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Midcoast rowing competition continues to grow

In November, the Vinalhaven Vikings did their state proud as they placed first in the North East Regional Open-Water Youth Rowing Championship in Hull, Mass. Commonly known as the Icebreaker, this event is the biggest high school rowing competition in the east - perhaps in the country - attracting more than 20 teams from all over New England and New York.

For the Vikings, the win was a dream come true. Their first appearance at the Icebreaker in November 2000 left much to be desired as they placed last. Subsequent appearances proved only slightly more successful. This year, coach Mark Jackson's young team went to the event hoping to win one race. Instead they won the whole shebang. We were feeling okay going into the Icebreaker, said VHS assistant coach Heather White, because we had gone back and forth with North Haven all season. Our main focus was to go and compete with North Haven. The island rivals had sparred several times during the regular season, trading wins and losses back and forth. North Haven placed second at the Icebreaker, giving that much more weight to Maine's representation at the competition.

"What makes this win so amazing," continued White, "is that our coed team of four eighth graders, a freshman and three sophomores beat teams made up of junior and senior boys." The Icebreaker uses a crewmaster format, which tests the skill and versatility of a crew, rather than the speed of a particular boat. Teams trade boats for four races, and race their own boat for one. Finishing times for all the races are then totaled for a combined time used to determine each team's final place.

While the island schools, placings in the championship probably won't have a great affect on their place in the world of student rowing, they can't hurt either. Winning the Icebreaker only means good things for rowing, said White. "We are small schools along the coast of Maine. Those of us on islands are surrounded by water. Our lives are ruled by the wind direction and the tide charts. Rowing just makes sense as a sport in this region of the country. It gives kids a chance to get out on the water and feel confident about navigating the ledges and the other boat traffic. Winning the Icebreaker just lets other kids know that it is a serious sport, that it is competitive and has its rewards. I wouldn't be surprised if next year we see more students interested in becoming part of this sport."

VHS head coach Mark Jackson has a more subdued outlook. "I think [our win] may help our own program here as kids who have never rowed before are saying they plan to row next year. Rowing in Maine will depend on whether we can get to a critical mass of teams in the Maine coast area. Teams in close proximity of each other will sustain one another."

The "critical mass" of which Jackson speaks may be forthcoming. A number of communities in midcoast Maine have open-water rowing boats, called gigs, and have sustained some form of school or community rowing program for several years. Other communities are either in the process of building gigs, or are considering starting rowing programs.

Vinalhaven and North Haven started the movement toward Cornish Pilot gig rowing in 2000 when both schools built and launched their first boats, VIXEN and RECOVERY respectively. Vinalhaven built a second gig, SIREN, the following year. At the same time, both island communities started school and community rowing programs. Vinalhaven's community rowing interest evolved into the Vinalhaven Rowing Club, now active in rowing events around New England throughout much of the year. North Haven often sends teams to the same events.

Within a couple years of the islands' boat launchings, the Belfast community showed interest in starting a rowing club as well. Using the same mold that VIXEN and SIREN were built on, Belfast's Come Boating! group built its first gig, BELLE FAST. Since then, Come Boating! has maintained an active community rowing program, which includes sponsoring an annual regatta at the end of each summer. Come Boating! also sponsored a student rowing program last spring, but was unable to maintain interest through the fall. Jackson hopes Belfast will be able to field a student team again, bringing the midcoast one step closer to that "critical mass" of teams. Station Maine, a nonprofit group in Rockland, also rows gigs. Its Bantry Bay gig is much larger - a ten-oared boat, compared to the Cornish gig's six oars - which makes competition with the Cornish gigs exhibitions, at best. However, having rowed the Cornish gigs, Station Maine became smitten. Their new Cornish gig, the Red Jacket, is set to be launched May 21.

Muriel Curtis, director of Station Maine, can't wait. Until now, "Station Maine has focused primarily on providing rowing and sailing opportunities to youth, but not exclusively," she said. "We have a waiting list for adults who want to row, and we are looking forward to starting a community rowing program."

Come May, midcoast Maine will have five Cornish Pilot gigs in active use. There has been talk of Islesboro building a gig, and people in Thomaston have expressed interest as well. If open-water rowing continues to grow at this fast pace, Jackson may yet see his critical mass of teams emerge.

Text and image by Kris Osgood


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