The sun hasn't been up long on this Saturday morning, but the small floating dock moored near Rocketts Landing is busy.
Four rowers handily carry a boat overhead down a steep embankment, then quickly flip it into the James River. Oars are fastened into riggers, and, within minutes, the crew pushes off from the dock.
This scene is repeated several times, and for the next hour, rowers dominate the river between Intermediate and Deepwater terminals. Their progress is watched by turtles, herons and a few fishermen.
After the row, the process is reversed, and boats are secured on racks in the boathouse.
Rower Steve Abbot looks downriver. "This is some pretty amazing water," he says. "There is lots of potential."
Richmond's rowing community is growing, and at the heart of it is the Virginia Boat Club.
"We're seeing a resurgence in interest in rowing over the past couple of years paralleling the interest in and development of the James River waterfront downtown," says club president Mark Willis. "Our activities are more visible, and folks are interested in trying it out."
Two decades ago, the club had several dozen members. Today it is nearly 150 strong. And many people who didn't know about Richmond's rowing possibilities can see rowers now from the chic new Boathouse at Rocketts Landing restaurant.
Rowing in Richmond dates back to the 1870s. The Virginia Boat Club was formed in 1888 and over the years occupied a series of buildings on Mayo Island near the current 14th Street Bridge (an area that also boasted a baseball stadium). University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University athletes also rowed at the site.
Fires and floods occasionally destroyed facilities, but they were rebuilt; at various times, club members enjoyed a swimming pool, squash courts and a dining room. But the grand tradition ended in June 1972, when Hurricane Agnes wiped out the boathouses and the fleets. The club wasn't resurrected until the mid-1980s.
Despite the sport's former elitist reputation, today's rowers represent a diverse range of ages, incomes and life experiences. Some rowed in high school or college; others didn't begin until middle age. The boat club offers learn-to-row classes in the spring and summer months. Many who take the classes continue on with the sport, including Willis, a runner who was bitten by the rowing bug about four years ago.
The fall rowing season is under way now through November, and participants are training for races along the East Coast — including Richmond, where the popular Head of the James Regatta will be held Oct. 10.
Since fall rowing tends to be more endurance than sprint, rowers are getting powerful workouts.
"Rowing provides significant cardiovascular and muscular benefits," says Dr. Edmund Acevedo, chairman of the Department of Heath and Human Performance at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's a marvelous activity."
Rowing, he says, is good exercise for the heart, lungs and muscles. "It's one of the best there is, comparable to cross-country skiing. And it is uniquely enjoyable to be out on the water."
The club oversees the two boathouses, which also serve student rowers. VCU crews row at the Rocketts Landing site, while UR uses Robious Landing Park, which is also home to about 100 youth rowers, including James River High School's crew (the only Virginia High School League team in the area), Trinity Episcopal School's club team and the independent team River City Crew, which offers lessons to high schoolers.
The boathouse at Robious was recently named in honor of Hank Holswade, who has spent much of the past decade bringing rowing to area youth. "What's important is that they find a sport they can do for the rest of their lives," he says.
Holswade, who serves as a high-school rowing coach and boathouse manager, is also director of the Head of the James Regatta. "Last year, we had 93 boats," he says. "I'd love to have a lot more, but we have to cut it off at 100 because of dock space."
A head race is a three-mile course (which generally takes a crew about 20 minutes to row). Head races are fall sports; in the spring are the Rocketts Landing Sprints and Rocketts Landing Collegiate Regatta. The races draw rowers from around the region as well as hundreds of spectators.
Richmond rowers also travel nationally and sometimes internationally to regattas. They've had success in well-known regattas such as the Canadian Henley, Head of the Charles in Massachusetts and Masters Nationals in New Jersey. Some row in single sculls; others in doubles, quads, fours and eights, proudly wearing the tank-top-style singlets of the boating club or their school.
During rowing season, athletes also descend on the downtown boathouse Tuesday and Thursday evenings for what's called a pickup, or impromptu rowing session. Erin Simon, manager of the Rocketts Landing Boathouse, takes attendance and sorts rowers into shells.
A single shell may be as narrow as 10 inches across, though it could stretch almost 27 feet long. An eight, a shell with eight rowers steered by a coxswain, is about 60 feet long. Too fragile to stand in, the boats feature sliding seats and shoes mounted in place. Sculling (using two oars) and sweep rowing (with one) can offer solitude or, alternately, a lively team experience.
"There is a wide range of abilities," Simon says. "It's a challenge at times with the different experience levels, but we've got a great mix."
The camaraderie keeps many people coming back. Even those who scull in singles often hang around to chat or grab a beer after a workout.
"It can be an excellent motivation to know you have a planned meeting to work out," says Acevedo.
If seven other people are counting on you to be in a boat, you'd better be there.
"It's like the tennis shoe thing," says club member Jennifer Moore. "My friend and I would switch tennis shoes the night before we were supposed to meet at the gym. You have to show up to give the other person their shoes.
"It's like that in rowing."
Head of the James Regatta
The first race will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, at Robious Landing Park in northern Chesterfield County, with boats being launched every 30 seconds. Events include men's and women's singles (sculls), mixed fours, mixed twos, and mixed eights. Faster boats will go first, followed by novice boats. The race can be viewed from the banks along the south side of the James River just behind James River High School and Bettie Weaver Elementary School off Robious Road. There's no charge to watch, and spectators might want to bring a lawn chair.
Want to try rowing?
Those 18 and older can join the Virginia Boat Club or sign up for classes. See virginiaboatclub.org for details.
Under 18? Check out rivercitycrew.com for information on seasonal rowing programs and classes.