Looking Back: Harbor Rowing Club Promotes a Old Sport

Jim Marquardt

“Rowing is the only sport that originated as a form of capital punishment.” – Anon.

The crewmen who manned the oars of rugged Sag Harbor whaleboats in the 19th century no doubt thought rowing was just another arduous part of the job. Those long-ago sailors would shake their heads in wonder at the enthusiastic members of the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club who you can see almost any day skimming across the cove. The modern shells used in the program would be strange to old whalers. The shells, or sculls, are built with inner and outer skins of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. Sandwiched around honeycomb material, the hulls achieve strength and light weight. A fin near the stern reduces roll and yaw. The sport has been growing in popularity in the United States, partly due to the best-selling book “The Boys in the Boat” about Olympic rowers from the University of Washington.

The Community Rowers launch three classes of boats, from an individual shell called a single scull to two-person and four-person shells. The boats are lengthy and slender, a racing single is 26 to 29 feet long and nine to eleven inches wide at the water line. It weighs only 30 pounds. Four-person shells measure an imposing 40-feet long. Rowing is an old sport with rich tradition. In the United States the Narragansett Boat Club founded in 1838 and the Detroit Boat Club in 1839 launched racing sculls when whaleships were regularly sailing out of Sag Harbor. Yale University founded the first American college rowing club in 1843.

Lee Oldak of Sag Harbor inspired the idea for the community rowing organization about 11 years ago. It has since developed into an enjoyable and rigorous sport for more than 40 adults and young people from Sag Harbor and surrounding towns. Oldak himself was not a rower, though he gets out on the water aboard his sailboat that he moors at the Breakwater Yacht Club where he is a former commodore. He became familiar with the rowing sport while working at Amagansett Beach and Bicycle, and as a sales rep for Wintech, a new company that markets racing shells. In 2008, Lee brought his idea for a rowing program to Greg Ferraris who at the time was mayor of Sag Harbor. Greg agreed that rowing would be healthy recreation for Harbor people of all ages and a good use for idle property off Redwood Road where boats could be stored and launched into the cove.

Lee helped finance the start-up along with donations and was able to borrow six shells from a Connecticut organization. Now the club finances its activities through dues and fees during the summer program, with memberships set at lower cost to attract participants under 21. Besides teaching techniques for rowing sculls, the club instructs members in the care of equipment. Lee and Greg are proud that two junior girls have received scholarships to area colleges based on rowing skills they learned on Sag Harbor Cove.

The Sag Harbor rowers are on the water from April to November. The members are about equally divided between men and women ranging in age from middle-schoolers all the way up to 60 and 70 year olds. Lee says interest has been growing, especially among young women. Some participants come from as far away as Montauk and only a few of the older members had previous rowing experience, usually in college. For most, it is a first time challenge

A rhythmic, repetitive technique is involved in sculling. The rower sits on a movable seat mounted on tracks and begins the rowing sequence by crouching forward, knees near the chest. The rower places the blade in the water, called the “catch,” and applies pull on the oars by extending the legs and pushing the seat towards the bow of the boat while keeping the back straight. As the legs approach full extension, the rower brings the arms towards the chest. At the end of the stroke, the hands drop slightly to remove the oars from the water, referred to as the “finish.” Almost simultaneously, the rower quickly rotates the oars so the blades are parallel to the water, called “feathering,” and bends the knees again to move the seat towards the stern, in position to repeat the action. Sculling oars have an off-center blade at the business end of the oar. Its shape is unsymmetrical and looks a little like a butcher’s cleaver.

The sport demands and builds physical strength, flexibility and endurance. Participants quickly learn that rowing exercises all the major muscle groups — quads, biceps, triceps, lats, glutes and abdominal muscles. I don’t know where all of them are, but it’s obviously a complete work-out. The annual Oxford versus Cambridge race in England and the Harvard-Yale race on the Charles River in Boston are famous rowing competitions. Both cover courses of approximately four miles, a long distance to row full throttle. Pictures of the crews at the finish line show them hanging over their oars, completely exhausted. Not so for community rowers we have seen sprinting happily over the placid waters of Sag Harbor Cove, eagerly competing against clubs from Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.