Location, Location, Location
Location, Location, Location.
Whether you are looking to start a new team, or you already have an established program, there is no doubt that your chosen body of water greatly impacts your practice capabilities and what type of team you can become. Wherever you gain access to rowable water there will almost certainly be limitations and advantages when compared to other sites.
To be successful, you need to project what these limitations and advantages are, and use them to help maximize the water for the strength of your program. Some challenges will only present themselves once you have been on the water. Adapting to the terrain both in the beginning, and as it potentially changes over time will be essential to your program’s progress. Let’s discuss the two most common ways teams find access to their first on-water practice and a few of the potential advantages, limitations, and other dynamics to consider.
Rowing at a location that already has established rowing programs.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to starting a team where there are already other teams, is that there is usually already a dock in place. This can be useful, as rowing docks can be very expensive [and can often require an extensive permit process].
Another significant advantage is that the waterway and any potential hazards have already been explored. For example, it will be nice to know that the far side of the water is shallow before you go rowing, as opposed to discovering that on your own by putting a hole in your boat [see below].
There may also be limitations to starting a team, or moving a team to, a location where rowing already exists. Thinking ahead can help you discern if this location makes sense for your goals. It is important to ask yourself the right questions.
Are you trying to do something an established program already does at that same site? If so, it might be wiser to consider joining forces. While it is not impossible to do the same thing at the same site, it can be an uphill climb and can sometimes become contentious. Trying to start a soda-pop shop in the same building as Coca-Cola doesn’t usually work out. Instead, think of what you will be bringing to the table that’s different. If the answer isn’t clear, you probably don’t want to start or move a team here.
There are instances where coexistence works. For example, the established team only does sweep rowing and you want to introduce sculling, or your plan is to offer an outreach program and the established team does not have this option, etc. Coexistence is much easier if you are primarily after different rowing markets.
Another important question to ask is "how much water you will have to row on if there are already other teams there?" It is possible that this water way is at capacity for rowing. If that is the case, starting a new team at that site is not a great idea. If after all of these questions are considered and this site is still your only option, your best path is likely finding a way to merge into one of the existing programs. It is in their best interest to bring you in, as well. Functionality can be born when efforts and objectives become collaborative.
You have found a body of water where there is currently little to no rowing.
Have you ever driven past a body of water and wondered if rowing could exist there? If you are someone who is looking to start a team or move a team to a new location, then you should be doing this constantly. When you see a decent body of water with no rowing on it you will probably get pretty excited. It could be your new home.
For this scenario, it t is important to consider the potential limitations and ask yourself the right questions. For example, why is there no rowing team at this site? Odds are you are not the first person to have this idea. There are many bodies of water that look the part but are not compatible for a rowing team. This can be the case for a litany of reasons. It could be a protected nature reserve. It could be too shallow. The water could be toxic. There could be high volumes of traffic that make it unsafe for human powered craft. There is no feasible access point to the water.
The first step is finding out who owns the land you would potentially launch from. Whether it is privately or publicly owned, they will be able to tell you if the water is safe for human powered craft and what the process for inserting a new dock will entail. If you can navigate this process, you can launch crews.
However, just because you CAN launch crews does not mean that you SHOULD start a team or move a team to this site just yet. You still need to determine what a practice would look like at this site. This hypothetical site does not need to be the next Nathan Benderson Park, but it does need to have more than just rowable water and access to be a functional place to operate a rowing team. At a bare minimum you need to be able to run two boats side by side for at least 1000 meters, give or take. More space both length and width wise is obviously preferred, but if you can not run at least two boats side by side you will never be able to practice racing.
You should also consider the location in regards to the surrounding population. Are there even people around to join your programs? Can you find a coach or get one to move to this area? There are a lot of great bodies of water in the middle of nowhere, but can a team of people get there to row multiple times per week? What is the standard of living for your potential new members? While you do not need brand new boats to get started, the costs of starting a team will require a sound financial plan as a brand new boat can cost upwards of $40K. However, while many waterways are located in places where that is not a lot of money, there are others where those kinds of funds can buy a new house. There are ways to manufacture funds outside of your membership dues and membership fundraising. So while it isn’t a deal breaker if a great site isn’t located in an affluent area, you may need to get creative if your long term goal is to compete with the Marin’s of the world. These are all extremely important factors to consider and could be the answer to the question of why there isn’t rowing there already.
If you gather the information and determine this is a rowing site with the potential to thrive, then go for it. You may have found something that is about to be truly special. Whether you intend to be a coach or an administrator, running a successful rowing program is an extremely fulfilling profession. The impact it has on the lives of your athletes and their surrounding community is amazing. Being part of that will make almost every day of your life a good one.
Mike Wallin is the Director of Rowing at Chicago Rowing Foundation.
He rowed at St. Joe's Prep in Philly, Cal Berkeley, and was on the US Junior National team.