The Narragansett Boat Club Rows On
The historic club has bounced back with championship talent.
The Seekonk River empties into the Providence River, dotted with wooden pilings and the stuck-up Crook Point Bascule Bridge that slices through the horizon. It is a river that, for a large swath of history, was a dumping ground, swirling with sewage, plastic syringes, even rotting corpses.
Today, the dumping ground is slowly becoming fertile ground. Gulls swoop down to pluck unsuspecting crabs for their next meal. Menhaden shimmy through the currents and eelgrasses caress the legs of anyone who wanders down to the water’s edge. The river’s inhabitants are making a comeback and one species in particular is thriving.
White and blue striped oar blades cut into the water. The oars protrude from small boats and blistered hands grasp their handles, pulling through in one stroke, wrists down. Then the wrists flick upwards, palms reaching towards the skies and the oars swoosh through the air, clipping the surface before they plunge back in. Water sprays. Heavy breathing is the only sound besides the occasional churl of a motorboat or caws from gulls.
These are the rowers, the rivermen and women. They are as much a part of the river as the cormorants and the cordgrass, and at one point were depleted like the ecosystem they inhabit. But they have made a comeback.
Their home base, the Narragansett Boat Club (NBC), sits on the banks of the Seekonk, a blue beacon to all who maneuver rowing boats across the river’s expanse. Music blares from the building, people in spandex traipse the wooden floors, hands grab oars and kids line up at the computer to log their miles. There’s teasing, banter, laughter, silence, joy, sadness, success and pain. There are rowers of all ages, and even wisps of newbies who barely crack age thirteen. There are rowers who row for fun, rowers who row to get in shape, rowers who row for school, rowers who row to be kind to their joints, and rowers who row to race and win.
But it was not always this way. While today the club is the thriving and winning heart of rowing in Rhode Island, breeding a 2016 summer Olympian, junior champions and regional winners, it was once as decrepit as the river, a relic of glory days past. It was a new crop of rowers who brought NBC back from the brink of extinction.
NBC was founded in 1838, when rowing was just beginning to get a serious grip on the nation. The oldest boat club in the United States, NBC helped pioneer the culture of crew. The founders were like the members of a gentlemen’s club: elite, wealthy, powerful. Henry Lippitt was a governor, Rufus Waterman a well-off merchant, and Sullivan Dorr Jr., a prosperous merchant and Brown University trustee.
The club began its history in a small shack on Dyer Street, along what used to be the Providence Harbor, before it moved and expanded in the 1880s. The new two-story clubhouse graced the banks of the river at the intersection of Angell Street and River Road.
Its members could be seen skittering down the river during the day and in the evenings attending grandiose social events. There were soirees, galas, orchestras, plays and more. The debonair elites of the East Side were on display.
But the golden age was not to last. As the turn of the century waxed and waned, interest in rowing petered out, swept aside by a changing current of American pastimes and sporting events.
In 1938, the club migrated to a humbler building down the street and the larger boathouse was sold to Brown University. Time rolled onwards and took its toll on the club. The Depression made fancy events impossible and a succession of wars took members from the banks of the Seekonk to the terra firma of Europe. Like the times, the river was also changing. Instead of gulls bobbing through the water, blobs of orange foam laced the currents. The Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility overflowed sewage, and oxygen depletion caused fish kills that left the air putrid for weeks.
The fast and furious glamour of the river’s days past sputtered, and at NBC, members floated in and out like ghosts from the past. But then the ’70s happened. A new fleet of rowers arrived.
Albin Moser (left) plods down the ramp to the dock where the spindly rowing boats begin their journey into open water. He is tall, six foot five, and his ears stick out from beneath his baseball cap like Roald Dahl’s BFG. Except this BFG doesn’t have time for nonsense.
“Whose boat is that?” he booms.
A boat languishes in the water, its oars pulled onto the wooden dock so it won’t float away. Rowers carrying boats over their heads are waiting on the ramp, and this one is holding up traffic.
It’s so-and-so’s, someone babbles.
“Well, tell her to get it out of here or launch.”
Moser is the director of rowing at NBC, a title that barely encapsulates his long and successful history with the club.
Under his guidance, the club was reborn and given fresh life, primarily through the learn-to-row program that he initiated. The resuscitation began in 1971 at a time when the club’s past was all but forgotten.
Moser first encountered the ailing club and river as a rower on the Brown University crew in February of 1964. A football player, he’d begun rowing to stay in shape after a failed attempt at basketball.
Brown rowed out of NBC at the time, and when Moser started rowing, the club was on life support. “There weren’t that many people from the boat club who actually went out to row,” he says. “You would have three or four regularly. My sense is that in the ’60s, the club became a nice gathering place for businessmen who liked to splash around in boats a little bit.”
That all changed with Moser. A few years after graduating, he became the coach of the Brown crew and found unexpected inspiration while on a trip to Germany in 1970. He was observing the West German rowing training facilities when he noticed a curious thing.
“I saw these kids rowing in small boats that were part of the Ratzeburg rowing club,” he says. “To me, it was an immediate transfer, to say: ‘This is something we can do here, in Rhode Island.’ So I set out to establish a rowing program, a sculling program.”
In 1971, Moser began to replicate the “kids rowing in small boats” on the banks of the Seekonk at NBC, starting the learn-to-row program that would change the club forever.
A master rower gets an early morning start on practice.
The Seekonk wasn’t the most hospitable place for this new species of rowers. The air was putrid and floating debris clogged the marshes at the river’s edge. Further up into Pawtucket, the river ran blue, green, red and other colors, dyed by a local factory’s refuse.
“Nothing grew along the river bank,” Moser says. “The fish, if there were fish, were dead. One of the summers at the boathouse there were menhaden lining the shore, dead from oxygen-depleted water.”
But something happened. Save the Bay was formed in 1970 and the Clean Water Act passed in 1972. As the river took steps towards its slow revival, so also did NBC begin a new chapter of its life. Moser’s learn-to-row program began humbly. The boathouse was half of what it is today, with a slumping old dock that had been towed up from Quonset and a small fleet of boats. The program took place during the summers, when it was warm and when the local high school students were out of school.
“It was originally for boys, but by the fourth year we had girls,” Moser says. As the rowers accumulated, Moser found innovative ways to train his new fleet. He used Brown’s wherries, blocky wooden boats that allowed the rower to learn the motions without the danger of tipping the boat.
“I also convinced the boat club to purchase a wherry of its own,” he says. “The program in some ways hasn’t changed; instead of wherries we have zephyrs. And now we have the barge.”
The program Moser developed is simple but effective in its approach. The barge is the first step a new rower takes in a boat. A wide pontoon, the barge has twelve seats and is where rowers learn the stroke, how to haul a boat. Built by coach Peter Wilhelm (left), the creaking barge is as raw as you can get.
Like Ben Hur in the bowels of the Roman galleon, new rowers position their butts on wooden seats, legs bent, arms forward, grasping wooden-handled oars while a coach in the stern gesticulates using hand commands.
Once they’ve mastered the stroke, the rowers move into fat yellow boats called zephyrs. As they become more comfortable and rack up miles, they progress to smaller, more refined boats that move faster. Each boat is a platform to better rowing, but every move upwards in boat rank becomes more precarious; every mistake has serious repercussions. Flipping the boat, for example.
Like the rower’s progression into lighter, faster rowing shells, the rejuvenation of NBC under Moser’s guidance took time and patience.
The program expanded to include adults. People trickled in through word of mouth and after seeing small ads in a local paper. The rowing season started to stretch beyond summer’s gentle breezes, bleeding into the spring and fall, squeezing in as much time on the water as possible.
By the mid-1990s, NBC’s membership swelled to around 150, and the size of Moser’s summer learning programs also grew. A group of passionate rowers from diverse backgrounds now used the boat club frequently, each person lending their talents to its regeneration.
Dan Gorriaran, short and intense with a deep vibrato voice, is one of the rivermen whose involvement with NBC parallels its revival. Gorriaran first encountered NBC in 1991 while on crutches with an ACL injury. He had gone down to the riverbank to stew and saw a single rower powering his way across the smooth water. “I saw this kid go by and I was like ‘oh my God, that’s so beautiful.’ ”
The rower was Moser’s son, Erik, who was training for the Junior Worlds Rowing Championship under his father’s tutelage. Gorriaran was smitten. He started rowing that summer for rehab and wound up putting in an entry at the prestigious Boston rowing race, the Head of the Charles, raced it and qualified for the next year. He’s been racing in it ever since.
He’s won fourteen times, including this past year when he placed first in two different boats. He was the president of the club’s board for nine years, organizes weekly rowing activities and is now the rowing coach for the Lincoln School.
Gorriaran is one of the “masters” at NBC, a group of older rowers whose commitment to the sport borders on obsessive. Think mile-long Google Group discussions on the finer points of rowing technique, who is cooking for the next potluck and which boat needs new foot-stretchers. They are the ones the boats are christened after, a fleet of storied names: Barbara G., Anne Porter, Rand, Ellen Hill, Loftus. Their days begin early, on the water.
The masters remember when Moser’s program was just gaining traction. They remember the acrid state of the river and they witnessed firsthand the startling growth of the club.
“When I was here in the ’90s, you would put the oar blade in the water and it would start disappearing, like the white would start disappearing from the blade. And now it’s actually looking pretty nice,” says Gorriaran.
The club also cleaned up its act to attract more members of the rowing species. “At first, it was a small sculling club, just a bunch of singles. Moser started the whole program up,” Gorriaran says.
Moser had been running the program for twenty years when Gorriaran arrived, one of the kids joining in an ebb and flow pattern with a phenom here and there. Then, in the early ’90s, the program expanded dramatically, the boathouse was renovated in 1992 and an indoor rowing program began in 2006. As the club grew in both number and manpower, it also began to rack up an impressive number of winning athletes.
Gorriaran is one of the many master rowers who have made NBC competitive, as are the rowing duo, the Greens. Barbara Green and her husband, Dick Green, are said to be at NBC “all the time.”
“I’ve been rowing in the Head of the Charles since 1986 in the singles. I won seven races, but them days are gone!” she says, her smile crinkling the corners of her eyes.
Her husband, Dick, has freckles and a grin that he flashes at his wife periodically. “Rowing is something you can do your whole life, I still do. We started rowing because our son did,” he says.
“He really excelled, he went to the Olympics. It was Albin’s work. We love seeing the kids doing it because it’s a sport you can do throughout your life,” says Barbara, before leaning over the wooden rail to watch the legions of new rowers mill about.
The club’s success in competition was bred through time, sweat, blisters and blood. Its master rowers are renowned for their skill, as is the young talent coming up.
The youth rowing classes are open to kids as young as thirteen.
After learning the basics through Moser’s program, rowers who are serious about the sport often pass through the capable hands of Peter Wilhelm. A local legend, Wilhelm is one of the quiet forces behind the boat club’s success. While Moser jumpstarted the program that produces new rowers, Wilhelm makes them great.
“Within the youth program we have a lot of kids who’d come back to row or those that want to do more,” Moser says. “Thanks to Peter Wilhelm, we have a number of national champions.”
Wilhelm’s story begins, as it should, on the water. Growing up in Barrington near the Hundred Acre Cove, he would take a small sailboat out and trace paths in the waves. “I started sailing by myself the summer after third grade. I basically went to the closet, took out the sail, went to the boat and went for a sail.”
He knew of rowing. His father rowed at Columbia and was a member of NBC from 1939 to 1956. Wilhelm began rowing in 1971 when he visited his older brother, Andy, who was stationed in Germany. “A kid asked me if I wanted to go rowing, and I said sure.”
Wilhelm paddled the Dortmund-Ems Kanal, struggling to understand his German coach but gaining an invaluable understanding of the handling of a rowing scull. Back in the United States, his father rejoined the boat club and seventeen-year-old Wilhelm, as Moser puts it, “showed up in 1972.”
Since then, Wilhelm has helped NBC to tie for third place in overall medal count at the 2015 Head of the Charles and win countless placed finishes in junior competitions. He has sent his rowers on to Ivy League teams and Olympic possibility, and he also helped build a boat that was rowed across the Atlantic in 1981. But you would never guess. Wilhelm’s quiet methods and awkward manners belie his rap sheet of success.
He shuffles into the boathouse, hair windswept and scruffy, plaid shirt tucked in, hands in his cargo pant pockets and a timer hanging around his neck. His rowers gather in the lounge at NBC, a dark wood-paneled room decorated with images of grinning crews holding oars like fishermen display their prize catches.
“Are we going out today?” he quietly asks. They nod in agreement before moving to the locker room to change.
“Let’s head towards Pawtucket,” he says. One by one, his rowers put one foot into their boats, and shove off with the other before quickly collapsing into the small sculls.
As his group rows, Wilhelm comments on their form between a quiet praise of their accomplishments. “Jonathan was just at the Head of the Fish race [in Saratoga Springs, New York] and he got second in the freshman flash novice group,” he says, nodding toward the youngest member of his group who smiles as if on cue.
The group continues towards Pawtucket with the Apex building as their guide and Wilhelm studies their movements. “Max, push on your hands earlier, the water on your blade is throwing your balance off,” he says over the sound of his motor. “He may have grown a little bit, I have to change things,” he murmurs to himself.
The sun shines brightly, turning the rowers into dark shadows against the gleaming water. Seagulls tag along, hovering on the wind above the human water jumpers. “It’s like they’re following us,” Wilhelm says, chuckling to himself as he steers the motorboat onwards. He sidles back up to his fleet.
“Someone put forth the idea that if you take a break, it helps posture, recovery. You stabilize yourself and you’re less likely to get injured. Although another study with high performance athletes….” his voice trails off. “I let them use their own intuitions,” he concludes, as his group makes the decision to turn around and head south.
Wilhelm’s crop of young talent is making waves in the rowing world. Anders Weiss rowed at Brown and won the right to represent the United States in the 2016 Summer Olympics; the competition begins on August 6 in Rio. Erich Schultze was recruited to Harvard’s crew and was a member of the Under 23 National Team in 2010. Sarah Fiske, Chase Buchholz, Breck Wagner: The names he rattles off are his collection, his proudest moments in rowing.
While success is often a measure of the coach, Wilhelm is also special because of how antithetical he is to a coaching figure. He rarely talks about himself, he fumbles over his words and his sentences are marked by gaps of silence. Small talk is not his forte. But he could go on all day about rowing, about boats, the river, water.
“He doesn’t get credit for being an elite coach because of the way he communicates,” Schultze says. “There are a lot of people who are revered as these incredible high school sculling coaches who Peter beats every year. What he does for the kids that encounter him is unbelievable.”
While Wilhelm might communicate better about boats than about people, with his group he is at ease. They gather in a circle outside the boathouse, a tall gaggle of teens giggling and elbowing each other over inside jokes.
Wilhelm is there too, a fish among minnows, hands in his pockets. He smiles subtly, tracing circles in the ground with untied sneakers that a group of past rowers bought him as a gift.
They mull the meaning of their involvement with the club like a room full of philosophy students. “It’s an old club with heritage, lots of successful rowers. Makes you have something to live up to,” says one.
Another agrees, “NBC is a second home. It’s the oldest boat club in the U.S., which is really exciting, and Peter Wilhelm is a huge part of it. He’s why we are all good.”
Wilhelm laughs heartily, face flushing. He’s heard how rowers are the tightest-knit group team, he says. The conversation slows and they smile. “We are family,” a third adds succinctly.
Today at NBC, what began with a handful of rowers has expanded to an ecosystem teeming with life. The sun shines, seagulls caw and people in small boats slip in and out of the water like otters.
It is beautiful.
At 4: 50 p.m. on a Thursday, the boathouse bustles with activity. The first session has just ended, with rowers sliding up to the dock intermittently, guided by their coaches. The 5 p.m. rowers filter in, trying to stay out of the way as boats are sprayed clean and carried into the hold.
Moser paces the docks to keep the traffic flowing. Wilhelm’s group is a speck on the water beyond this flurry of semi-crazed activity, coasting towards the ramp to the boathouse, their faces red from their workout.
Meanwhile, chaos ensues. Harried whispers of “the barge got stuck on a piling!” pass between rowers, while a coach attempts to help her rowers land as Brown’s crew zips by like a charging bull, pausing for no one.
NBC was built for this, this bustling atmosphere, this symbiotic relationship with the river.
“When people look at the boat club, it’s just a small building,” Moser says. “My sense is that NBC is really a gateway, a gateway to rowing and a gateway to the rivers.”
Wilhelm’s group paddles towards Narragansett Bay before turning around. The skeletons of old docks dot the river, and shadows of people climbing the stuck-up bridge flicker like ghosts in the twilight.
As his crew maneuvers back towards the boathouse, Wilhelm abruptly steers his motorboat to the banks of the river. He pulls out a pocketknife and saws off a fishing lure whose line is tangled around a wooden post.
“Add to my collection,” he mumbles, before clambering back to the motor and steering back towards NBC, towards life.