Which is what made it so extraordinary that 10 rowers from three Buzzards Bay-based rowing organizations — Whaling City Rowing (WCR) and Buzzards Bay Rowing Club (BBRC) in New Bedford and Dharma Voyage in Westport — got together and traveled to London last September to compete in a 21.6-mile race up the Thames River in a type of boat they’d never sat in before.
“A true rower jumps in any boat and rows,” said team member Lauri Bissonnette of Lakeville, who has rowed with WCR and Dharma Voyage for over six years.
Together, the team that dubbed themselves the “Whaling City Rowers” not only completed the race with great camaraderie and fun, but also raised more than $2,000 for the Coalition’s work to protect clean water back home on Buzzards Bay.
Rowing in the Great River Race, known as “London’s River Marathon,” was the grand idea of team member Pat Kavanagh. A lifelong Buzzards Bay resident who grew up on the water with his commercial fisherman father, Kavanagh found the Great River Race while searching online one day. He shared the race with some of his fellow rowers from all three clubs, and the “Whaling City Rowers” team was formed soon after.
“To me, London’s rowing marathon is the apex of fun, friendly competition,” said Kavanagh. “Rowing traditional boats is my obsession, and the idea of having a chance to row with three hundred-plus fixed seat boats up the Thames just seemed unbeatable.”
Problem was, the team had never rowed the type of boat they’d have to navigate for the race: a 25’ Drascombe gig, with two people seated in each row. In the 28’ fiberglass replica Beetle whaleboats that WCR and BBRC row on New Bedford Harbor, there’s only one crew member per seat, with five rowers total. Over on the Westport River, Dharma Voyage members row a modified 32’ Cornish pilot gig that seats six rowers, each with their own seat.
“Training to row a Drascombe gig was certainly challenging for a crew that’s so used to sweep oars and only one stroke oar,” said WCR president Mark Hurley of Fairhaven, who served as the team’s boatsteerer.
Not only was the team faced with a new type of boat and seating arrangement, they also hadn’t rowed together before as a single crew. And most of the team members had never rowed such a lengthy course. To prepare, the team started getting together several times per week to practice, with some long-distance rows to build up their stamina. They also got in a single practice at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on its ten-oared Monomoy lifeboat, which resembled the Drascombe gig.
“Our one practice at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy was a real challenge,” said Elizabeth Brinkerhoff, who rows with Dharma Voyage in her hometown of Westport. “Thankfully, we started to look a bit like a crew at the end.”
Armed with their practices and a sense of adventure, the team’s 10 rowers journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean for the race on September 8. “Once we hit the Thames, other than the obvious distractions of the other 220 boats and crossing under 28 bridges, everyone stayed focused and in good spirits,” said Hurley.
This good-natured team spirit reflects the reasons why most of the crew members say they got started rowing in the first place.
“Why try rowing? It’s awesome: The camaraderie, the health benefits, the fun of being on the water year round, the sense of being part of the unique history of New Bedford,” said Eileen Sorrentino, a WCR member from Mattapoisett. “I’m 75, and I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been. Rowing is the fountain of youth we’re all looking for!”
Fairhaven resident Estelle Goulart, who rows with the two New Bedford Harbor clubs throughout the year, agrees. “I feel blessed to be able to row on Buzzards Bay, and be out there to watch the sunrises, sunsets, and full moons. It gives you a great appreciation for this area we live in, even in the winter.”
That appreciation for and connection with the water is what inspired the team to raise money for the Buzzards Bay Coalition. According to Kavanagh, the London rowers fundraise for a clean river charity, so the team decided to use their Great River Race experience to support a clean water cause closer to home.
“It was a way to thank the Coalition for the great work they do for the water we row in,” said Goulart.
Hurley, who also participates as a swimmer in the Buzzards Bay Swim, feels similarly. “The change that the Buzzards Bay Coalition has helped bring about to the harbor is perceptible. My crews and I would like to see that continue and to help out any way we can, not just for ourselves, but also for the wider community.”
For Bissonnette, who considers rowing a personal passion, it’s simple: “Without clean waters, rowing would not be as accessible for us.”
The crew members had so much fun at the Great River Race that they’re planning to return this September, in additional to a local lineup of races in Hull, Mystic, Onset, and New Bedford. Some members even have their sights set on a regatta in Australia. Although the team is exploring the joy of rowing around the world, it’s Buzzards Bay where they return.
“Rowing is a fabulous way to get out on the water, see incredible sunrises, view seals and eagles while getting a good workout,” said Brinkerhoff. “It’s also a good way to develop a whole new set of friends. What could be more perfect?”