"I wanted to row for years, but I couldn't figure out how to do it," McWilliams, 33, said.
Then along came Rowing Systems, a school for sculls in, of all places, Brigantine, N.J. Almost in the shadow of Harrah's Marina Casino/Hotel, McWilliams found a place to learn the techniques that made the Schuylkill famous.
Surprisingly, the Atlantic City area has become a hotbed of rowing activity. Stan Bergman, chief of the Ventnor Lifeguards, coaches the crew team at Penn, for instance. And Atlantic City and Holy Spirit High Schools have nationally recognized crew teams. "It's a mecca of rowing," said Rowing Systems founder and president Steven Sless.
Rowing Systems is one of the few places in the area to learn recreational sculling. Bachelors Barge Club offers lessons on the Schuylkill. As part of his boat business near Cape May, Mike Axelsson, of Waterway Rowing, gives one- on-one demonstrations on the techniques of sculling.
Recreational sculling has become the latest aerobic exercise to gain popularity, said Sless, an avid sculler and former lifeguard with the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. "It has always been an elitist sport, but now it's coming down to the masses," he said. "This sport will take off in the '90s. People get into it for health reasons. It's documented that it's good for the heart. And you don't overstress knee joints like you do in running."
Sless started Rowing Systems three years ago as a way to sell boats, but realized early on that there was an untapped demand for instruction. "I'd get calls saying there was nowhere to learn to row in the area from Washington to New York," said Sless, who rowed for teams at Atlantic City High School and Rutgers University.
Sculling, for the uninitiated, differs from canoeing and rowboating. About the only similarity is all involve sitting in a boat and using oars. But shells, as sculling boats are called, sit lower in the water than the other oar-propelled vessels. Recreational shells are flatter and easier to balance than those used in competitive crew, making them easier to operate, Sless said.
The two most popular shells, the Alden and the Boston, range in price from $1,400 to $2,000. Both are virtually unsinkable. The major difference is that the Alden sits lower in the water, said Axelsson.
There are two distinct styles of craft: sweeps and sculls. Sweeps are used by high school and college crew teams that do the familiar one-oar rowing. The smallest sweep holds two people. Sculls are boats in which each rower has two oars and are used mostly by single competitors and recreational scullers.
"A better way to learn to row is to scull," said Matt Kelly (no relation to the scull-crazy Kelly family), one of six coaches at Bachelors. "It teaches you more efficiency, and how to get more power."
Rowing Systems offers a six-hour, two-day course for $125, which includes membership in the U.S. Rowing Association, the governing body for all of rowing and sculling. The course is held in the back bay waters off Brigantine, and Sless provides the use of a shell, as do the other two schools. Classes are held during five weekends from June through September.
So how does the bay differ from the Schuylkill? There are more variables, Sless said. Because of its proximity to the ocean, the water can be choppy. Plus, the heavy number of commercial and recreational fishing boats makes for greater competition for water space.
That's why Sless limits the first day to instruction within a sheltered cove. Students spend the first half of Day One indoors, absorbing instructions on the mechanism of the stroke and discussing boats and the physical benefits of rowing. Then it's down to the dock to learn how to set up the oars. "The oars are an extension of the arms," Sless said. But almost three-quarters of the power of the oars comes from the legs as the rower glides along a sliding seat, he said.
Students devote the second half of the day to hands-on learning in the water, including hand and body control. On the second day, students venture into more open waters, learning to incorporate the slide and the full stroke, and the mechanics of efficiency and speed. It sounds easy. Rest assured, it's not.
The course at Bachelors Barge Club on the Schuylkill is not quite so structured. Lessons cost $15 an hour in addition to a $175 membership fee, said head coach Tully Vaughn.
Novices take anywhere from three to six lessons, depending on how far they advance. Lessons take place from the end of May to the end of August. "In the fall it's usually too crowded on the Schuylkill with the school crews out there. And if it gets too cold, you're playing with fire if you tip over," Kelly said.
While boat traffic on the river is minimal (except for other scullers), students spend the initial lessons literally tied to the dock by a rope. They go through the hand motions, and row away from the dock as far as the rope will stretch, Vaughn said. Then the coach reels the scull back to the dock.
When new scullers feel comfortable enough with the water, they can row untethered up to 40 yards from the dock. With some experience under their belts, they can go upriver along with an experienced rower in an adjacent boat.
The novice has to row 500 miles in a single recreational scull before trying a double or a racing single. At that point, Vaughn recommends additional lessons only if the student wants them.
Mike Axelsson has no school per se. Instead, he offers an hour or two of hands-on demonstration of rowing techniques as a way to introduce the sport - and hopefully sell a shell or two. As long as the weather and the water are stable, he'll give a demonstration, he said.
Axelsson uses a two-person shell as he begins the demonstration, sort of like a student driver with separate instructor controls. When a student has the techniques down, Axelsson switches to a pair of single shells. The course follows the back bay waters near Ocean Drive between the Wildwoods and Cape May. "But we don't go into the channels where the commercial boats are," he said.
IF YOU GO
For more information on sculling, contact:
Rowing Systems Brigantine, N.J. Classes: tomorrow and Sunday; Aug. 3 and 4; Aug. 10 and 11; Sept. 21 and 22. Call Steve Sless at 609-822-0736.
Bachelors Barge Club On the Schuylkill. Space is limited. Call Tully or Sara Vaughn at 215-769-9335 or 215-628-2349.
Waterway Rowing Cape May, N.J. Call Mike Axelsson at 609-898-1350.