The sun ducks out of sight, and the lights of Cleveland blink on. Eight men in a 60-foot shell glide inches above the black water of the Cuyahoga River, pushing their legs and pulling their oars in unison.
“Let’s keep it nice and long, gentlemen,” their coach, Kirk Lang, yells through a bullhorn from the launch boat behind them.
It’s 51 degrees on this end-of-October night, but the men of the Western Reserve Rowing Association are in shorts and light jackets, sweating as they crank up their pace, from 24 to 26 to 29 strokes per minute. They cruise past the massive hulk of the St. Mary’s Cement freighter, past the poetically named stinky pipe and under the I-490 bridge, doing 10- and 12-minute pieces, with drills in between.
It’s the end of the season for rowing, a traditionally East Coast prep school sport that’s exploding with students and adults alike in Cleveland.
“It’s changing. We’re kind of blowing up the sport in Cleveland now,” said Lang, executive director of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, the organization and boathouse that hosts the Western Reserve Rowing Association.
The sport actually started in Cleveland in 1855, when the Ivanhoe Boat Club and its rival club, the Ydrad Rowing Club, raced regularly. But due to heavy industrial traffic, rowing shells were forced off the river in the 1860s. Now rowers regularly dodge freighters, ferry boats, tour boats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboarders in the Cuyahoga.
A second boathouse, The Foundry, has also opened, to give more students access to rowing.
The nonprofit Rowing Foundation has a boathouse in Rivergate Park, next to Merwin’s Wharf, home to the St. Ignatius and Shaker Heights high school crew teams, as well as John Carroll, Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve universities.
Plus, it has nearly 800 adults participating in three growing summer and fall rowing leagues. Think of them as club, JV and varsity teams: there are casual once-a-week sessions, an intermediate group and the separate men’s and women’s masters teams, which practice in three to four boats about three times a week.
You can scull – where you row two oars at a time — in one-, two- and four-person boats. Or you can sweep – with one oar – in two-, four- or eight-person boats.
Regardless, you carry the 200-pound shells out to the river as a team. And you row in sync, with the rower closest to the stern called the stroke, since everyone else follows his pace.
A couple of rowing basics you may not know (I certainly didn’t):
- The seats slide forward and back in sync with the oars.
- The shoes are permanently affixed to the boat
- The coxswain (or cox for short) wears a headset mic, and the boat has speakers, so it isn’t like those old-time movies where the cox has to scream.
- While the cox in high school and college is part of the team, in adult rowing, he or she is often paid and works with the coach.
- Each team has its own oars, in its team colors.
- Each boat has an average age, which gives teams handicaps. So the fastest boat doesn’t always win.
Masters members sign up for two-hour team practices. And unlike plans go to the gym, you can’t just cancel if you’re tired.
“If you signed up for practice, and you don’t go, then you have a ton of enemies,” said Kerry Watterson, 61, of Shaker Heights.
The masters men vary in age from just out of college to their early 70s.
Last week, the team placed an impressive 16th at their first showing at the iconic Head of the Charles race in Boston. There are two regattas left this year: Speakmon in Columbus on Sunday and the Head of the Hooch in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the following weekend.
Then, from December until March, they’ll take practices indoors for weightlifting and cardio workouts on the ergs (rowing machines.)
On a recent Tuesday night, Lang yelled through his bullhorn: “Hit it, gentlemen. Hit it!”
He called out numbers, representing each man’s position in the boat, critiquing their stroke or position or speed.
After nearly two hours in the dark, two hours of pushing the sleek hull of the shell through the winding river, the men finish, retiring to the boathouse to talk about what felt right on the water.
“It’s amazing to think you’re going that fast in a boat that’s human-powered,” said Tim Marcovy, 65, of Mayfield Heights.
“When you’re out there, you don’t feel the cold. The saying goes, it’s never too cold to row. Though it can be too cold to coach.”