Montgomery County

13 students rowing Erie Canal for charity

Two rowing crews, one from Canisius High School in Buffalo, another from McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester

Last fall, Reid Yankowski, thought it would be fun to row the length of the Erie Canal. Now his idea has come to fruition in a much bigger way than he planned.

“When he said he wanted to row the length of the Erie Canal, we looked at him cross-eyed,” said Meredith Yankowski, mother of the Buffalo high school student. “Do you know how far that is? But he said he could do it.”

Two rowing crews, one from Canisius High School, another from McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester, left Tonawanda Creek on June 14. Tuesday they stayed at the Canajoharie park. By Thursday, they’ll be at their final stop, in Waterford.

In all, 13 young men are making the 320-mile trip in two rowing sculls. They’re all 17, preparing for their senior year, spending a chunk of their summer vacation averaging 12 hours and over 50 miles of rowing a day. It might seem more like work than vacation, but it’s for a good cause.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the crews had raised $53,900 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“It’s a challenge,” said Jack Ruh of Canisius High. “It’s hot. The sun is a big factor, but diabetes is also a big challenge, so it helps us identify with the people we’re trying to help.”

Originally, Yankowski wanted a physical challenge. He called a few of his rowing friends at school to see if they were up for an adventure.

“When he asked me about it I agreed,” Ruh said. “But then I thought, we can either do this just for fun, or do some good too.”

Several crew members are friends with young diabetics, so choosing a beneficiary of the row was an easy choice.

At first Yankowski, Ruh and their team set a goal of $25,000. “Then the word got out and we just blew past that,” Ruh said. “We had to extend our goal to $50,000.”

In the process, the McQuaid Jesuit rowing team got involved, more than doubling the size of the trip. While the crews race every spring and fall, in this endeavour at least, they’ve put rivalry aside.

“Sometimes they get a little spirited and maybe do a short sprint race,” Meredith said, “but really, they’re rowing for 12 hours a day. They’re all a team.”

The night before the crews set out, the second goal was reached and had to be increased again. It is now $60,000.

The crews are supported along the way by Meredith and Dan Yankowski, who follow along by land in a car and RV, and two small motor boats.

Each rowing scull holds five — four at the oars, one to steer and direct. A few can be rotated on and off, which helps keep blisters and fatigue at bay.

Even so, it’s a hard trip. There is only so much support the few parents following can provide. In the end it’s down to the crews, and after six days on the water, they’ve experienced a lot.

“We got up early to cross Oneida Lake,” Ruh said. “It’s usually calmer in the morning, but it was still pretty choppy from the night before.”

Yankowski’s mother said the parents wanted to trailer the boats around the 20-mile lake to avoid the rough water.

“It’s so shallow,” she said. “When the wind comes up, the waves get big fast, but the boys wanted to do it.”

Rowing sculls are built for high speed on smooth water, so they float only a few inches out of the water. Within 20 minutes of setting off, Ruh’s boat was swamped.

“The waves just came right in,” he said. “We had to row into shore a few times and get the water out.”

The 20-mile trip took the crews five hours to finish, which is well below their average speed, but Meredith Yankowski said they were just happy to get across.

To donate to the rowers’ efforts, go to

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