The Young Whalers: Fathers Watch Their Daughters Become Champions

Ray Pettigrew coaches his daughter Kristen during HarborFest last year. The Lady Whalers team went on to win both the Junior and Women's divisions. Michael Heller photos

One could say that Maddie Martin was born to race whaleboats.

That’s because she was almost born during one.

Her mother, Elizabeth, went into labor while her then husband, Billy, was competing in the 1999 races with longtime rowing partner and fellow whaleboat racing legend Ray Pettigrew.

They would go on to win that race, a common pattern for the two friends who have taken top honors in the men’s division an unprecedented 17 times since 1993 though, as Martin observes, Team Whalers actually crossed the finish line first 19 times over that span only to have two wins taken away due to alleged foul play on the water.

“It kind of started just before the final race that year,” Martin said, recalling when his wife went into labor with their first child. “I’m like, ‘Hold out, just hold out a bit longer.’

“We went on to win the race that year, and then I told her we weren’t going anywhere until we got the award,” he continued. “We still had time. I went home and cut the grass, and then we went to the hospital.”

Maddie was born around 3 a.m. the next day at Southampton Hospital.

“When she went into labor with me, he wouldn’t leave until they received the trophy,” Maddie confirmed. “She was fine,” she quickly added, referring to her mother.

“We’re really into it,” she said of the Whaleboat Races. “It’s a family tradition.”

Maddie, who will turn 19 on September 20, has been making waves herself within whaleboat racing circles over the past three years with help from the most logical of partners: Kristin Pettigrew, Ray’s 17-year-old daughter.

The young duo, who call themselves The Lady Whalers, has laid claim to the last two junior whaleboat championships—the contest was only created in 2015 due, in large part, to their growing interest in competing—and also finished first in the women’s division last year. It was the first time that the young women, with the help of crewmates Phoebe Miller and Amanda Stanis, who alternate working the tiller and harpooning the whale that’s anchored in the harbor, were able to enter the women’s division.

“For years I tried getting her in the boat to row, just to even get a feel for it, and there was absolutely nothing. No interest. Zero,” Ray Pettigrew, 50, said of his daughter who, like Maddie, was forced to observe their intense practices since they were toddlers. “And then, all of a sudden, she wanted to do it and that was it.”

Team Lady Whalers included, from left to right, Phoebe Miller, Kristin Pettigrew, Maddie Martin and Amanda Stanis.

Though he would not describe Kristin as a natural rower, Pettigrew said she’s naturally athletic and, with some minor instruction, has improved her grip on the oars and rowing technique. He did not start offering pointers until last year, explaining that most of what his daughter and Maddie have learned they’ve gleaned from observing their fathers from afar.

Before Pettigrew was diagnosed with arthritis, and Martin, 51, underwent back surgery a few years back, it was not usual for the rowing partners to practice just their launches several dozen times in a single evening.

It was on one of those nights that Kristin decided to give it a go.

“I was just sitting up on the wharf and I was pretty bored, so I asked him if I could try it,” said Kristin, who’s about to begin her senior year at Pierson High School. “I did it and it was fun, and I just sort of got hooked.”

Though she has played lacrosse since elementary school, and been a member of Pierson’s cross country team since her sophomore year, Kristin said rowing requires a different skillset. In addition to possessing good stamina, rowers need to learn proper technique.

It also helps that she and Maddie clicked almost from the beginning.

Still, Kristin flat-out refuses to train prior to the races, saying she has a hard enough time making it to the cross country practices that start at 7 a.m. “It’s just so early in the morning,” she explains.

Maddie hits the gym several times a week, though she notes she must be “physically fit all around” for her military career. The 2017 East Hampton High School graduate signed a six-year commitment with the Marine Corps after graduation and left for boot camp in November.

All four young ladies intend to defend their women’s division title at this year’s HarborFest, scheduled for the weekend of September 8-9, though Maddie might not be able to compete in all of the qualification races due to her military obligations. While she’s requested off the entire weekend, Maddie has yet to hear back from her superiors.

“We don’t want anyone to think that’s it’s just a fluke or beginner’s luck,” Maddie said, referring to her desire to win the women’s championship for the second consecutive year. “We want to defend the title and I’m really hoping that I can go.”

Even if she cannot row in all of the qualification rounds, Maddie is confident that Amanda, a fellow 2017 East Hampton High School graduate, can fill in and work with Kristin to make sure they advance. “She just needs someone to row with her on the first day,” Maddie said, referring to Kristin.

As for Kristin, she has not yet decided if she’ll try to defend their juniors title again this year, explaining that she’s uncertain who she’d team up with since Maddie no longer qualifies for that division.

Unlike their fathers who devote hours just to trimming fractions of seconds off their starts—Billy Martin said he would like to hit 20 official wins before hanging up the oars for good—Maddie and Kristin don’t practice until two weeks before the races. That’s when the whaleboats are usually made available to them. “None of us have a boat,” Maddie explained.

Their routine changes in the days leading up the races, when fathers and daughters meet down by the water almost every night to practice their launches and rowing techniques. Both Kristin and Maddie note that while the men’s races tend to be more aggressive, with a lot more grabbing and the attempted dislodging of oars, the female competitors aren’t exactly mellow.

“You usually have some oars snap … and they pull and push on each other’s boats,” Maddie said of the male whaleboat racers. “There was some pushing in our race too, but they didn’t try to pull out our oars.”

So, just how serious do these two families take the races?

Maddie said she balled her eyes out when her father’s team had their tiller snap in the men’s finals last year, essentially disqualifying them and dashing all hope for a double father-daughter reunion in the winner’s circle. The team from The Sag Harbor Express, which sponsors the Whaleboat Races, would claim the men’s title for the first time last year.

Kristin, who was watching the men’s finals last year, took the news equally well.

“She was pretty mad at us for losing,” Ray Pettigrew said. “She wasn’t’ very happy with that. “She said, ‘Dad, I did my part.’”

“Yeah, we were hoping for a Whalers sweep across the board,” Kristin said. “We wanted to win the youth, men’s and women’s divisions. That didn’t happen.”

Both Kristin and Maddie say their main goal remains reaching the winner’s circle again this year, and for their fathers to do the same.

“I want for both of us to be able to hoist the trophies at the same time, to have an all-Whalers win with our dads,” Maddie said. “That would be so cool.”