The Long Tradition of Rowing on the Hudson River

I fell in love with the sport of rowing over twenty years ago, when my friend and fellow Palisadian, Milbry Polk, invited me to come down to Piermont one afternoon and join a new club she had heard about. It was only six minutes away. Soon, I found myself wading out into the changing Hudson River tides six days a week to partake in an intoxicating fitness regime that offered fun and new friendships on an early morning schedule that fit in with working and raising young children. Almost a dozen Palisadians signed up when I did, all of us beginners, and we worked very hard to learn new skills without regular coaching, having to rely instead on guest instructors borrowed from nearby programs including the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, Norwalk and even Cincinnati. One year we spent an amazing week at rowing camp in Mexico City practicing in the old 1968 Olympic basin in Xochimilco.

Rowing began thousands of years ago as a practical way to get from point A to point B. Captain Coates, the legendary ferryman of 19th century Palisades, once rowed across the Hudson River between Snedens Landing and Dobbs Ferry in eleven minutes. The distance is about a mile, just short of the proverbial 2,000 meter yardstick used by modern racers in their high-tech carbon-fiber shells. Advantaged with a sliding seat, men in Olympic singles now cover 2K races in six and three-quarters minutes; women champions do it in seven and a quarter.

Coates launched his fast, two-seater wherry at the bottom of Washington Spring Road from 1871 to 1903. The Hudson’s powerful downstream current, shifting tides and swirling winds work together in devilish combinations to make a ferryman’s job a grueling one. Sometimes standing waves, shaped like pyramids, slap small boats from all sides at once. One can only imagine the pain of numb hands and wet, frozen clothes in winter. It’s likely that Coates’ eleven minute trip was carefully planned for boasting purposes, and that he accomplished it on a summer day returning from Dobbs with the prevailing northeast wind at his back and a turning tide urging the little craft onwards towards the Palisades cliffs with the added pull of the downstream current.

At the same time that Coates was carrying Rockland County shoppers and businessmen across the river to catch Manhattan-bound trains at the Dobbs Ferry station, scores of amateur rowing clubs formed by wealthy Gilded Age sportsmen sprang up along the Hudson River waterfront from Hoboken to Poughkeepsie. The Pier- mont Rowing Association put up a small boathouse with an upstairs billiard room in 1879. In 1881, a larger group of well-heeled young men formed the Nyack Rowing Association. Their lavish, three-story boathouse at the foot of Spear Street included a ballroom with a gingerbread veranda on three sides. Women were only allowed in on Tuesdays for dances, barge parties and to watch the July 4th regatta.

Large rowing regattas were one of the Gilded Age’s most popular spectator sports. Celebrity champions traveled a big-money circuit from Halifax to Saratoga, Philadelphia and Detroit. Sadly, heavy gambling led to outrageous betting scandals in the 1890s that virtually destroyed the sport. Simultaneously, the industrialization of the waterfront and huge wakes from tugboats and titanic steel ships combined to make small craft rowing impossible on the Hudson River. Amateurs retreated to unnavigable waterways such as the Schuylkill in Philadelphia and crew continued as a “small sport” for boys in private Catholic schools and Ivy League colleges.

Hurricanes took out the abandoned Hudson boat houses in Nyack and Piermont, and the sport disappeared from the river. Even so, a few active rowing clubs in our region managed to survive, including Nereid Boat Club, established in 1868 on the Passaic River in Rutherford, NJ, and the elite training program at the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island, in New Rochelle, in operation since the 1890s.

Title Nine legislation gradually took hold in the early 1980s, unexpectedly forcing America’s colleges to spend equal funds on women’s sports. What? How many field-hockey sticks can you balance against that multi-million dollar football program? In response, girl’s rowing, with huge team rosters in need of scholarships, good coaching, expensive equipment, and boathouses all having to be built from scratch provided the answer. The sport quickly expanded across America, from Tennessee out to Tulsa and Oregon, and from Georgia up to Wisconsin.

New clubs have sprung up in our area as well. In 1999, a group of friends in Piermont scraped together funds to buy some used boats and put them on outdoor racks on a beach next to the Lighthouse Marina, and started the Piermont Rowing Club. In the intervening 22 years, the club has evolved into a village institution, spearheading Piermont’s NY state grant for an access ramp, and leasing a permanent rack space in Flywheel Park while providing unlimited time on our beautiful Hudson for more than fifty adult recreational rowers from April to November.

In Nyack, a youth and adult competitive team was formed several years later. Known at the time as River Rowing Association, the program was forced to move from Memorial Park to Rockland Lake State Park by construction activities for the new bridge over the Tappan Zee. Under its new name, Rockland Rowing Association’s excellent racing program attracts young athletes from middle and high schools in Bergen, Rockland, and Westchester counties, as well as adults who want to race.

Thanks to Title IX, America’s women rowers have dominated Olympic competition and world championships for the better part of two decades. Two years ago in 2019, Charlotte Buck, a graduate of Nyack High School and daughter of Lamont professor W. Roger Buck, was working at Rockland Rowing Association as the Youth Novice Coach while trying to earn a seat on the national team in the women’s eight by working with an elite coach at NYAC on Travers Island. She made the team! After coming off of a hard-to-swallow fourth-place finish in Tokyo, Buck has set her sights on gold in Paris in 2024. Showered with prestigious coaching offers, she will be working with her alma mater, the Columbia University crew, before returning to the team’s training camp in Princeton in December.