Traverse City rowers paddle with passion

Brendan Quealy
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Leelanau — Rowing is all about motion.

The motion of the water. The motion of the boat on the water. The motion of the oars cutting through the water. The motion of the eight rowers pulling and pushing those oars in complete synchronicity while gliding along the top of the water.

The creation of the Lake Leelanau Rowing Club and the Traverse City Area Public Schools girls rowing program was set in motion more than 160 years ago, when the construction of Leland Dam was completed in 1854 and Lake Leelanau was created.

When French-Canadian oil prospectors struck a natural-fed gusher of sparkling water along Lake Leelanau in 1867, a stream of water sprung forth from the ground and created a fountain that runs to this day.

When houses were built on the property in 1889, Fountain Point Resort was established and opened to the public.

When Victor A. Gerbhart purchased the resort in 1936, a new beginning was started for Fountain Point — and when Gerbhart’s grandson, Erik Zehender, took over Fountain Point in 2009, the former Northwestern University rower saw the potential for a program suited toward nurturing the love of that sport among all ages.

Two years later, the TCAPS rowing program, which is a co-op between Traverse City West and Traverse City Central high schools, went from an idea to a reality.

“This is a natural resource. This is a real luxury,” the fourth-generation innkeeper said. “The natural thing to do here is to row.”

Chris Bott was brought on to head the program along with Amy Brunner. Bott rowed competitively in high school at St. Mary’s Orchard Lake, which has long history of rowing success and tradition, as well as in college. Brunner rowed varsity for four years at Grand Valley State University.

The two coaches have helped churn out several athletes who have gone on to Division-I colleges on rowing scholarships, including Traverse City West’s Haylee Judge and Traverse City Central’s Maggie Dupuie, who both signed their letters of intent recently. Judge will head to the University of Louisville, while Dupuie is set to attend the University of Kansas.

“You have to think about the long game,” Bott said. “You practice five days a week, two hours a day, and you only have three regattas per season. It’s like having three games in many other sports, but at the regattas you only get one race or maybe two. You get one chance to score the touchdown, one chance to hit the shot, one chance to earn the gold medal.

“You put in a lot of work for a very short-term race. You really have to look out at the water and say, ‘All of the effort I put in now, the reward is going to come when I cross the finish line. We prepare them for the intensity of racing, but we’re really preparing them for the intensity of college rowing, which is on a whole other level.”

Although rowing may seem simple — just eight people in a boat moving in the same direction — it is anything but.

Biometrics, physics, geometry, trigonometry, algebra and so much more play crucial roles in creating a successful team.

In eight-person boats, which are referred to as shells, there are 184 centimeters from center line to pin, 116 centimeters from the collar on the oar to the end of the oar blade, 16.5 centimeters from the top of the seat to the bottom of the oar lock and 4 degrees set for the oar-lock pitch. While all of those numbers mean absolutely nothing to someone outside of the sport, they mean everything to those on the inside.

“Coaches have all of the math,” Bott said. “We have to take into account the height of the rower, flexibility, the length they can get on the water, each rower’s strength, adjustment of the gearing shell. Every pair needs to be equal in power. If one side pulls harder than the other, the boat is going to turn. Then the coxswain (which directs the boat and is the only person facing forward) has to adjust the rudder. That puts drag on the boat and slows it down. I need it laser-straight natively.

“The easiest way to do it measure straight across the hull, divide in two, measure from the outside to the pin, and then add the half to get the total. That’s how you know your center line — but every boat is going to be a little bit different.”

Fortunately for the rowers, they don’t have to worry about numbers.

“The best rowers have a way of shutting their brain off,” Bott said. “A rower should be dumb-muscled — don’t think, just do.”

Rowing, however, is not just about those subjects filling up textbooks. The sport finds a close relationship to the beats and rhythms of music and poetry. Rowers are guided to row in intervals of strokes per minute. Eighteen is taking it easy. Thirty-six is hauling.

“On the water, rowing is all about that same rhythm, the beat, the tempo. People call it the symphony of motion,” Zehender said. “You can feel the difference, even when it’s subtle, because of that connection. The whole connection to nature is so attractive. You’re connecting to the Earth through the water in something man-made. You feel it the most when you close your eyes. You’ve lost all sense of where you are. It’s like you’re in space. It’s so deep and mystical.”

If done correctly, rowing can be a beautiful sight to behold.

“Being out on the lake is just peaceful and relaxing,” Bott said. “What I love so much about this sport is the teamwork that is required. You can’t have one-star athlete. You have to have eight people working as that one-star athlete together. The timing has to be dead-on. The catch, the finish, the recovery, the drive all have to be dead-on. Everybody has to be perfect. If done right, they can do it with their eyes closed. That’s an impressive thing to watch when they finally get it.”

The uniqueness of the sport provides “metaphors for life and values that are innumerable,” according to Zehender.

“It’s about teamwork. About hard work. About goals. About progression. About discipline. About leadership,” he said. “All of the things we are doing here every day as rowers is in that vein.”

A TCAPS boys program is set to begin this summer or fall. Interest has already grown as word of mouth spreads.

“The biggest thing rowing teaches in terms of life lessons is the ability to stick with it,” Bott said. “Rowing is very physically and mentally demanding. It’s very tough. They have seven other rowers who are completely dependent on them, and that goes for each person in that boat. Knowing you have to stick it out and push through no matter how much it hurts or how tired you are becomes a great lesson for later in life.”