Back when crew was king on the Hudson River, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of spectators lined its banks to watch regattas, where college boys plied their oars.
Since then, a sea change has transformed the sport. Next time you’re out on the Walkway, look for the rowers with the blue oars — those belong to the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association (pictured below) — and in the boats you’re likely to see middle-aged folks, many of them female.
“Our club focuses on master rowers,” says Bill Davies, a coach and past president. “Master” in this case has nothing to do with skill — it just means you’re past college age. “Basically, we’re out there to get exercise. You don’t have to be in great shape to join, though when you join, you get in shape!”
Founded in 1950, the club’s headquarters is the community boathouse on Poughkeepsie’s North Water Street. Most mornings, you’ll find member Linda Rapp there in the predawn hours, getting her scull (one-person boat) ready to launch on the river, so that she can enjoy the tranquil waters before the jet skis arrive in the afternoon, not to mention take in the sunrise, and maybe even observe an eagle eating its breakfast. Although she’s only been rowing for three years, the 50-something is now the club’s learn-to-row coordinator: She trains people on “tanks,” an eight-person water-filled shell that simulates river rowing.
“I would never in a million years have thought of myself as an athlete,” says Rapp. “People discover rowing and say, ‘Oh my goodness! You don’t have to have done this in high school and college? You can actually do this as an adult and not kill yourself and to boot it’s good for you?’ ”
Head downriver to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge for a different rowing scene. If you scan the shoreline beyond restaurant row and an industrial area, you might just spot it: a dock and Adirondack pavilion at water’s edge. Nearby is a beehive of activity, the home of the Newburgh Rowing Club (NRC), which has been quietly teaching kids from age eight (and many grownups) to row for two decades. Here in a bi-level, 6,000-square-foot boathouse, club members congregate year-round, training in winter in the weight room or using the club’s many ergometers. They also take field trips to West Point to practice on the tanks. A popular five-week summer camp program always sells out.
Also available to members is a repair boat bay, where the minutiae of mending, painting, and servicing takes place. Here is where a wooden crew shell that was in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was spiffed up for use. “I saved it from being put on the ceiling of a TGIFriday’s, which is the fate of many a wooden boat,” says coach Edward Kennedy, a public school physical education teacher in Newburgh who often recruits from the ranks of his students.
Many NRC members are on a scholarship through America Rows Newburgh, a program spearheaded by NRC team mom and program director Juliana LoBiondo (“Mrs. Lo” to the kids) and supported by the Hudson River Foundation’s Improvement Fund. Kids who might not otherwise have access to the river are taught how to swim at a local facility, a necessary step before they take to the open water.
“We’ve taught over 100 kids how to swim so far,” says LoBiondo, who also teaches other adults at open row time at the facility. But swimming and indoor rowing is just the prelude. The real thrill comes when you finally hit the river: “When you row, your mind just goes to another place,” says Karla, a wide-eyed sixth grader from Newburgh who successfully made the leap from dry land. “You’re not stressed, and you’re just so happy and relaxed.”