Powering Upstream

Charting the Rise of Rowing –
On and Off the Water

written by BROOKS METZLER | photography courtesy of BROOKS METZLER; CARYN OXFORD; SAMANTHA TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY; TOTAL ROW FITNESS

Normally on a chilly Saturday at 8 A.M., you’ll find me in bed. But on this March morning, under a powder blue sky, I watched dozens of self-propelled watercraft whizz by unfettered by the 38-degree morning. “Tom Donohoe” graced the stern of a slender white boat and I watched a team of eight place it into the Chattahoochee River with several military-precise motions.

Members of the Atlanta Rowing Club by the Chattahoochee River near Roswell

“All of the greats have boats named after them,” said Kim Griffiths. As a rower in the Atlanta Rowing Club and the chair of the social committee, she guided me through a tour of their boathouses leading down to the water. 

Donohoe, she explained, founded the group with a few fellow rowers in 1974. Initially, they used Stone Mountain Lake for practices, but began constructing boathouses and hosting practices from the dock on Azalea Drive in Roswell in 1978. By 1980, the club operated exclusively from this location, and in the decades since, a new wave of enthusiasts — competitive and recreational alike — is swelling on the Northside.

Ready, Set, Row

Like most non-profits, the Atlanta Rowing Club relies strongly on member volunteers. Members are required to put in eight hours of volunteer work per year, not counting the additional six required during the nation’s second largest regatta, Head of the Hooch. However, Griffiths said many members exceed those hours. “We’re out here because we love being on the water,” she said. And according to an ARC newsletter, in 2015, members on average provided 20 hours of service each.

At the dock, I met up with Bryce Chung. The Hawaii native wore red sunglasses and spoke excitedly of the club; after all, he’s been president of ARC for the past four years. We chatted for a few minutes, then boarded the launch, a matte-grey boat with a nine-horsepower Mercury outboard engine. It’s the boat of choice for rowing coaches, who’ve long praised its maneuverability and low wake.

We quickly shoved off and sped over to the first group. These eight men and women comprise a master’s team — the name given to rowers who are past the post-collegiate level (ages 23 and above). In fact, Atlanta Rowing Club is the only organization of its kind in the region
offering beginner’s programs for older adult rowers. This particular master’s team rowed in what crews refer to as an “eight.”

Eights are the largest and most stable shells, and actually house more than the name lets on. A ninth person, called a coxswain, is in charge of guiding rowers through the course like a rally co-pilot. These boats measure a whopping 60 feet in length and cost as much as an Audi A4. 

As we set off down the river, the men’s competitive group, who rowed in a quad, soon joined us. This shell differs as it holds only four people and each rower powers two oars through the water instead of one. The quad is more difficult to row than the eight, but pales in comparison to a pair.

“Even the slightest error [in a pair] and you’re in the water,” Griffiths said. After watching several pairs go by, it was easy to see why. Their boats were only as wide as the cleaver blades on their oars and each person held one oar, meaning any lapses in rhythm would end with a cold splash in the river.

Competitive Crews

Most of the Atlanta Rowing Club’s member dues go toward funding equipment cost and rental of land from the City of Roswell, but a good portion is allocated to hiring additional coaches. Most recently, these efforts have been aimed at honing teams in preparation for Head of the Hooch.

On the first Saturday and Sunday in November, rowing teams nationwide converge on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The first Head of the Hooch regatta took place at the ARC’s home base in 1982 and saw 105 boats registered. In 2004, the competition moved to its present location, with 10 times as many entrants. By 2015, it had reached a maximum capacity with 2,300 competing boats — rivaled in size only by Massachusetts’ Head of the Charles. 

What does it take to train for this sport? Ask Alison Eloquin, an instructor at American Row House in  Marietta. The regatta bug caught her when she was a teenager. Eloquin said she’d played softball and basketball from a young age, but made a switch after discovering her cousin rowed. “Rowing isn’t as big in the South,” Eloquin said, and that uniqueness appealed to her. 

She started rowing in high school, first joining Saint Andrew Rowing Club, an arm of Georgia Tech’s rowing program aimed at teaching and training youth rowers. It wasn’t long before Eloquin was hooked, and she soon joined the Atlanta Junior Rowing Association (AJRA). This introduced her to the competitive side of rowing, and during that time she spent her weekends competing at regattas in Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. 

Eloquin currently works as a mortgage broker, but still finds time to teach classes at American Row House twice a week. Each class at the indoor studio is 45-minutes long, and are roughly broken up into a warm-up, intervals of endurance, stamina or power and a cool-down.

For some, they’re a source of dread and it’s rumored (though hard to verify) that rowing originated as a form of corporal punishment. Whether an older chain-driven unit, a modern WaterRower or out on the Hooch, rowing aficionados will tell you the many physical benefits rowing offers far outweigh any delayed onset muscle soreness. 

As a cardio exercise, Eloquin emphasized that nothing beats rowing, as not only does it get your heart rate up, but it also strengthens and activates various muscle groups in your body. “One rowing stroke works so many different muscle groups — you can’t get that with anything else,” Eloquin said, adding that rowing utilizes 84 percent of our body muscles with every stroke. 

The term “stroke” triggers a common misconception held by beginners, or rowers who may not have been taught the correct technique in the first place. Eloquin said that while rowing does work the upper body, the majority of work comes from the legs to physically push the seat back. In proper form, the arms are simply there to guide the oars through the water. 

“It’s very high intensity [and] low impact, which is great across the board,” Eloquin said. The lack of impact inherent to the sport means it’s much easier on the knees, lower back and hips than other exercises. This also means rowing can be great cross-training for runners and sprinters, whose workouts are naturally high impact, but all levels of athletes are welcomed, too.

Since it’s a seated exercise, Eloquin believes rowing can work wonders for elderly people, those who are coming  back from a sports injury or even those who have previously not done intense physical activity. Eloquin added that several of the people who attend her classes are in their 70s. 

While rowing certainly provides a great workout, its benefits extend far beyond strengthening your quads. To Eloquin, rowing is an exercise in finesse and rhythm. 

“[On the water,] every oar has to move at the same time and be in sync,” she said. “When you’re in the boat, you’re individually giving it your all to reach the determined meter mark, but you’re also relying on your teammates to give that same effort every time.” 

Eloquin recalled many races when she and her teammates stepped out of the boat and were nearly sick after their intense push to the finish. That solidifies or breaks bonds in rowing, she said. And it’s one of the things that’s made rowing so important to her.

“The camaraderie of [rowing] really kept me coming back. You’ve got to have their back [whoever is sitting in front of you].”

Catching the Current

Now you may be interested in getting in a boat, but the next question is, “Where do I start?” Thankfully, the rowing scene in Atlanta has grown dramatically in the past couple of decades, so your options are better than ever.

For adults who want to become involved, the ARC’s Learn to Row courses are a great place to start. Participants begin indoors at the club’s boathouse, learning the techniques necessary to master their stroke before hitting the water.

The club further incentivizes those who are curious about rowing by participating in National Learn to Row Day, which takes place on June 3. ARC offers free tours and seminars to those who want to learn more about rowing and according to club records, last year’s event amassed more than 100 participants. 

Atlanta Rowing Club also offers innovative Adaptive Rowing programs, aimed at those with physical disabilities. On March 18, the club hosted its Adaptive Rowing open house and hopes to begin a redesign of their dock area to make it more accessible, according to Chung.

Anna Virgo, program coordinator and coach of the women’s varsity team, explained what ARC’s sister group, AJRA (Atlanta Junior Rowing Association), is all about. 

“Kids typically get interested in rowing after attending one of our summer camps,” Virgo said. The camps, which take place in one- and two-week sessions, teach middle and high schoolers the fundamentals of rowing, including the history of the sport, terminology, equipment and safety on and off the water.

Virgo herself was a high school rower, and, like Eloquin, began at the Saint Andrew Rowing Club, then continued for three and a half years with Georgia State University. She began coaching in 2005 and has since coached novice women’s teams, developmental teams and varsity teams. As a program coordinator, she assists members of the board of directors in planning events. 

“Right now, we’re trying to create partnerships with the community,” Virgo said. Junior rowers come from high schools all over the Northside and Virgo said the AJRA wants to further solidify those bonds with the communities close to their boathouse. Booths at Taste of Alpharetta, as well as partnerships with Dunwoody
Parks and Recreation and the City of Sandy Springs help strengthen AJRA’s already-reputable image in the community, while bringing in new rowers and helping local schools become involved.

“Our group takes from about 40 schools, but many schools still don’t allow rowing clubs,” Virgo said. This is for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to fundraising woes and a simple lack of awareness about the sport. “What we’re really excited about is Middle School Adventure Night,” Virgo said. Coming up in June, this night promises fun activities for middle schoolers, centered around rowing and all taking place at the Roswell River Landing. 

For students who’d like to become involved, AJRA has made it easy for a wide range of middle and high school athletes of all abilities to take part. Development programs are aimed at seventh and eighth graders who have never rowed before attending a Learn to Row camp, according to Virgo. Similarly, recreational teams offer high school kids an opportunity to learn the same skills.

But for those who’d like to go full steam ahead, there’s the novice program, where high school rowers practice five days a week and participate in competitions throughout the region. These kids compete in the fall and spring, and many also attend winter conditioning camps offered by AJRA. 

No matter what level of commitment, Virgo believes these programs provide invaluable skills for anyone who participates. “It’s the ultimate team sport, but at the same time, it’s also very personal,” she said.  

“Every new season, I see kids who may not have ever been athletic before gain a new passion,” she said. That’s more than reason enough for her to wish for the sport’s strong future. 

For more information, visit atlantarow.org

TWO IF BY LAND 

For those who’d rather stick to dry land, American Row House in Marietta offers a variety of options available in morning and evening classes Monday through Saturday. Classes range from endurance-based exercise during which participants spend more time on the rower to high-intensity interval workouts, where rowing fundamentals are divided into strength training stations and approximately only one-third of the time is spent on rowers. If you’ve been hesitant to dip your toe in the water, this is your chance to grab the paddle and go.  arhfitness.com 

A workout at Total Row Fitness in Buckhead burns nearly 1,000 calories per hour and is a low impact workout uses 84 percent of your muscles.

Riding the popularity wave of local rowing, both on and off the water like at American Row House, another boutique studio is making its own wake. Total Row Fitness in Buckhead has a number of classes to bring the health benefits of rowing to even more local crews. totalrowfitness.com