired physicians who have made the trek to the river from their seacoast home in Rye a central part of their lives since the end of their careers.
The direction they choose depends on the tide and wind, but not much else. It’s being on the water that matters.
The pine-grove shack and the tidal estuary are their place of solace and their way to stay healthy, especially this year when a pandemic engulfed the world, forced most elderly people to stay inside, and caused rowing to cease across the country through late winter, all of spring, and most of summer and fall.
When Covid-19 first swept the world, neither McGill nor Weathersby could imagine not rowing. It’s what they love to do. The pandemic was not going to change that.
“This is such a beautiful place.” said McGill. “There is no way we would have stayed away. We’re rowers, and that’s what we’ve been doing for years, and this was our rescue package.”
“This is just about the greatest place on Earth,” said Weathersby. “We think about being here all winter long. I come here to try to take a better stroke, and to enjoy the river, and the most beautiful boat I ever had.
“We row and go home and do the laundry, nap, put on masks and get groceries and avoid it all. Then we wake up and do it again the next day.”
The devotion of the Squamscott Scullers would be inspiring at any time, but in this year of pain and so many unknowns, the little club and its dedicated rowers take on added significance, showing that there’s another side to the pandemic and proving that life, and the sport of rowing, will continue. It was the encouraging theme of a tumultuous year.
While there was loss in the canceled seasons and among the ranks of collegiate teams–and more programs are likely to be scrapped–rowers will always find the water. Like the Squamscott Scullers, rowers row because it’s what they love to do.
Across the country, rowers, coaches and club administrators, after being shut in and away from water at the start of the pandemic, opened lines of communication from coast to coast to remain connected and share planning for a safe return to rowing.
Their collective response to the shutdown certainly ranks high as one of the “Best Of” moments in rowing for 2020.
Just a few days into the pandemic, Matt Logue, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Rowing, and Ted Benford, executive director of Boston’s Community Rowing Inc. (CRI), began a Zoom call and invited coaches and club administrators to join. Attendance expanded every week until the sessions included up to 20 representatives from clubs everywhere in the U.S.
Every week, they shared ideas and plans for returning safely to the water and keeping members connected. When restrictions lifted enough as spring inched toward summer, singles became the go-to boat to such a degree that boatmakers could barely keep up with new orders.
The calls continued through spring and summer, and soon waterways filled with rowers in singles or in small groups called pods, under the careful observation of coaches. In clubs that didn’t have enough singles to serve the membership, rowers who owned boats made them available to others.
Through online tutorials, group-led virtual workouts among clubs, and a series organized by USRowing, the community stayed active and fit while staying safe and dreaming about when the darkness would lift.
“The way the community came together, between the USRowing webinars and the Friday call we started, how it grew and brought people together who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to each other, helped connect us all to share resources,” Logue said. “It was an incredibly positive silver lining of an otherwise pandemic-stricken year.
Along the Charles River, rowers whose clubs were shuttered launched from the banks in singles and continued through the summer. Clubs began designing protocols that would allow them eventually to reopen their boathouses and docks and get members back on the water.
Some organizations, such as the Conshohocken Rowing Center outside Philadelphia, pulled together a fleet of singles and opened sculling classes for beginner to advanced rowers. Through summer and into the fall, kids pulled into the parking lot, filled out online health questionnaires, and entered the boathouse. After following Covid safety guidelines, they set their boats on the Schuylkill and rowed. The initiative attracted more than 150 young rowers from the surrounding area.
There would be no formal racing, no fall regattas, such as the Head of the Charles, Head of the Schuylkill, and Head of the Hootch. But tradition survived, and rowers found ways to push each other, particularly in Boston, where between 40 and 100 scullers gathered every other Sunday through September and October to row the Head of the Charles course in the Head of the Kevin race series.
A 21-year-old tradition run by the Riverside Boat Club, Head of the Kevin is an informal series of races run for fun and in preparation for the Head the Charles. The series is extremely popular among Boston- and New England-based rowers and was even more popular this year. It’s an event that brings the Charles community together–in good days and bad.
The event was run five times this year, two more than normal. The fourth was renamed the Head of the Kurmakov to honor beloved Riverside and Simmons University coach Nikolay Kumakov. The former Ukrainian and Soviet champion suffered a heart attack in his single while rowing on the Charles in early October.
Rather than not row the next Head of the Kevin, nearly 100 scullers gathered at the start line, many wearing black armbands, and observed a moment of silence before racing under the Railroad Bridge, where Kumakov’s name had been painted.
It was a tribute that made the gathering even more special to the Boston community, which was already grateful that the series had not been halted by the pandemic.
“If you look at what people are posting–from [Olympian] Gevvie Stone to random masters–they’re all writing the same thing: ‘I’m so happy that I got to put a bow number on and actually race and compete. People are really grateful that this is happening,’” said Igor Belakovskiy, a Riverside rower and rowing photographer after the second of the five-race series.
As fall edged toward winter, restrictions eased enough in some places to allow team boats to return to the water. And when the season came to its traditional end, docks were pulled from the water in places like Squamscott and around the country as rowers went back to winter training.
Workouts geared to the coming season will begin just as they do every year. It is still uncertain that there will be a 2021 season, that racing will return for collegiate, high school, and junior programs, that the Olympics will take place on their rescheduled dates.
But if it doesn’t happen, it’s a safe bet that the docks will go back in on the Squamscott River and that rowers will find a way to row and that the sport will survive and thrive. Because rowers row. It’s what they love to do.