If you’re not used to seeing the sun come up, you probably haven’t see them.
Zipping silently over the waters of Kempenfelt Bay in the early morning light, members of the Barrie Rowing Club are heading back to shore while many of us are still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes.
These aren’t the little rowboats we used to putter around in as kids.
Some of these boats are as long as my house is wide and range from single ‘sculls’, occupied by one person, to shells with eight rowers and a coxswain (pronounced coxin), called ‘eights’, which are 18.9 metres (62-feet) long.
The non-profit organization - whose mission is to stimulate, advocate and develop the sport of rowing - has been around since 1988, and rowing on the bay has been a tradition for more than a century.
Barrie Rowing Club president Matt Gleben says he initially got into the sport for the fitness aspect.
“I watched my sons rowing in high school and figured if they could get up early to get some exercise I could too,” he tells BarrieToday.com.
“Rowing is a full-body low-impact exercise and I have continued to pursue rowing with the hope of achieving that elusive perfect rowing stroke,” Gleben adds with a chuckle.
“And the venue is also a big draw,” he says, referring to Kempenfelt Bay and the club’s home (since 1994) in the Southshore Centre. “We typically row early in the morning heading into the sunrise as it comes up over Lake Simcoe.”
The club is always on the hunt for new members, he adds.
“This past weekend we hosted the Come-and-Try event on Saturday where members of the public had the opportunity to row in a shell with an experienced member,” Gleben says. “It drew some good interest from those that had preregistered and those that signed up on site.
“On Sunday we had our annual Flip Day, where members got to practice tipping and then getting back into their rowing shell from the water.”
Unfortunately, one source of ongoing club members is drying up.
“At its peak, the BRC had almost 100 students from five high schools participating in the program,” he says. “The club provided the equipment and some coaching to the local high schools to facilitate the running of the rowing programs at their schools. Over the years, St. Joseph's Catholic High School, ÉSC Nouvelle-Alliance, St. Joan of Arc CHS, St. Peter’s CHS, Innisdale Secondary School and Barrie North SS have fielded teams.”
Gleben says during the pandemic the BRC has attempted to keep a small group of high school age youth engaged with the sport in between lockdowns.
“The loss of the partnership with local high schools is a big blow,” he adds.
The Barrie Rowing Club was just a thought in the fall/winter of 1987 when Kate Wilson (an experienced rower) put an ad in a Barrie paper looking for interest in rowing. George McCullough (an experienced coxswain) responded to the ad and were joined by David Collacutt.
The first ‘boathouse’ was actually a storage shed at a Victoria and Bradford streets gas station. It was revamped for the club by industrious volunteers and its location, while affording a walk to the lake, was a bit of a challenge.
And once members got to Centennial Beach, there was no dock to help them get into their boats.
“The club was ready for its first wet launch in July 1988,” original club member Elaine Bursztyn tells BarrieToday.com.
“Mona Turnbull and Georgia Hess, who joined the club that year, are still members today,” she says. “Rowers made several trips between the shed and the waterfront carrying first the oars and the boat stretchers, and then the shell, crossing the railway tracks (which were still in use then) and Lakeshore Drive a total of six times for each outing.
“It was an interesting situation when there was a train on the tracks,” Bursztyn says.
“I remember that the green light’s duration for crossing Lakeshore Drive was shorter than the time required to walk our ‘eights’ across the road,” her husband Peter tells BarrieToday.com. “We could get six seats (of the boat) across the road and then the light turned red. The last two people had to hold up their hands, pleading with the motorists not to run us down.”
But that all changed with a move to the new Southshore Centre in the spring of 1994.
With funding from the province, the city and community partners, an old CN maintenance building on the south shore was restored, expanded and transformed into the Southshore Centre. BRC’s contribution for the new boathouse was $100,000, payable over four years.
No more crossing train tracks and roads and no more wet launches.
The club was closed during the initial lockdown phase due to COVID-19 and as restrictions eased it was allowed to open to groups of five with members rowing singles only.
New protocols, along with washing and disinfecting requirements for all pieces of equipment, were implemented and there are now touch-free procedures for screening and boat reservations.
“As we moved into Step 2 and then Step 3 we were able to use our fleet of larger crew boats,” Gleben says. “During the winter months we typically hold classes for indoor rowing in our boathouse but during the shutdown periods of the pandemic indoor training was not permitted so we hosted group sessions using Zoom.”
Now - finally - there could be some racing in the club’s future.
“Looking forward, a number of rowers are hoping to compete in a rowing race in Muskoka in September and will be training for that competition,” he says adding the sport appeals to all types of people of all athletic skills.
“While many start rowing in high school or university, others pick it up later in life,” Gleben says. “There is no age limit for rowers. We have members that are in their late 70s or early 80s. It is a sport that you can do your entire life.”