Busy waters cramp crew teams

Rowers, sailors vie with powerboaters for space and safety on Maryland waterways


As if getting up before sunrise with sore arms, an aching back and blistered hands is not dedication enough, crew teams in Maryland find themselves facing increasing competition these days for space on the state's crowded waterways.

"It has now become the number of boats on the water and the difficulty with the height of wakes that make it hard to train safely and accommodate the crews," said Rick Clothier, director of rowing for the Naval Academy.

Clothier has worked with Navy crew for the past 31 years. He said there have been many times when boaters have come too close to his rowers in their fragile and easily swamped shells, putting the crews at risk.

"We have to stop rowing or do anything we can to avoid taking on water," he said. "The skippers of powerboats show no regard for rowers."

Not surprisingly, powerboaters point the finger in the other direction, saying that too often crews are oblivious to the traffic around them.

"When they say all powerboaters are rude, I just don't think that's true," says George Ward, of the Annapolis harbor master's office. Capt. Edy Cottrell, of the Coast Guard said the long-standing struggle between powerboats and slower moving sailing or rowing craft has become worse.

"Kayakers, rowers and sailors all think the powerboats have gotten in the way," she said. "Some powerboaters are rude, but a lot of times it's just ignorance. They don't know they should be paying attention and slow down.

"We only have so much water. We're not making any more water, but we're putting more boats on it every day."

There are about 210,000 boats registered in Maryland, and more than 90 percent are powerboats, according to a 2004 report by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

And oftentimes boaters don't obey the law, Clothier said.

"I can't tell you the number of times" academy boats have been sunk, he said. "We have a full-time repairman, and he can't even keep up."

The six crew teams from the Naval Academy practice on the Severn River along with teams from St. John's College and the Annapolis Rowing Club. At any time there can be up to 300 rowers, or about 35 shells on the water.

Clothier said he has witnessed several collisions between rowers and powerboats.

"Boaters want to get out to the ocean as quickly as possible," he said. "They don't realize that they're creating a threatening environment."

Cindy Ching, president of the Baltimore Rowing Club, said rowers from her organization practice at the Baltimore Rowing Center in the Patapsco River Basin, about two miles away from Fort McHenry and Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

The teams practice at sunrise or sunset so they can avoid most commercial traffic on the water, she said, but there is a marina nearby, and negligent boaters sometimes cause problems.

The Baltimore Rowing Center is shared with the collegiate crews of Loyola College, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Judd Anderson, crew coach for St. Paul's School in Baltimore, said his team practices near Fells Point where other boats are often impossible to avoid.

The main problem - especially during the colder months - is the water taxis in the Inner Harbor, he said.

Zach Rogers, a driver for Ed Kane's Baltimore Water Taxis for five years, said his drivers have learned to be conscious of the crew teams working out in the Inner Harbor but it is the crew teams who are most often at fault.

Anderson said crew boats rarely tip over because of the long oars, but they can easily be swamped by large wakes caused by water taxis. "We have traffic patterns and they don't," he said. "It's up to us to avoid them. We stress safety. Safety is a big deal."

Elizabeth Coe writes for the Capital News Service.

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