Boathouse Row, Philadelphia - At Vesper Boat Club, where Grace Kelly, later known as Princess Grace of Monaco, used to show up with her brother, our national sculling champion, they are asking the question. The same question is being asked at adjacent Malta Boat Club, and also at Penn AC, and Bachelors and Undine, University of Pennsylvania, Crescent and Fairmount. All along this historic row of ten boat clubs on the Schuylkill River, the word has spread that Fort Lauderdale is planning a rowing facility along the Middle River. And from the smallest high school coxswain to the oldest veteran still engaged in a health workout, the question is the same. Will Fort Lauderdale's new boathouse have a bar?
Before addressing this question of great importance, a bit of history. The sport of rowing, also known as crew (never use the redundant "crew team"), has been growing rapidly in Florida. Athletes and coaches who learned the sport on Philadelphia's Schuylkill or Boston's Charles River or Syracuse's Lake Onondaga have moved to Florida and brought interest in the sport with them. For years, northern colleges have come to Florida for their version of spring training. Our La Salle guys used to escape the March cold for practice races against Rollins, Tampa and Florida Southern, after which they came to Fort Lauderdale to party. Florida has much water, but a lot of it is not compatible with fragile racing shells. Rollins College has rowed on Winter Park's Lake Maitland for decades (its program began in 1903) and Florida Tech has developed very competitive crews on a canal in Melbourne. A world class rowing facility has just been built in Sarasota.
But finding suitable water in South Florida is a challenge. Most rivers and waterways are busy with powerboats, some of them so big they belong in the U.S. Navy. Their wakes alone inhibit a sport where boats sometimes are swamped by rough water. Years ago our crew won a race on the Delaware River simply because we were the only shell that managed not to sink.
Despite the obstacles, the sport has grown in Florida. Miami's Belen Jesuit rows on a man-made lake. In Fort Lauderdale, Pine Crest and Westminster Academy use canals near their campuses, which are narrow and not ideal rowing venues. The New River and Intracoastal Waterway are impossibly busy, unless you row in the dark. And that's what Nova Southeastern's women's crew, which has won Division II national championships, has been doing for several years. The ladies meet at Hollywood Rowing Club in Holland Park at 6 a.m. and are on and off the Intracoastal before the waterway becomes dangerously congested.
Thus, Nova Southeastern and local high schools welcome the news of the Middle River proposal, despite the fact that the river is less than ideal for this purpose. But it is suitable. Although there are docks all along the water, the traffic is far less than the Intracoastal into which it feeds. From the point where the river bends sharply east to join the Intracoastal, until north near 26th St., there is a relatively straight stretch, which could offer at least a high school race course - normally 1,500 meters. But that would require room for several boats to pass abreast under the new Sunrise Boulevard bridge. (Engineers take note.) The most popular rowing sites offer crews a chance to row without interruption for longer distances. Philadelphia's Schuylkill has three miles of row-able water through Fairmount Park, but that includes several major curves. Its often-used 2,000-meter racing course involves a slight dogleg.
To overcome these problems, we need a bar in this boathouse. There, sportsmen may gather under conditions that tend to make problems self-solving, including the problem of having a bar in a public park in the first place. That's not done in South Florida, although there is never a shortage of empty beer cans or liquor bottles found on the public beach or busy inland parks. An exception could be granted for private functions, and on the grounds of historic precedent. Just about every one of Philadelphia's boathouses has at least a modest corner for entertainment, which includes some kind of bar and facilities for a light kitchen. Thus, on weekends men (and increasingly women) whose competitive years are a distant memory, gather at their old clubs, to remember days of glory and, this time of year, probably watch a soccer game.
We should observe that Philly's famous rowing clubs, although private, sit on land owned by the city, the same as Fort Lauderdale's would be. Boathouse Row is part of the sprawling Fairmount Park, which follows the Schuylkill River and a major tributary, the Wissahickon Creek, for almost a dozen miles. The clubs also serve a public purpose. Each one houses several college or high school programs. Indeed, the boathouses sometimes serve as venues for fundraisers supporting those programs. Boathouse parties have been going on since the first clubs appeared in the 1850s and '60s.
Which brings us back to home. Starting from scratch, Fort Lauderdale's club should be large enough to accommodate far more activity than can be presently expected. Private owners will want to house boats there. When the river flows under U.S. 1, it becomes far too serpentine for the larger shells, but singles and doubles could use that water for longer rows. The Middle River eventually becomes canalized and there are considerable (and possibly raceable) stretches all the way to Interstate 95. A railroad bridge prevents all but the most low-lying boats from accessing that stretch, but racing shells are nothing if not low-lying. Rentals from schools and individuals are a source of income. Hollywood Rowing Club is a simple one-story shed. Fort Lauderdale should be bolder, even if it requires a public/private venture. The building should be broad enough and tall enough to accommodate lockers for men and women. It need not be 32 stories, but three levels, including the ground floor boat bays, would not be unreasonable. And topping it off, with a porch overlooking the water, is our bar. Properly executed, with some facility for serving food, it could become a unique social spot, rentable for weddings and all manner of receptions. Think Lauderdale or Coral Ridge yacht clubs. That would help defray the cost of maintaining the facility. It could possibly even be a modest moneymaker.
Such an ambitious project actually has a precedent in South Florida. The Shane Water Sports Center on Indian Creek, off Biscayne Bay in Miami Shores, houses the Miami Rowing Club and both the University of Miami and Barry University crews. It also is a popular spot for social events, and, best of all, it not only serves a drink, you can even bring your own.