It is not a beautiful morning. I’m perched in the prow of the Jacksonville Rowing Club’s (JRC) launch. It’s 6 a.m., and I am six inches away from the dock, 60 feet away from any kind of shelter, and six hundred times wetter than I’ve ever been because it is raining with Noah-esque intensity.
I’m riding with Coach Andrew Soloway to watch a morning practice. We got started and the skies opened.
I look at Soloway, expecting him to end practice, but nobody is bailing—figuratively speaking. Over in the racing shell, rowers are bailing by using water bottles, cupped hands, and a tall blue pair of lace-up boots. These are resourceful people. Torrential rain is not a deal breaker. Jennifer Moore, head coach for the Bolles Middle School Crew Team, shrugs her shoulders at the sky. “I tell my kids it’s a water sport,” she says. “Expect wet.”
Rowing is not a throw-on-your-sneakers-and-go sport. Rowers need boats. Eight-man racing shells, weighing an impressive 220 pounds and measuring approximately 64 feet long, are also impressively fragile; quite easy to dent or puncture. These performance boats need a boathouse to keep them in peak condition. “Sometimes I think ours is held together by duct tape,” says Soloway with a grin.
The history of the JRC proves their resourcefulness. The club is a result of two rowing clubs combining forces; the Remex Rowing Club and the St. Johns Few. Despite changing locations multiple times since its inception in the 70s, the club’s loyal members have donated equipment and labor to create a welcoming, well-stocked boathouse which supports youth and adult competitive teams.
Mark Frampton has been with the club since the early 80s and had a five-year presidential run in the 90s. He coaches the Learn to Row classes, which are offered six times a year, for a duration of four to six weeks each. Frampton says people come for the class and get hooked.
“A rower has the same personality profile as a cross country runner,” says Frampton. “You have to enjoy doing the same thing over and over in quest of the perfect stride, or the perfect stroke.”
Rafael Milanes, ten-year club member, holds a reputation as one of the club’s most patient teachers and as a rowing partner who brings out the best in other rowers. “The satisfaction of rowing is the knowledge that you will never fully master the art. Every stroke is a learning experience,” says Milanes. “The river is a very good teacher.”
The skies clear halfway through practice. Soloway steers the launch expertly, darting from one side of the shell to the other, checking technique. Rowing demands a lot of oxygen, but rowing posture doesn’t allow the lungs to fully expand so rowers must control their breathing. Rowers fall into a rhythm of strong sweeps and measured breaths. It’s a privilege to witness such focus and commitment. There is a beauty to the synchronicity of it.
There’s an undeniable togetherness necessary to perform well, which makes rowing a sport that can strengthen familial bonds. The Gagnon family knows how rowing can get a family through hard times. Suzette and Christina Gagnon, mother-daughter rowers, sport matching “Be Not Afraid” tattoos in honor of Suzette’s son and Christina’s brother, who rowed his way back to balance and recovery after osteosarcoma and a brain injury. Parents row to connect with their elusive teenagers. Mary Kellmason, mom of a rowing family, loves the insights rowing provides, and says “If you don’t row, you don’t know.”
Information about the club and Learn to Row classes can be found at jaxrow.org.