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Rowing with the ancient Mariners
BY MICHELLE GENZ - STAFF WRITER (Week of May 27, 2010)

It is a million-dollar dream for a masters’ rowing team. The Indian River Rowing Club, formed less than two years ago, has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a public boathouse on the Indian River Lagoon in MacWilliam Park, next to the base of the Barber Bridge.

The rowing club is believed to be Vero’s first, comprised of 16 dedicated rowers, including a half-dozen barrier island residents, who currently row two evenings a week and on Sunday mornings, on a broad canal that cuts through the county’s pasture lands northwest of Vero.

In the hopes of building interest beachside, the club is offering an onthe- water rowing experience June 5 at the site of the proposed barrier island boathouse. That day, a Saturday, has been designated National Learn to Row Day in honor of the sport, and there will be similar events across the country.

Owned by the city of Vero Beach, the land being eyed for a boathouse could be made available to the rowing club through a long-term lease.

A founder of the Vero club, longtime local attorney Chuck Sullivan, says he is making progress in his talks with City Manager Jim Gabbard about the possibility of building a 6,000 square foot space to store not only the shells used in rowing, but also kayaks, canoes and sailboats, all for public use. Sullivan has invited several Vero architects to consider submitting designs.

“Our plan is to be entirely self-funded,” says Sullivan. “We’ve got a business plan that has been successful in other communities.”

Rowing is growing rapidly in popularity in Florida; the cities of Stuart, West Palm, Miami and Orlando all have boathouses with thriving memberships.

A local boathouse could serve not only the public rowing club but also crews from Vero Beach High School and Indian River State College. The building could store the sailboats of the Youth Sailing Program, started last year by Charlie Pope. “They work with young kids, and they’re looking for space,” he says.

The group also wants to involve the mentally or physically challenged – even the blind can row, with the help of the coxswain, Sullivan points out.

Sullivan and his fellow club members – including island residents Linda Clark, Peter Stifel, Chuck Cook and Betsy Nolan -- passionately believe that rowing could become a signature sport in Vero Beach. Some Ivy League schools practice here over holidays.

“We feel like we’re in a broken old tractor when they zoom past us,” says Nolan, who has been on the canal when the young teams have rowed past. “We call ourselves the Ancient Mariners.”

In the past, teams of up to 50 rowers from the University of Michigan, Columbia University and Temple University have visited the area to train while their rivers back home were frozen through the winter months.

Vero’s residents can sample the sport for themselves June 5, when the club holds a day-long event at the park; club membership fees are being reduced to $25 dollars for the year. After viewing a safety video, and briefly working out on an ergometer – a rowing simulator -- potential enthusiasts can slip in to the eight-person shells and with the guidance of the coxswain who sits facing them in the stern, can dip their oars and glide onto the waters of the lagoon.

“You don’t have to train a lot,” says Sullivan. “You just sit in the boat and paddle. Everybody has a good time.”

The club uses eight-person 58-footlong carbon fiber rowing shells. They weigh about 200 pounds and cost between $20,000 and $40,000; the oars cost another $300 per pair. Rowing shells come as “eights,” “fours,” “doubles,” or “singles; in the water, the larger boats require a wide berth to maneuver, particularly in the river, where obstacles like other boats may come in their path.

The workout begins in an almost yoga-like way, with the rowers all breathing in unison. “There’s a breath associated with every movement of the oar.,” says Nolan. “Your heart gets pumping, and then your legs and your arms are moving in coordination with your teammates. It’s very disciplined and it’s exhilarating to do everything in perfect unison.”

“At the end of a good, strong workout I feel like I’m 25 years old,” says Nolan, who is 61.

Peter Stifel, a Sandfly Lane resident who rows on the Chesapeake near his farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is 74. The group’s youngest rower is 18-year-old Cody Ritenour, whose father Jim took out a personal loan along with another friend to buy a $20,000 boat for the club, after watching Cody practice with Sebastian River High School’s team.

The group’s coxswain, Allison Snyder, rowed for Stetson University. Another key player is Chris Ryan, who once rowed on the Charles River as a member of the M.I.T. rowing team. Ryan has served on the board of U.S. Rowing. Now living in Vero part-time, Ryan has spearheaded successful efforts to build the Three Rivers boathouses in Pittsburgh, and helped float the concept in Vero.

Sullivan says it only takes one key patron -- someone who is forever grateful to the sport of rowing for the character it builds -- to fund the boathouse here.

“We’re looking for someone who wants to give back to rowing what they got out of it,” he says.

“People who row are generally very passionate about it.”

For more information about National Learn to Row Day, June 5, or summer rowing camps, call 772-539- 1752 or visit the club’s website, www.