Once reserved for England, the Summer Olympics or Ivy League schools, rowing, or “crew” as it is more commonly referred to in the U.S., is slowly gaining popularity in the region. Yet the Fort Worth Rowing Club has been quietly navigating the Trinity River for more than 25 years.
On a brief visit to the main boathouse off Beach Street, I noticed club members with a true devotion to the sport — from an 80-year-old crew veteran like club co-founder Lee Smith, to a beginner starting out in his late 40s like Charles West. All were preparing their boats for rowing, or “sculling,” on their 3,000-meter patch of river between Beach Street and Fourth Street bridges.
At dawn a few days later, I met FWRC president Pete McIntosh at Marine Creek Lake and “sculled” in TCU’s purple, double (2X), sculling shell (sculling rowers have two oars) named “Two Step” that was 30 feet long, 55 pounds and only a foot wide. This toothpick boat could flip with the tiniest misstep.
Once we got the mechanics of the four steps — “the catch,” “the drive,” “the finish,” and “the recovery” — somewhat down, Pete let me row us across the golden lake reflecting the dawn sunrise. It wasn’t until he began to row with me that I really started to get it (and totally freak out).
He added speed and power to our toothpick water ship from the “bow” or backseat, and I felt myself lose control. I tightened my grip on the oars, pulling them out of their oarlocks to regain control, but then the oars began to dip way down into the water and drag during the recovery. Any slight movement like this in the wrong direction could quickly turn us into soaking-wet river rats.
Pete noticed I was beginning to flounder. He patiently told me to close my eyes, reset and listen to all the tiny movements of what we were doing — the plop of the oars during the “catch” and the swish during the “recovery.” He assured me he would observe and follow my movements because if we fell out of sync, it could get messy. For this to work, the high-strung control freak in me had to let go, relax and work with him in unison.
Rowing has been building momentum in Fort Worth and area cities the last few years. University of Texas women’s “Texas Crew” won the Big 12 Rowing Championship last year. TCU has a new rowing team. The FWRC helped the TCU Rowing Club co-founders, Rachel Bynum and David DeCorrevont, get started three years ago.
“The reason for rowing growth not taking off in Fort Worth [in the recent past] is that the section of the Trinity River we row on, which is perfect for smaller boats, is not ideal for the larger 8+ boats, which junior and university programs primarily use,” Pete later said in an email.
During the interim, Pete said the TCU rowing team uses Marine Creek Lake for its larger sweep boats, but this will all change with the completion of “Panther Island,” or properly named “Central City” set to be complete in late 2024 or early 2025. Plans for the Trinity River promenade include launch pads and on-site storage for kayaks and canoes
“The Fort Worth Rowing Club is working with TRWD, Streams and Valleys and TRVA to find the ideal location on the future Panther Island By-Pass Channel. This future waterway will be centrally located and an ideal location for junior (high school) rowing programs,” Pete said.
The few FWRC members at the Boat Club that hot, late summer evening had a difficult time explaining in words why they have spent nearly all of their free time for decades dedicated to rowing. If it were about the exercise, they would find the rowing machine at a nearby gym more efficient. At a loss for words, nearly all of them deferred to the book, The Boys in the Boat, (2013) by Daniel James Brown. So I downloaded the book to my Kindle.
It’s about the American Olympic rowing team who won the gold medal in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics under Hitler’s watch. The first pages tell us that what these die-hard rowers love about the sport was above any one moment or thing. I got a glimpse of the bliss described in the first page of The Boys in the Boat during my outing. It describes near ecstasy when all of the moving parts work together in perfect harmony and move with the sound of the water beneath them.
Twenty-year FWRC member, Pat McDonough, who competes in races all over the world, wrote from England that rowing is about “reaching for the unachievable magic of swing from college days. A rowing team boat turns into something far greater than the sum of its parts.”
George Yeoman Pocock, who designed and built the shells for rowing boats and gained international recognition for providing the eight-oared racing shells in the 1936 Olympics said, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”
*All ages are welcome to sign up beginning “Learn to Row” classes at FortWorthRowing.org.
Ages 18 and under need to be accompanied by an adult.