"It’s one of the top venues in the country. Whether I want to rank it first, second, or third depends on who you talk to," said Anne Cutler, a former collegiate rower from Haddon Township and the former president of the Cooper River Rowing Association. "The community isn’t as strong as the Schuylkill because the Schuylkill has been around forever. But we’re getting there."
The rise of the Cooper as a top-ranked crew venue is not accidental.
For years most of the big national races passed Philadelphia by because the Schuylkill — with its meandering currents and signature bend — did not conform to modern racing standards.
"The Schuylkill can’t host an international or national-level event; the course has to be straight, and it has to be fair," said Ed Moran, communications director for U.S. Rowing, the organizing body for the sport.
The Cooper’s 2,000-meter course is straight.
The river got its big break in 1993 when Lake Onondaga in Upstate New York flooded, prompting organizers of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship to find an alternate race site. Within two years, the Camden County river had become the fixed site for what most consider college rowing’s most important race.
Heather Brooks, who rowed regularly on the Cooper while at Moorestown High School before going to the University of Tulsa on a scholarship, said the river was known for its consistency. In comparison to places like the Schuylkill, where variable conditions can wreak havoc on races, the Cooper is relatively protected from the weather — and the dam allows officials to adjust the water level depending on the rain.
"Sometimes we’ll get pretty strong winds, but with the trees on the outside, the conditions stay relatively the same year round," Brooks said.
But for a long time, conditions were far removed from Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row. Local teams kept their shells and gear on the river’s banks — with nothing more than a chain-link fence to protect them. When thunderstorms rolled in, racers and coaches would go running for their cars. That improved in 2004 when construction began on a $5.4 million boathouse.
The 23,000-square-foot wood and stone structure houses seven local high school, college, and club rowing teams, and its balcony — overlooking the river and banquet hall — has become a point of pride for local rowers, not to mention politicians.
"The Schuylkill is very popular with the Dad Vail, but in terms of national events, the Cooper River is more significant," Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash said. "We’re there."
Using a 2004 Rowan University economic study as a guide, county officials estimate regattas on the Cooper bring $10 million a year into the local economy through hotel stays, team dinners, and the like.
"People all come in for lunch, sometimes for dinner," said Tom Delimaris, owner of the riverside restaurant the Lobster Trap. "The last four or five years, it’s been building. More races, more people."
The Cooper now sees about 12 regattas a year, bringing an estimated 35,000 racers and spectators to the region each year.
County officials are looking to build on that momentum as they prepare for a $5 million dredging project on the Cooper, which will add a lane to the course and bring the river in line with international standards toward one day bringing European teams to race in South Jersey. In addition, a $5 million overhaul of Cooper River Park — which Camden County is borrowing to pay for — includes plans for decking for spectators to watch regattas. The work is expected to be completed next year.
Whether the dreams of one day becoming an international venue will ever be realized is difficult to say, Moran said.
"There are other courses in the United States that are making bids," he said. "The United States is not a big rowing country. It’s much bigger in Europe, generally speaking. The world championships are there; the sport’s more popular."
The Cooper already is taking on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia rowing circles. Two races traditionally held in the city — the Frostbite Regatta and the Bill Braxton Memorial Regatta — moved to the Cooper last year to save money.
"There’s a lot of costs in Philadelphia, with the police and the parks department and EMS," said Clete Graham, a regatta organizer and former commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, which oversees racing on that river. "The costs are significantly lower on the Cooper."
In 2009, the historic Dad Vail Regatta, the largest collegiate race in the country, threatened to leave Philadelphia over a cost dispute with Mayor Nutter’s office after the loss of some sponsors.
Still, for many racers, the Schuylkill holds a certain allure that no amount of cost savings or international recognition can match.
Jack Galloway, chairman of the Dad Vail, compared the Schuylkill to the famed Henley-on-Thames in England, which has fierce currents and accommodates only two boats at a time yet remains a fixture in the rowing calendar.
"From a historic point of view, [the Schuylkill] is a great place. If you’re a coach down in Austin or Florida and you’re going to travel to Philadelphia, you want to be on Boathouse Row," he said. "If you’re rowing into a current, oh well."
The Cooper has little to no current, the product of federal workers building a dam across its banks after the Depression, according to the Cooper River Yacht Club. That effectively turned the Cooper into a lake and an ideal venue for rowing.
Rowing as a sport didn’t really get going there until decades later, and even then it was a lonely pastime.
Now on spring afternoons, the cry of the coxswain over the water has become a familiar sound. For local rowers, the outside attention on their home turf has proved welcome.
Brooks, 23, described fondly her high school years on the Cooper, being out on the water on frigid spring afternoons when most people stayed indoors.
"That was before the boathouse," she said. "We really didn’t care one way or another. If it’s rainy or cold, we’re going to be out there anyway. Now it’s ranked as one of the top courses in the country."
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @osborneja.