Coach’s Tips

Wanted: Person to Start Rowing Program From Scratch

By Tim Ulsaker
From the 1997 American Rower’s Almanac

School administrator: “So you want to start a crew program here? What is crew anyway? Oh yeah, canoe racing, I seen it once. We can’t give you any money; however, if you get a team started we can get the school board to recognize/sanction/insure it and provide you with transportation/fuel.”

Cha-Ching! (I do believe my superintendent has lived to regret that offer!)
The common denominator in most discussions about how to start a high school rowing program is the question: “Who can you get that knows how to do it?” That runs into subsequent logistics, such as: Can that person be at practice Monday through Friday each afternoon from 3:00 to 7:00 and all day Saturday when the racing schedule begins, as well as how do you get equipment, maintain it, and transport it to and from races? And oh yeah, what about permission if needed from country governments, park authorities, or waterborne police?

“You are asking us to make a decision involving heathen teenagers in activities that we know nothing about-on the water?! Call us after we have our biannual meeting, and we’ll let you know if we decided to form a committee to discuss it or not.” Well, it might not be that bad, as you may see from my experience in starting the Mathews High School Crew.

Mathews County, Virginia, is a rural waterfront community of 8,000 people. It has a long tradition of maritime trades, seafood harvesting, and farming, which changed little for many years. Change began, however, over the last twenty years as seafood yields declined and farmlands have increasingly become waterfront homes for successful retirees or places for younger professionals seeking a rural life and a decent place to raise their families.

In 1980 I became the auto mechanics teacher at Mathews High School and was given an empty shop complete with a group of teenage boys just looking for reorganization (the boys didn’t actually realize that at the time). We all worked hard together and showed the school and community that we could make something happen if we were given some support and recognition. With a successful turnaround of the auto repair program, I kept having another dream that nagged at me for attention: To start a crew program at Mathews High School.

Three rivers run through Mathews County. The Lower Chesapeake Bay makes up its eastern border and separates it from Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Before I graduate from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, I had been involved in the school’s successful rowing program out of the Potomac Boat Club in Washington, D.C. I had developed a good foundation for enthusiastic youth rowing as well as a working knowledge of what it takes to row competitively. I never forgot the excitement and deep commitment that competitive rowing experience brings and always looked for a way to reestablish myself in crew.

Two ways to stay involved with crew after your high school or college experience are to work and live where crew programs and clubs exist (easiest) or to start a new program where you are (hardest). I felt that the time was ripe for starting high school crew in Tidewater and that the 350- to 400 student population of MHS provided a good group of young people who needed some excitement in their lives. This excitement then grew exponentially from the students (and their coach) to the parents, to the community, and ultimately through pride within the school itself.

To start this enterprise I consulted with my old coach, Charlie Butt, a great mentor of crew programs, and one of the fathers of high school rowing on the East Coast. This consultation netted the MHS crew in 1986 its first “borrowed” shell-an old Pocock 8 circa 1962 complete with the wooden sweeps I rowed with in 1969. Nine bold and adventurous boys and a very green coach began what has turned into a ten-year process. We obtained permission to row out of an abandoned cow barn conveniently located on a creek that emptied into a very exposed end of the East River. The creek, which was approximately 100 strokes long, taught the boys how to start, navigate turns, turn around quickly in the wind and waves at the mouth, and blast back to the sheltered head for another go. On some heavenly days (about 40 percent of our season), the lower East River allowed us to go out on an extended row upriver to that revered four-mile stretch of sheltered water beyond a peninsula known as Williams Wharf. We made two races that season and had to borrow a shell at each race because we had no way to transport the “Papa”-the name the boys gave to the old Pocock.

Growth came in the form of an old but raceable Pocock 4 we bought from George Washington University and another Pocock sectional 8 in which Washington-Lee’s 1969 V-8 crew won the Princess Elizabeth Cup at the Royal Henley Regatta. Increased racing experience in our now van-topped shells gave the crew more continuity and confidence. News of the boys’ expeditions to the Land of the Giants (Northern Virginia) gave us a following of supporters who began to crave news of our races and root for the little crew at local crossroads (barber shops, general stores, post office, church, and socials). I capitalized on the excitement, sent out letters, and raised enough money for our first new sectional 8!

Our next big boost came two years later with the use of Williams Wharf for an annual regatta site. Williams Wharf is a 3.5 acre upriver peninsula on the East River that stands at the gateway to the sainted four-mile stretch of sheltered water. We always covered the Wharf as the ideal spot to locate our crew program; but it was in use as a small boatyard and an oil warehouse/distribution company. So, I went for the next best thing. I got permission from the boatyard owners to host an annual regatta where we could invite teams from Northern Virginia to a crude but very different wade-in regatta. These regattas met with good success, providing locals with a firsthand look, Northern Virginia crews with a new racing site, and us a foothold at Williams Wharf. Our community saw enough to realize what our equipment needs were and also our potential if we developed our fleet. Local citizens, civic organizations, and business rallied together in support of the MHS crew. We added a new quad convertible in 1989 and added sculling to our program.
In 1990 two significant events took place. First, the oil distribution company at Williams Wharf shut down. This left a warehouse, concrete yard, and long dock right in the middle of the upriver side of Williams Wharf unoccupied. The second event was the addition of a girls’ program. As sole coach, I had felt it would be difficult to run a boys’ and a girls’ program simultaneously; but now I would strongly recommend it. While the girls’ program brought an immediate need for more equipment, the girls themselves brought an entirely new spirit of competition and dedication. Their parents broadened our base of support, and by 1992 our fleet grew with a new 8 for the girls, another quad convertible, more sweeps and sculls, a trailer, and a $32,000 concrete floating dock at our “rowing facility.” What facility you might ask? Read on…

The single most important boost in this crew’s history occurred in early 1992 when I secured a five-year, rent-free lease between the owner of the closed oil warehouse property at Williams Wharf and our school board. We finally had a rowing facility that gave us (almost) daily access to the sheltered upper reaches of the East River. The girls’ team was developing well, and we began winning championship events in Northern Virginia and were finally fast enough to try the competition in Philadelphia and at the Scholastic (SRA) Nationals. The local community began to find a true spirit of pride in its local crew, and by 1994 we had a competitive crew of 35 boys and girls (10 percent of the school), our first straight quad/four, and a new double.

In the fall of 1993 I began talking with Jim Smith, a neighbor of Williams Wharf. Smith is a sales representative for Luxury Dock Corporation, the manufacturer of our floating concrete dock. Jim was very enthusiastic about the crew, and we began brainstorming on how to buy Williams Wharf. The boatyard owner was facing bankruptcy and trying to sell the property. Jim had a lot of background in marine parks and shoreline projects. We finally combined the crew facility with an idea of public waterfront access. We formed a nonprofit organization and with the help of a local philanthropist applied for and received a federally funded grant for $702,000 to build a $900,000 human or wind-powered small-craft facility. Needless to say, we now own Williams Wharf and are putting together the final work to buy the oil warehouse property that proved the site for our planned three-story boathouse and handling facility.

No, I am not making this up! What started as a desire to get back to crew and share its rewards with others in my community has led to something I never dreamed of. In 1995 and 1996 our girls’ crew brought home their first gold medals in national-level regattas, brought our boys a taste of the medal platform, which instilled gold medal goals for 1997, and launched the Mobjack Boat Club. The MBC uses the crew facility for summer community rowing (participants have ranged in age from 12 to 80) and a competitive youth program. Rowers from the MHS crew have regularly volunteered to go out with the MBC summer novices to help teach them to row. I sometimes think they take a perverse pleasure in helping struggling, sweaty adults learn to balance a racing shell. We now have seven alumni involved in collegiate rowing programs at Washington College, Rutgers University, the University of Charlestown at WV, Davidson College, and Virginia Tech. Three of these alumni help me as paid coaches in the MBC summer novice program. Our equipment inventory has now reached over $200,000 in cost, and our roster for 1997 will include more than 45 boys and girls.

A lot of my success with starting this crew came from lucky breaks, good timing, and hard work. The common thread that sews it all together is the recognizable personal rewards and self-discipline that a young person obtains from the crew experience. I have watched parents cry as their children cross the finish line (myself included), observed major changes in attitude and habits, and admired a level of determination and rare quality of sacrifice often wished for but seldom seen in modern teenagers. The pride that comes from a good program, whether it is crew or something else, gives a young person who is just starting on his way a sense of ability and accomplishment. This particular program and its success has revitalized a sleepy community. Citizens are proud of what their youthful crew has done, and they look forward to Williams Wharf serving as a showcase for what they want visitors to appreciate.

If you are trying to gain support for a crew program, you need to demonstrate these benefits to your supporters and never let anyone lose sight of them. Use all the publicity tools you can muster and continually put your program’s accomplishments in the public eye. Continue working hard on your program, and others in your area will be encouraged to start a program following your example. In Tidewater, one other program is already up and racing, and there is news of several attempting to start in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. If you are running your program effectively, the magic of strong and focused youth is plainly there for all to see. We all know that building strength and responsibility in youth means a bright future.

Tips on Starting and Developing a High School or Youth Rowing Program
•    Get administration behind you first.
•    Start by recruiting your athletic director and principal. Show them videos of good high school rowing. Outline scholarship opportunities, and explain how crew can develop school athletes and improve their performance and confidence in other sports. Make sure they understand that you will organize and raise money for it.
•    A little note on politics. Many ADs and principals do not like to take on new programs involving sports they know nothing about. They will often look at crew as a sport that reduces the talent pool available for existing sports and not see value in a sport that does not generate revenue. Some modern administrators are becoming open-minded and recognize that sports can fall in and out of popularity. I hope you have modern administrators!
•    If you think your administration and AD oppose crew from a lack of understanding but that the school population can sustain crew and other sports, just ask permission to hold a student meeting to see if there is interest. Invite boys and girls, as both bring in varied types of support and will double your initial numbers. If you get a good turnout, show the AD and principal our list. If the reaction isn’t violent opposition, then meet with kids’ parents to see what kind of support and interest they could provide. If it’s favorable, return to the administration by yourself, present them with the support you’ve discovered, and say that the parents and students respectfully request permission to try a pilot club program. Most Ads and principals will agree to this as long as it’s presented as a request, not an ultimatum.
•    Don’t underestimate the importance of including a girls’ crew. Schools are often looking for new sports for girls to add to their athletic programs. Sometimes special funding is available; the school can also gain credit for advancing new sport opportunities for girls.
•    If you are not a faculty member, you should either find a faculty sponsor to work with or demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of school rules, procedures, and the administrator’s philosophy involving the students’ physical and academic well-being. This includes requirements for participating in an athletic program.

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Tim Ulsaker is the Senior Rowing Coach at Mathews High School in Mathews, Virginia. Tim rowed for three years while a student at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, then took a fifteen year hiatus to serve in the U.S. Navy, attend college, and establish himself as a teacher. In 1986 Tim started the Mathews High School rowing program, and in the years since has built a strong scholastic rowing program. Tim lives in Ware Neck, VA.