Cape Coral Rowing Club at Cape Harbour, Cape Coral, Florida
I was a visitor to Cape Coral Rowing Club. This club is a...
Bishop Bavin College
I go to school at Bishop Bavin
|Open Ocean Regatta|
By David Stookey
|From the 2000-2001 American Rower's Almanac|
It's early on an April morning in Sausalito, the morning of a big open-water rowing regatta. Fog is predicted, but there's no sign of it, and across the bay San Francisco's skyline is clear against the dawn. Two low docks, overlooked by large palm trees and marina buildings, are floating empty of the mirror of water.
Soon a few rowers arrive, the big industrial garage doors crank open, and ninety-five sculling boats are revealed in the morning light. They are stacked four and five high. Some are on racks hoisted to the celeing. The rowers begin carrying the boats out, choosing oars, checking rigging. Some boats arrive on car tops. Half a dozen, including a flat-water quad with extra flotation and a built-up splashbox, have been driven up from the San Jose Rowing Club on a trailer.
Today's race is the Open Ocean Regatta, run every spring by the Open Water Rowing Center. The Center holds the largest collection of open-water sculling craft in North American, perhaps the world. The contestants keep coming, almost a hundred of them, and are met, unloaded, and registered by thirty volunteers.
So far it's fairly calm today, but this race is often held in far tougher weather, when fog and wind make the Golden Gate a nasty place to be in any boat, let alone a rowing shell.
Quietly supervising all this activity is Shirwin Smith, the owner of the Center and long-time proponent of open-water sculling. With her is Gordie Nash, who has been involved with the regatta since he founded it twenty-two years ago. His wife Ruth will be operating one of the chase boats. Nearby on a table, awaiting presentation at the awards ceremony, is the Shirwin Smith and Gordie Nash Perpetual Trophy, created by their rowing friends in 1995 "in recognition of their dedication to open-water rowing and in celebration of the sport."
Most of the boats standing on slings around Shirwin and Gordie are Aeros and 24's, made by Maas Rowing Shells a few miles across the Bay in Richmond. Chris Maas, their designer another pioneer of open-water sculling in the seventies and eighties, is on hand. Some ha hoped that he would be bringing a new mode Maas shell, but it's not quite ready yet. The competitors are of all ages. Many of the rowers here came to the sport from flat-water sculling, but others found open-water sculling with no rowing experience at all, as converts from running, kayaking or other aerobic pursuits.
This morning the entrants are divided into nine classes by sex and type of boat. Singles are either 24's or 21's. Three adventurous flat-water singles and a double have entered. There are seven open-water doubles, the San Jose quad, and a few other outliers. Age handicaps are computed for 70 of the 81 entrants - everyone over twenty-seven.
The Long Course, 7.6 miles, goes directly out into San Francisco Bay and runs west under the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Diablo at the mouth of the Bay, then back to Tiburon, and finishes at Sausalito. Even without the bridge, the scenery is spectacular, small rough beaches at the foot of hundred-foot cliffs topped by steep green hills. It's not a coastline you'd want to break down on. The Short Course stays inside, running 5.34 miles around the more protected waters off Sausalito.
Two decades ago, when this Open Ocean Regatta was first run on the same Long Course as today, most of the entries were traditional designs. Only two boats had sliding seats, and there were no shells. Gordie explains, "In those days, people fell in love with the rowing, and the boats came later. ‘here's my sport,' people would say. ‘Now let's go find a good boat."
It didn't take long. In the early 80's Gordie himself set out to create a range of open-water shell designs, singles and doubles, under the Pacific trademark. Chris Maas did the same with the Vancouver 21, Aero, Dragonfly double, and then his 24. And there were shells from Laser, J-Shells, and others. Maas Rowing Shells appears to be the strongest survivor today, but there are new designs coming along too. Two Pegasus boats, a new 22'5" design from Positive Strokes Rowing in Alameda, are entered this morning.
It is a measure of the open-water skills held by these contestants that mot of the 24's )only 14" wide at the waterline) have registered for the rougher Long Course. The 21's (5" wider on the water and thus much more stable), apparently in the hands of less confident rowers, are largely signed up for the Short Course.
Technique has come a long way in the years since 24' shells were first designed for open water. "If anyone had told us, back before the first Maas 24 came out, that boats like that would be making the Catalina passage," says Shirwin Smith, "we'd have laughed at them. But the sport has grown in technique. It took us months and months to learn to row that 24 is seas. I remember one day I was making the trip between here and the Maas shop across the bay, and the wind came up suddenly. Aggghhh! I figured I was going to be swimming any minute. But somehow I worked out how to position the boat in the waves for stability, and I stayed up. When I arrived at Maas, scared and tired, they said yes, they'd noticed the wind, but they hadn't worried about me in the 24. That was the first time I began to believe these are truly open-water boats."
The competitors take to the water, Lycra pulled tight, seat wheels sprayed with WD-40, boats carried to the floating dock, launched, pushed off. Eighty boats, ninety competitors quietly wind their way among the marina slips to open water, find their class group, line up in their turn alongside the towering dive barge ALASKA from which the committee is operating, and at the go pull for the Golden Gate.
Today is calm on San Francisco Bay, although there are always eddies and small overfalls where the tide rushes in and out the Golden Gate. The fleet starts parallel to the Sausalito waterfront, and the Long course competitors quickly disappear around the corner into the Golden Gate. Playing the back eddy under the big red bridge has some of the boats right in next to the rocky shoreline. There are no breakers but enough swell so that the boats are sometimes lost to view from each other and the chase boats. The dangers are mostly flotsam, with trash, weed, a plastic chair, and even a telephone pole on the direct route to Point Diablo.
The sun is bright; the sea here and there is rippled by tidal swirls. High above, the springtime Sunday crowds look down from the big red bridge and Fort Baker. A few motorboats rush by. Across the bay the early boats for the Opening of the Bay are beginning to gather off Fisherman's Wharf. The open-water boats rush silently toward the Pacific. One of the chase boats gets tangled in a collection of trash, seaweed, and the white plastic chair.
First boat home is a flat-water double running the short course in just over forty-one minutes. All but a handful of short-course competitors arrive before the first boat, the quad from San Jose, finishes the long course in sixty-four minutes. The first singles are right behind. Two or three stragglers take about an hour and a half. No one fails to finish.
Back at the Center, the fun is continuing. Shirwin has arranged a giant feed for everyone, barbecued on the dock among the boats. She and Gordy preside over endless prizes, jokes, and stories. One competitor reports two holes in his boat, "Did anyone see that white plastic chair out there?" The Shirwin Smith and Gordy Nash Perpetual Trophy is awarded to "the person who has done the most to support the entire sport, not just his or her club."
Gradually the boats are hosed down, returned to the Center's sheds or lashed on car tops. Announcements are made about other open-water races later in the spring and summer. Several competitors gather round the damaged boat and exchange repair advice. They drift away. By two o'clock these Californian athletes are gone, many of them to a second sport. The Bay, seen from the Golden Gate Bridge, appears peaceful. The wind is still light, but if you look hard you can see the current eddies, a line of overfalls, and occasional clumps of flotsam. And if you squint and use your imagination, you can see the breaking waves and fog and tidal rips Shirwin and Gordie may have next year.
One of the open-water singles passes under the Golden Gate Bridge after rounding a buoy at the mouth of San Francisco Bay.
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