Muddy Mohawk backdrop for a beautiful sport

As boats cut through the still-muddy waters of the Mohawk River, parents and coaches agreed the Head
Members of the Rensselaer Rowing team prepare for the Head of the Mohawk Regatta at Aqueduct Park in Niskayuna on Saturday.
Members of the Rensselaer Rowing team prepare for the Head of the Mohawk Regatta at Aqueduct Park in Niskayuna on Saturday.

As boats cut through the still-muddy waters of the Mohawk River, parents and coaches agreed the Head of the Mohawk Regatta is a beautiful event to watch, even with the brown backdrop.

The rowers would prefer calm conditions, with no wind and bright sunshine for good measure. But even on a chilly, fall day that offers brisk gusts and bright red noses, the rowers at the seventh-oldest regatta in the nation appeared at peace while on the water.

“It’s so pretty to watch the boats go,” said Julia MacDonald, event chairwoman. “It’s strenuous but it’s also mind-clearing. And certainly the adults at least really like rowing because you get out there and you really can’t think about anything else. You can keep rowing until you can’t do it anymore.”

Rowing is far from a leisurely sport, though. An estimated 20 clubs participated Saturday in the 31st annual regatta at Aqueduct Park in Niskayuna, just upstream of the Rexford Bridge. Be it the single rower from Saratoga, or the Vassar Rowing team, or the Cascadilla Boat Club, each boat heads out on the racecourse competing for best time in classes ranging from singles to eights and even veterans.

The endurance needed to steer, row and synchronize with boatmates makes it a physically demanding sport. The most important skill required by rowers is a sense of teamwork, said MacDonald.

“Everybody in the boat has to be together,” she said. “When you’re rowing in a boat with others you can’t be the hot dog, you can’t be the one showing off like you can do in basketball. You can’t do that in a boat. You are as strong as your weakest rower. So there’s a synchronization that I think appeals to people.”

It can be seen from start to finish. The 2.6-mile race began at Freemans bridge and ran straight downriver, ending at the Aqueduct Boat House. Arriving at different intervals, boats increasing in size to as large as a 60-foot, 8-person scull glide in at a steady clip, with oars slicing into the river at the same moment.

Dockmasters controlled the flow of boats on and off the launching ramps. And at the race’s conclusion, men and women of disparate ages worked together to carry their boat over their heads and back up the dock.

Post-flood worries

Niskayuna Rowing and Aqueduct Rowing Club co-organized the event for the second year in a row. Organizers had to assure participants and fans that the regatta would still go on this year, despite debris concerns after Tropical Storm Irene caused the Mohawk to rise and wash out riverside communities.

Niskayuna Rowing organizer David Malcolm said safety boats traveled up and down the racecourse, watching for debris and picking up any of the small stuff.

But despite the recent flooding, the dock stayed intact and the river ran fine so there was no reason to cancel the event, organizers agreed.

Emily Steele rowed for her high school’s varsity team for the first time this year. The 14-year-old has rowed since seventh grade, said her mother as she craned her neck to catch a glimpse of her daughter’s boat appearing through the trees.

“Everybody says it’s not a sport,” said Taree Cassella, of Niskayuna. “But I’ll tell you the first time I picked her up after training she was dying. They had to run and do arm machines. Luckily she’s taller, so the more height you have the easier it is to row because you get more out of it.”

Tranquil workout time

Amy Landauer-Ruder gets the most out of it at night when the water is beautiful and calm and she just wants a good workout.

The Aqueduct Club secretary first rowed in college, then returned to soccer and finally back to rowing when she moved to Niskayuna.

“We have such a good club here,” said Landauer-Ruder, 29. “I like being on the water. It’s a real team sport, and more than anything you have to be in sync with everyone in your boat, exactly lined up or it just doesn’t work.”

She sat Saturday’s race out because of a back injury, but said she hopes to be back on the water next week.

Devotion to the sport is common, said MacDonald, as she answered questions of rowers walking by and chatted with familiar faces. Though it’s not a traditional sport, she said it’s fast growing in high schools and colleges simply because it’s fun.

“We had a guy last year who rowed and complained that because he was over 70 he didn’t have any competition,” she said. “So it’s a lifetime sport. They’re water people, whether it be sailing or kayaking. They enjoy the water and they’ll do it until they can’t any more.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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