In a shell, history skims across the water

Jacques Kelly

October 11, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

As the sun pops over the Eastern skies, at the hour when most other people are still in bed, eight rowers lift a boat and carry it to the edge of the Patapsco River's Middle Branch.

In early morning light, this party of men and women launch the Ariel, a rowing shell named for a Baltimore sporting tradition once as well known as the Preakness. From 1864 through the 1930s, the Ariel Rowing Club dominated what was referred to as Baltimore's "Patapsco navy."

The present-day Ariel is the property of the Baltimore Rowing Club, a group of about 170 who operate out of a spiffy, city-owned boat house on Waterview Avenue, just west of the Hanover Street Bridge near Cherry Hill.

Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Goucher and University of Baltimore students also congregate here at ungodly hours of the morning. Most of the rowers are on the water by 6 a.m., often three or five mornings a week.

The shells dart around the harbor like water skimmer insects. The rowers often go under the Hanover Street Bridge, past Fort McHenry, turn to the northwest, past Locust Point's docks and Fells Point and circle around off the National Aquarium. Then it's back to Waterview Avenue.

The Loyola students use the shell Sellinger, named for the Jesuit priest who heads their school. The Hopkins contingent row in the Mary Elizabeth Garrett, named for a local philanthropist. The Blue Jays also have the Charles F. Hughes Jr., named for an alumnus who is a local ship chandler. Another boat is named for Bob Scott, the school's director of athletics. The oars are light blue and white, the school's colors.

There is considerable historic justice in naming one of these light-weight shells Ariel, a character Shakespeare placed in "The Tempest" for the airy sprite that pops in and out of the play. And it is just as apt that its counterpart shell is called the Arundel.

The Ariel Rowing Club and the Arundel Boat Club were once determined competitors at Ferry Bar, the land spit that juts off Port Covington in South Baltimore, not so far from the new Baltimore Sun plant.

(It is difficult to pinpoint the site of the old clubs; local industry swallowed their sites 70 years ago, when the land became too valuable for mere recreation.)

Both the Ariels and Arundels had their own boat houses fronting the Patapsco. And nearby was a public bathing beach as well as George Kahl's pavilion and restaurant. In the 1880s and 1890s, this part of South Baltimore functioned as Baltimore's Deep Creek Lake and Ocean City.

The Ariel Club was the older of the two organizations, founded in 1864 in a Fells Point sail loft. Members of the Winans family, who owned what is now Port Covington in South Baltimore, offered the membership use of their shoreline there.

After the Arundel Club was founded about 1898, it also settled there, within cursing distance of the rival Ariel. The Ariels, ousted from their long-time home, held on until the 1930s; by the 1950s, the Arundels had given up rowing and were only meeting to talk about old times.

In their day, the Middle States Regattas were big news and tested rowers from Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis and Virginia. Not everyone in the clubs rowed. Some paddled canoes, which were popular in the Teens and 20s. And there was a "porch-sitters" class of memberships, for those who wore blazers and straw boaters to watch the races.

Rowing lapsed in Baltimore for some time. Just 11 years ago the Baltimore Rowing Club was organized. It holds an Ariel Regatta each fall, also named for its ancestor club. Clubs and schools from the region compete.

And for those who aren't afraid of reveille or exercise, the Baltimore Rowing Club has a seat for you.

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