The 2019 season marks ACR's 30th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, club member Alice Reid compiled the following history of the club.
Alexandria Community Rowing got its start 30 years ago with a question put to a TC Williams rowing coach by a group of parents.
“What is it about crew,” they asked, “that makes our kids love it so?”
“Come down here every morning at 6:30 a.m. this summer, and I’ll show you,“ was Coach Beth Yancey’s answer. And she kept her word.
That first shell full of adult rowers that launched from the then-brand new Alexandria Schools’ boat house became the seed for the ACR we have today.
Our boat that summer of 1988 was an elderly Pocock eight, river-worthy but heavy as lead. Up and down the Potomac we rowed, in spite of plagues of blisters and aching backs. Eventually we learned how to pull our oars in sync. We not only found ourselves bitten by the rowing bug, but eager to expand the same opportunities to other parents and adults in the community.
That initial excitement created something that has today become a vibrant rowing club on the Alexandria waterfront. Its 350 members range in age from early 20s to 80. We row spring, summer, and fall; work out together during winters; and represent ACR at regattas from California to Florida and New England.
Actually, adult rowing in Alexandria has a long history. For its first half-century, the city’s Old Dominion Boat Club was home to rowers as well as sailors. In 1947 two members, Julian Whitestone and Jack Franklin, started training local high school boys to row. A few years later they convinced parents to form a booster club and help buy equipment for their kids. Thus scholastic rowing and Alexandria Crew Boosters, ACR’s parent organization, were born.
By the time that early morning group of newbies hit the water, high school rowing had been a city fixture for nearly 50 years.
SELLING THE ACR CONCEPT
ACR managed to organize and thrive because it combined two ideas: 1) increasing community interest in the sport of rowing in a riverside town already known for it, and 2) helping to raise money to support the city’s scholastic crew programs, by making membership in the local crew booster’s club mandatory for every ACR member. A portion of every member’s club dues goes straight to the booster organization to support its efforts on behalf of city school rowers.
By 1988, the city’s new $1.3 million school boathouse had been open for only a season. To keep up quality and competitiveness, the boosters would need to buy and maintain expensive shells and other equipment. ACR members would help with that.
That fall, the idea was gaining traction with T C Williams coaches, led by light-weight girls’ coach Steve Weir. The Alexandria high school Crew Booster president, Kitty Porterfield, mother of ACR coach Michael Porterfield, worked hard to sell the idea of ACR to some skeptical school administrators and even some crew parents.
“This was a new concept,” she recalled. “I don’t believe there was another school booster club with an adult rowing contingent anywhere on the Potomac.”
Potomac Boat Club in Georgetown was the only established adult rowing club on the river at the time. Capital Rowing Club was just getting underway at Thompson’s Boat House in D.C.
School officials were concerned about a host of issues. They had just built an expensive boathouse and were worried about liability issues, use issues, and they couldn’t quite see how this proposed club would work, according to Porterfield. Luckily there were enough parents and school officials who understood that growing an adult club “could be a way to support the kids and support the community,” she added.
Talking the school board into the necessary approvals came next, greatly aided by Weir. And by the summer of 1989, the club was on firm footing. More parents were joining and learning to row.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Royce Drake, ACR’s first dock master, remembers. But if the club was to succeed and play its supporting role to Crew Boosters, income was paramount. And club leaders set to finding ways to increase it.
School officials and crew boosters had given ACR rights to use the “outdoor storage area” along the south side of the boat house. It had no roof at the time, but Coach Weir, his dad Tom and Drake, hammered together wooden racks to hold single sculls. Rowers rented them, and the funds created an income stream that went straight to Crew Boosters.
“Then we started recruiting adults to row,” Drake recalled, “and then funneling part of that money back to crew boosters to buy shells.”
ACR’s “learn to row” and “learn to scull” clinics, begun in 1989, spurred membership in the club’s early years. Experienced rowers Frede Ottinger and Tom Burke began holding afternoon sculling classes that attracted a growing contingent, mainly of TC Williams crew members’ moms.
And Coach Weir added a sweep program, for men and for women, as part of summer crew. Again, all of it, along with a portion of members’ dues, added to revenues earmarked for Crew Boosters. ACR began growing its club coffers as well.
Eventually, ACR managed to set aside enough cash to purchase a quad of its own for $4,500. But early on the club-owned fleet was minimal.
Aside from heavy wooden hand-me-downs from the high school program, there was a big Maas double that had been a gift, plus two singles called the Pygmalion and the Icarus, better known as the “Pig” and the “Ick”.
Mary Berry, a member since 1990, remembered, “They’d been filled with a substance that resembled tough Styrofoam, making them both unsinkable and unwieldy. Rowing one was like propelling a log down the Potomac.”
MOVING INTO THE 90s
Weir offered first sweep and later sculling classes for adults that began to give ACR more visibility as members started to appear on regatta rosters. His ACR men’s and and women’s eights rowed for ACR in the Head of the Occoquan the fall of 1990, the beginning of what became regular racing entries by ACR.
“Once we started going to regattas, we had to have a name,” Drake remembered. “We tossed around a few and came up with Alexandria Community Rowing. And then of course there were tee-shirts.”
That winter, Ottinger began the first early morning winter-conditioning class. Three mornings a week, about a dozen rowers arrived in the early morning darkness to stretch, do prescribed erg pieces and stretch some more.
Ottinger, a serious singles sculler, decided that, “if we were going to be adequate rowers, we were going to need regular exercise,” even in winter. “The boat house was there, and the ergs were there.”
Crew Boosters gave the classes its blessing. Today Winter Conditioning plays a major role in club members’ fitness with at least one or two sessions six days a week.
“ACR was much closer to the notion of people just messing about in boats, and then, like all good things, just took off,” said member Tom Dabney.
Soon the club membership approached 100 and then grew to 150 by the mid-90s. Each membership provided $40 to Crew Boosters. Crew boosters also continued to receive rack rental fees in the shed, which at some point acquired a proper roof.
ACR sweep crews rowed high school hand-me-down eights. Sculling doubles and quads were mostly owned by the city schools. And coaches were a combination of high school coaches, alumni of the TC program, plus elite rowers like Charlotte Hollings and Jaime Rubini. Rubini first coached informally and later coached sweep rowers, scullers, singles rowers and even winter conditioning.
In the mid-nineties, the club’s main contingent of parents and other adults who were newcomers to rowing, were joined by a younger contingent—many being alumni of college programs. In 1994, ACR sent a men’s eight to the Head of the Charles for the first time. In 1996, a competitive women’s eight went, but did not race, as a nor’easter cancelled the event. They entered again in 1998 and have often competed in that famous head race ever since.
“We had a lot of people in their 40s joining the club,” said Bob Callahan, who succeeded Drake as dockmaster and served for the next eight years.
But the dock master job had become so complicated that it required three dock masters, one for administration, one for programs and the other for operations.
Running the club “was a hell of an undertaking! Unbelievable!” Callahan recalled.
When Alan Rosenberg, a former Olympic coach with a gold medal on his resume, moved to the area in 1996, ACR hired him for a couple of years to coach the men’s eight and to run a sculling workshop on Saturday mornings.
In 1997, Peter Stramese came to ACR, mainly to help Rosenberg coach the sweep rowers, which had been a mixed, mens and women’s team. That changed soon after Stramese arrived and he took over the women’s competitive program.
According to Stramese, there began to be more of a distinction between competitive and recreational rowers. And in 1999, the club began offering a a 5-day program, for men and women who wanted to race.
“By 2001, there were 40 women in the competitive program,” Stramese said. “Some arrived from other clubs. Some had graduated from college rowing and wanted to keep their oars in.”
In some ways, Stramese said, “The club went from being a grassroots, community group, that sort of existed on the coattails of Crew Boosters, like a Huck Finn rowing club, to buying our own boats.”
By the mid-nineties, ACR boats appeared regularly at local regattas around Wye Island in Maryland, on the Occoquan and the Potomac, as well as out of town events in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston, to name a few. What really took off during the late 90s, according to Callahan, was sculling.
By 1999, the club was often competing in regattas with 3 quads and nine doubles in addition to its sweep boats.
In 2000, Stramese recruited coach Allison Kornet, who organized the club’s masters scullers into a contingent who wanted to compete. Believing firmly that “everyone, regardless of age, can get in better shape,” she insisted that all her scullers add a Thursday erg workout to weekly water sessions.
One result, she remembered, “We made a great showing in regattas.”
Getting to those regattas could be a challenge, however, especially in the earlier days. Without many resources of its own, the club transported boats on a borrowed school-owned trailer and rented a U-Haul truck to pull it.
The trailer was a somewhat rickety affair fondly nicknamed the “Kashper Death Trap.”
Loading the trailer for some of us was mystifying. We had no idea which boats should go where, and we barely knew the business end of a Vespoli strap. Coach Rubini was, thankfully, always there to advise.
“You guys did all the work,” he said. “We went through how to pull the straps. But otherwise, rowers did the work.”
Loading, usually when darkness was closing in, was only the first step. The next challenge was making the Canadian-built trailer’s lights connect and conform with the American made U-Haul. Mary Berry’s husband John devised an electrical device Mary said “resembled a land mine.” Suspended between truck and trailer, it translated the truck’s turning and braking light signals for the trailer, enabling its rear lights to work.
Next, two drivers (usually rowers) were needed to get the trailer to its destination—one at the wheel of the U-Haul, the other following behind, ready to run interference for the trailer if any lane changing was necessary.
There were mishaps. Stramese remembers arriving at a Masters Nationals Race at St. Andrews in Delaware with flat tires all along one side of the trailer.
“We were riding on rims and fringe literally, all the way to Middletown,” he recalled.
On another occasion when the trailer was headed to Pittsburgh for the Head of the Ohio, the driver noticed that the Cameron Run was no longer where it should be. He turned around on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and discovered the boat miles back. Unmoored somehow, it had flown off the trailer and landed in a farmer’s field, “It’s bow stuck like a javelin in the dirt,” according to Stramese.
ACR ADDS ON:
By the turn of the century, ACR was 167 members strong. Although still joined tightly with Crew Boosters, with members paying $40 apiece to the boosters, ACR began operating with its own budget. And for the year 2000, the ACR budget was $79,250, with $10,600 devoted to new equipment.
Most notably, the club expanded its foot print by adding on to the boat house an annex to the north designed to hold the club’s growing fleet of shells. The development of that expansion required some complex foot work involving diplomacy, budgetary sang-froid, politics and determination.
The boat house abutted vacant shoreline owned by the city. But developer Eakin Youngentob had built a townhouse development northwest of the boat house with grand views of the river. To build a structure that would extend the boat house, even slightly, on to that land required ACR to negotiate with the developer, secure permission from the city and finally to secure the school board’s blessing.
The school system proved to be most amenable, according to ACR member Rodger Digilio, who was on the school board at the time.
“There was a lot of good will. Everybody had figured out that ACR was paying a lot towards equipment for the schools rowing program,” Digilio said.
Plus the superintendent of schools, Herb Berg, had arrived in Alexandria from a suburb of Seattle where he’d become a fan of rowing.
Still, landing the approvals and finding a way to meet the annex’s $250,000 cost took several years.
Ottinger did much of the leg work and still, today, sounds amazed at the outcome.
“Basically, ACR managed to build an enclosed structure on land we didn’t own, attached to a building we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have,” said Ottinger. “It was a long, complicated and pretty much behind the scenes process.”
Construction in 2000 concluded with a day-long floor-laying project that was the ground level equivalent of a barn raising.
“I came across an incredible deal for the floor— cement pavers at $2 per square foot!” Weir remembered. Under his direction, a couple dozen ACR members dropped to their hands and knees one Saturday morning and laid row after row of pavers to build the floor. Once the job was complete, ACR had a secure, well-lighted space to store its own shells and equipment plus room for a few more rental racks.
The loan from a local bank was paid off by 2005, with annual payments of about $35,000.
Since that time, the annex has provided flexibility, initially as storage for all ACR boats. More recently, it has become the home for the consolidated scholastic and ACR sculling fleet, while ACR eights and fours have moved into the Boat House middle bay. This move accommodated growth of the ACR sweep and sculling programs and provided additional revenue to both organizations by creating extra rack rental space.
All along safety has been a priority for Crew Boosters and for Alexandria Community Rowing with both organizations periodically editing and improving safety procedures and instructions.
But in 2004, the tragic drowning of a 20-year-old summer crew coach brought fresh scrutiny to the issue, and revealed some yawning gaps in safety practices.
John Steve Catilo had been a rower at TC Williams and was a swim team standout at U.Va. where he was a student at the time of his death. He drowned one June morning while out coaching an eight full of novice rowers. He was not wearing a life vest when he toppled out of his launch while trying to restart its motor. And there was none in his launch. Neither was the launch equipped with a kill-switch and lanyard, which would have cut off his motor when he fell. Instead, the boat, in gear, moved away from him as he struggled. His body was recovered two days later.
As part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Catilo’s family, safety rules and procedures were tightened at the Alexandria boat house as well as others across the nation.
Long time ACR member Betsy Meade, who was program dock master at the time, had a hand in rewriting the safety manual for ACR and Crew Boosters.
“Safety became more of a focus, and it has stayed strong,” Meade said. The manual was fully revamped, and some changes specifically added.
For rowers, a flip test is required for the use of club singles and doubles without a coach. All coaches are required to wear life vests on the water and to carry radios to call in case of emergencies or bad weather. All launch motors come equipped with deadman’s switches. If a launch driver loses control of the throttle, the engine automatically shuts off.
The accident was a tragic jolt to the city’s crew programs, both scholastic and adult. And the subject of safety is persistently stressed.
At 30, ACR has matured of course. With 350 members, the club offers 10 programs on the water, from rowing for beginners to 5-day a week coached practices for sweep rowers who want to race. Winter Conditioning draws dozens of participants.
Its fleet includes 12 sweep boats (4s and 8s) and 24 sculling boats (1s, 2s and 4s). All-told the fleet is valued at more than $340,000.
Of course over three decades the club has weathered various storms— metaphorical, but in one case real. During Hurricane Isabel in September, 2003, high tides drove more than four feet of Potomac water into the boat house, buckling some boats that had been tied to their racks and damaging others as they sloshed around in boat bays.
The terrorist attacks of 9-11 kept the club landlocked for weeks, as the Coast Guard patrolled the river and banned all boating. One ACR member who somehow missed notice of the restrictions did shove off in his single one day, only to be stopped by the Coast Guard and searched. The economic collapse of 2008 was a tough time for ACR as the club lost members, but the numbers have more-than recovered.
The club remains at one with Alexandria Crew Boosters. The two operate in tandem, sharing some boats and using the school-owned boat house at different times.
“We operate together as one under the same roof rather than two independent entities that jointly use the boathouse,” said TC Williams Head Girls Coach, Patrick Marquardt. Student rowers always have priority.
“At first ACR was thought of as ‘those old people who row in our boat house.’...Now ACR is a valued asset,” said Stramese.
Each ACR member must join Alexandria Crew Boosters, and Community Rowing splits with Crew Boosters by 50/50 some of its income—from rack rentals in the north and south sheds, and winter conditioning sessions. Fees for afternoon adult learn to row programs all go to ACR.
In recent years Crew Boosters has added some programs of its own for adult rowers. Called Late Riser rowers, participants pay ACB directly and use school owned sweep boats and boat house ergometers for Winter Conditioning.
For its part, ACR contributes to maintenance and equipment. Most recently the club stepped up to help pay for low-energy LED lights in the main bays of the boat house, which helps student and adult rowers. In 2019 ACR will contribute to the plan to buy wakeless launches over the next decade. “There’s a lot more cross over with the boosters,” Stramese added.
The club has also looked to emphasize its community role. ACR participaties in the nationwide “Learn to Row Day” every June, which introduces all comers to the sport of rowing.
Crew boosters continues to make the boat house a home for ACR, but that relationship also means that there are constraints on how many boats ACR has available for members’ use and limits on ACR practice times.
“Its a school facility and we are there as their guests,” said ACR coach Alan Weatherley, dock master from 2008 to 2017.
Explaining how that relationship works and the limitations it imposes can be a challenge.
“Sometimes new members don’t understand,” said Jenn Bright who serves with Mary Cato as dock masters.
Both women are mainstays of ACR’s women’s competitive sweep program, which has thrived over the past four years and has boosted the club’s profile on the racing circuit. This year, the competitive women, coached by the combination of Michael Porterfield and Brian Comey, have medaled in every masters competition they’ve entered—in eights and fours—bringing home 20 medals, from bronze to gold.
“Our goal is to represent Alexandria to the best of our ability,” said Bright. She and her teammates love competition and are fierce about it.
Since the mid-90s, when racing became more central to the club, there have been times of tension between rowers who love the sport mainly as a great way to stay fit and healthy and those who crave the rush of racing and the doggedness that goes into preparing for it.
Bright and Cato both say that one of the future’s biggest challenges will be meeting a diverse set of expectations among the membership which comprises a varied group in terms of age, family responsibilities, and careers.
Weatherley, who coaches a set of eight men who enjoy racing and competing, says he still “can’t count on having my own 8 rowers at any time. They are adults. They have these responsibilities and those responsibilities. There is never a guarantee I can practice all eight before a race.”
“The challenge is that there’s a wide range of rowing interests—even in the competitive program,” said Bright. “We try to meet those different expectations in terms of enjoyment and success. And we want to build the club across the board.”
Weatherley is hopeful that “we can maintain a sensitive balance between people who want to compete and the people who just want to row and enjoy themselves.”
He looks at the future with optimism, but also with the knowledge that challenges inevitably lie ahead. He and today’s dock masters along with coaches are all concerned as development on Alexandria’s waterfront and across the river brings more potential for powerboat traffic. Already, there has been some worry about water taxi traffic and the effect of their wakes on shells and on the floating dock at the boat house.
But basically, ACR is an idea that has worked—for adults, for the city’s students, for the community.
“I think we’ve created something important,” said Weatherley. “Something that helps people who have an interest in rowing maintain it.”