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How I Found Rowing - Jeffrey McCallum

How I Found Rowing - Jeffrey McCallum

For one masters rower, the path to rowing was through the architecture and history of the Undine Barge Club on Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

Jeffrey MacCallum knew all about the boathouse before he knew anything about rowing, let alone became a masters rower. Since 1882, Undine Barge Club has solidly stood on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia at 13 Boathouse Row. The building was designed by Frank Furness, a prolific local architect with over 600 buildings to his credit. As boathouses go, it is both striking and unusual. The most distinctive feature is a fanciful turret, perhaps evoking the stream spirits or water nymphs after which the club is named. A corbelled brick chimney juts skyward. Stained glass windows adorn the upper level on the north side, sending light into the locker room. The spaced green vertical bands on the stone exterior are decorative extensions from the star shaped bolt ends at the bottom. These exterior bolt ends are tied to the interior system of trusses that hold up the heavy and steep slate roof. The arched trusses fill the ceiling inside the men’s locker room. Reds and greens dominate the non-stone surfaces, signature colors of Furness.

As a history buff, Jeffrey read about Boathouse Row and the story of the Schuylkill Navy, an association of the founding rowing clubs in Philadelphia. Walking along the river banks, he admired all the boathouses but was particularly fascinated by Undine Barge Club. Then he got to go inside. The club permits non-resident social membership. A friend of Jeffrey’s from New York was coming to Philadelphia for a party at the club, and he invited Jeffrey. The interior is as striking as the exterior. As much as Furness delighted in fancifulness, he strongly believed that a building must be utilitarian. Architectural historians consider the boathouse a masterpiece of form and function and a brilliant part of “high Victorian” design. Furness is credited with being the first architect to take boathouse design seriously.

The right moment to become a masters rower

In addition to admiring the boathouses as he walked the riverbank, Jeffrey appreciated the beauty of the sport as he watched rowers training on the Schuylkill. In his early 60’s, Jeff had been an athlete all his life. His primary sport was hockey. He started playing growing up in Wisconsin and continued while at Bowdoin College in Maine. At the time Jeffrey was there, rowing was no longer a varsity sport. It had been established in 1858 and then officially dissolved in 1890. The sport returned in 1985. Although he never rowed for Bowdoin, Jeffrey is now an ardent supporter of his alma mater’s crew.

Hockey is not as widely available in Philadelphia as in the Midwest. Jeffrey roller-bladed, but there was not enough ice time to keep him satisfied. He began looking for a new sport. His mind kept returning to rowing. Not only did the present-day scullers attract him, but Jeffrey was also entranced by the rowing paintings of Thomas Eakins, painted during the height of professional rowing on the Schuylkill in the 1870s. To be able to row on such historic waters had an additional appeal. The only question was where and how.

Not learning on a barge

Back in the day in Philadelphia, you learned to row on a barge. The barges were massive monsters that were more training and testing platforms than boats. Their heyday was in the northeastern United States, especially in the early 1900s, evidenced by the number of clubs along the Schuylkill River with “barge” in their name, including Undine.

As rowing programs, especially at universities, exploded in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, coaches faced a dual challenge – how to boat and train up to 150 novice rowers as effectively as possible and to do so in a resource-constrained world for shells, launches, and coaches. Thus, one of the more popular forms of training platforms for growing programs over the last century or so came to be a large, heavy, virtually unsinkable and indestructible flat-bottomed wood vessel, most commonly referred to as a “barge”. This barge could accommodate a good many more tyros (usually 16) than an eight, as well as one or two coaches who were able to watch coordination and timing of all of the oars from bow or stern or, stalking up and down a walkway dividing the port and starboard sides, stand immediately over, view and instruct each of the individuals in the craft.

Much has changed and the barges are primarily gone. Clubs like Undine Barge Club were instrumental in transforming rowing from a purely professional sport to one accessible to amateurs. This opened up the opportunity for masters rowers. The typical path is a learn-to-row program, transitioning to a recreational or competitive program depending on the club. Some clubs teach rowers sweep rowing in an eight before introducing sculling. That party at Undine Barge Club opened a different path for Jeffrey.

Jeffrey was introduced to George Schaefer, the captain of Undine Barge Club and former Temple University stroke. George offered to teach Jeffrey to row in a double. For five years, Jeffrey could only row once a week, and progress was slow. He considers rowing one of the hardest things that he has ever tried to do, but he was hooked and persevered. Now that he is retired, they take the double out three times a week, with Jeffrey stroking and George coaching from bow. Jeffrey really wants to be a good technical masters rower, especially now that he has much greater appreciation of all that is involved to be competent, let alone good. They sometimes stop their double to observe and analyze other boats. Jeffrey has been to Craftsbury Sculling Camp in Vermont to further work on technique. And he has bought a SpeedCoach.

The new with the old

The Undine Barge Club boathouse may be old, but the equipment that the rowers use is not. Charlie Biddle, Sales Manager for NK Sports, also rows at Undine Barge Club, so naturally Jeffrey knew about StrokeCoaches. He held off buying one for a few years, even though everyone had one, and he felt that he should too. He wanted to get grounded in the basics of the sculling stroke before adding the instrumentation. Even now, George in the bow seat might have the SpeedCoach, coaching Jeffrey to feel the rates that he is stroking. The geek and detail side of Jeffrey loves the data, which is more meaningful to him now that he understands rowing better. He is beginning to consider competing, and the SpeedCoach is especially useful as they work on drills, pyramids and long pieces.

A recent restoration project means that today’s athletes at Undine Barge Club use lockers built in the 1880s and carry their top end boats with NK Sports instrumentation from boat bays that have functioned for more than a century. History not only offers insights into rowing from the past, but can also attract new masters rowers to the sport.

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