Although rowing doesn’t often make front-page news or even front sports-page news, it is alive and well in the Hudson Valley: Seven local high schools row from the Hudson River Rowing Association’s (HRRA) boathouse in Poughkeepsie, as do local rowing clubs like Wappingers Crew Club. On the west side of the Hudson, the Newburgh Rowing Club (America Rows and Swims Newburgh, or ARSN) has a large group of enthusiastic rowers of all ages.
Rowing combines hard physical effort and breathtaking scenery. “It’s an incredible experience out there,” says HRRA board member Kim Kochem, who began rowing as a high school junior, went on to row for Marist, and is now coach of Our Lady of Lourdes’ (Poughkeepsie) women’s team. “It’s absolutely serene — dawn is breaking, there’s no TV, no cellphones….When you hear the rowers’ oars hitting the water in perfect harmony, there are no words to describe it.”
Harmony, however, does not translate to “easy.” “The Hudson River is no joke,” Kochem admits. “You and your team are battling against the Hudson. You’re pushing against the force of the water.”
University of Pennsylvania rowers, 1936 | Photo Courtesy of James A. Cannavino Library, Archives & Special Collections, Marist College
That creates incredible discipline among rowers, along with camaraderie. Rowing teams are small, with only about 10 members apiece, but rowers tend to remain friends for life, Kochem notes.
Although the races and regattas are held in warm weather, training isn’t limited to spring and summer. Rowers use ergometers (otherwise known as rowing machines; those in the know call them “ergs”) to maintain their strength. The HRRA boathouse on Water Street has enormous, indoor, heated tanks so rowers can practice when the Hudson is ice-bound.
If you’re interested (and are age 14 or over), the HRRA offers a free Learn to Row lesson at its boathouse. The ARSN group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, provides free Water Confidence Clinics to youth and adults in the greater Newburgh area; it also raises funds to support organizations such as the Student Ambassador Program of the Newburgh Rowing Club, where underserved youth learn to kayak and row on scholarship, free of charge.
The 1936 University of Washington Varsity team on the dock at Poughkeepsie.
About 100 years ago, rowing on the Hudson was a very big deal. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s National Championship Regatta was held nearly every year at Poughkeepsie from 1895 to about 1950.
The four-mile straightaway at that point in the river made the perfect natural race course for collegiate rowers. At the June 1936 regatta, the University of Washington’s freshman, junior varsity, and varsity crews all swept first place. The eight-man varsity team went on to Berlin later that year — where they beat Italy and Germany for Olympic gold, and spurred a 2013 book and upcoming movie entitled The Boys in the Boat.
Back in Poughkeepsie’s heyday, tens of thousands of people would line the banks of the Hudson to marvel at the skill and endurance of the intrepid oarsmen. Picnickers would make a day of it. The luckiest spectators were those who scored a seat on the grandstands: They were on a flatbed train that rode the rails on the west side of the Hudson, following the progress of the shells as the rowers plied the water.
Besides the obvious beauty of seeing Hudson River views from the level of the Hudson itself, rowers on the river often have unusual experiences as well.
The Observation Train, which was pulled by the train along the Highland shore so spectators could follow rowers as they raced.
Kim Kochem, coach of Our Lady of Lourdes’ women’s rowing team in Poughkeepsie, relates one such experience.
About three and a half years ago, the crew was out practicing for the national championships, and Kochem was accompanying them in a motored launch.
“We’re in the middle of the Hudson River, and we’re seeing something bobbing west to east. Due to the current, we normally see things bobbing north/south. So naturally, we’re curious, so we got closer….It was a fox, swimming from Highland to Poughkeepsie! We followed him to shore, where he climbed up on land and over the railroad tracks.”
It’s unknown whether the animal was making its way to Marist — that college’s mascot is the Red Fox, anyhow.
A 1936 race on the Hudson River in front of the old DeLaval site and in front what is now Vassar hospital.
Another notable experience was the derring-do of the 1936 University of Washington rowers, who raced in Poughkeepsie’s regatta and went on to win Olympic gold that same year. While practicing on the Hudson, the daring rowers decided to pay a visit to then-President Franklin Roosevelt. So they rowed upriver to Hyde Park, shoved ashore, climbed the bank, and, after gathering directions from helpful neighbors, knocked on the President’s door.
Roosevelt wasn’t home, but his son, Franklin Roosevelt Jr. — who rowed for Harvard’s junior varsity — invited them in, where they spent an enjoyable evening discussing rowing.