All aboard at Whitemarsh rowing club

Emma Holt, a Conestoga High student, and Dan Hopkins (Wissahickon High) practice on the Schuylkill. They row out of the Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken.
Emma Holt, a Conestoga High student, and Dan Hopkins (Wissahickon High) practice on the Schuylkill. They row out of the Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: June 01, 2014

Sheila Bridges raised her megaphone and called out over the din of her outboard motor. The coach of the Whitemarsh Boat Club had spotted one of her junior rowers doing something she did not like.

"You're pulling with your fingers!" Bridges yelled.

Across the open river, Emma Holt opened her palms to show a pair of angry red blisters.

Unlike most of the rowers buzzing about the waters of the upper Schuylkill earlier this month, Holt was not suffering in service of her school. The Stotesbury Regatta was days away, but she would not be competing.

Philadelphia, in many ways, is the epicenter of the scholastic rowing world. But even in this hotbed, not every high school offers a crew team, leaving some who want to pursue the sport without an opportunity to race.

That creates a gap that Whitemarsh Boat Club is eager to fill. The nine-year-old club along the Schuylkill in Conshohocken launched a junior rowing program for high schoolers this year.

The program drew 16 rowers in its first competitive season, with some coming from more than an hour away. The team is open to anyone whose school does not offer rowing, or those who choose not to row for their school. The cost ranges from $300 to $800 depending on the season.

"The club scene is growing in this area as more masters clubs and more people are realizing that there are kids outside of high schools who want to participate in the sport," said Bridges, a Merion Mercy graduate and former assistant coach at Mount St. Joseph.

For some, such as Holt, the program is a second chance to continue their rowing careers. She was cut from Conestoga and, like many of her Whitemarsh teammates, found the club on the Internet or through word of mouth.

Members include rowers from area schools such as Wissahickon, Plymouth Whitemarsh, Friends' Central, Upper Dublin, Hatboro-Horsham, and Gwynedd Mercy, and some from as far away as Moravian Academy in Bethlehem.

"When I was cut, I wasn't ready to give up rowing, so I looked for a place to row out of in the spring," Holt said.

Whitemarsh joins at least two other options for unaffiliated rowers. Philadelphia Rowing Club provides a home for students in city public and charter high schools. Bachelors Barge Club runs an independent program led by longtime coach Jamie Gordon.

A youth program dovetailed nicely with the mission of Whitemarsh, a nonprofit community rowing organization. The club was founded in 2005 by mothers of Mount St. Joseph rowers who wanted to learn the sport themselves.

"Every citizen should have a chance to sit on a boat on the Schuylkill River and hold an oar in their hand and know what it feels like," Whitemarsh vice president Bonnie Mueller said. "I believe that is as much an opportunity for everyone to have as touching and seeing the Liberty Bell is."

Whitemarsh is on the grounds of the expansive Hines Rowing Center, which gives it plenty of room to take on a new program. The campus already houses several well-established scholastic teams that train on a patch of the Schuylkill between the Fayette Street Bridge and Flat Rock Dam.

The Whitemarsh junior rowers are much less experienced than the crews they share training space with, but they keep a similarly grueling schedule, practicing six days a week, two hours at a time.

"When they see teams like the Mount go by, they want to row as fast as them," Bridges said.

That might take some time, but progress has come. Two Whitemarsh boats placed in the Mid-Atlantic Junior Regionals earlier this month. As a club team, it cannot participate in Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association events, but its boats often compete against school teams in other regattas.

Whitemarsh's last race was supposed to be weeks ago, but about seven rowers petitioned Bridges to remain in training until the Upper Merion Invitational this weekend. With that attitude, it's easy to see why Bridges is optimistic.

"I definitely see us in a couple of years being one of the bigger forces on the river," Bridges said. "Why not?"


tmcmanus@philly.com

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