Belfast’s most enthusiastic rowers brave the cold

BELFAST – The docks were free of ice, a promising sign. Yet three rowers carefully lowered a plank to the dock to shovel the snow and prepare it for Belfast’s community rowing programme, Come Boating.

When four other rowers showed up, the group together unhooked the tarp covering a 32ft-long wooden boat, taking care not to slip in the freezing waters of Belfast harbour. Then, one by one, six rowers and a coxswain shouted the nautical term “set” and climbed into the boat.

From the backseat, Mickey Green, bundled up in a down jacket and winter hat, couldn’t wait.

“These Cornish pilot gigs take a long time to capsize. They are big and heavy. I feel safe,” said Green, who moved to Belfast in 2015 with her husband, Sam. “And it’s informal. And you’re with a wonderful group of people. It’s still one of the highlights of my week.

The Cornish Pilot Gigs are six-oared wooden boats with a rich history. And by all accounts, anyone in Belfast who wants to try rowing these wooden rowing boats – a tradition that dates back centuries – is in love with them.

Come Boating works to help more people connect with the ocean. The $25 annual membership allows you to row several days a week on Penobscot Bay in spring, summer and autumn, and – if a rower proves proficient – one or more along the Belfast coast in winter .

“Back in Cornwall (England) in the 1700s, merchant ships that came to Cornwall needed a pilot to help them navigate the coast to enter the harbour. Whoever got to the ship first had to pilot it. Thus, they rushed into the open sea towards merchant ships. That’s where the tradition comes from,” said coxswain Susan Cutting. “These boats are designed and built to race on the high seas, which is totally cool.”

The same style of longboats built for pilot work in schooners in the late 1700s are used today by 86 pilot gig clubs in the UK. Jthere are also other rowing clubs in the United States that hold Cornish Rowers concerts in the North East, including the Belfast club.

The Belfast club has three Cornish Pilot gigs. Over the past summer, the club took 100 to 200 rowers on rows that typically lasted an hour or more. Winter is a different story – with only 48 winter rowers approved this winter – and only about 20 showing up frequently.

Everyone is welcome to try rowing with Come Boating in the summer, but rhaving concerts in winter is a much more difficult and demanding experience. AAll winter rowers must be recommended by three different coxswains, proving their strength and ability to handle the oars. Crews do not go out in winter unless the wind is below 14 knots and the temperature above 20 degrees.

“However, we clarify that an experienced crew can circumvent these guidelines if each member is comfortable. I’ve been out this season in conditions much colder than 20,” said Tanya Lubansky, the program’s winter rowing coordinator.

While the helmsmen who lead the group make safety a priority at every stage, the crews are largely alone in Belfast harbor or – when the tides are right – rowing the Passagassawakeag River, as most boats are out of the water and stored in winter.

Cutting got into Come Boating like many. She heard about it several years ago, tried it once and instantly became a regular. Now she’s an experienced coxswain who gives back in the winter by coxing other rowers, rather than rowing herself at every opportunity. At the end of the row she crossed out two weeks ago, all the rowers thanked her and said goodbye.

“I had never rowed in anything. I fell in love with it. That’s what can happen. It’s a wonderful source of exercise,” Cutting said.

Sam and Mickey Green moved to Belfast from Washington, DC, because of the port and, in fact, because of Come Boating. They had both rowed at a club in Washington, DC, on the Potomac or Anacostia rivers.

“When we were cruising around Maine on our sailboat, we rented a mooring and Sam spoke to the harbor master, and she told him about Come Boating. This area had all the ingredients. But one of the draws was the rowing club,” Green said.

They now live directly on the Passagassawakeag River and Mickey Green, who retired last year, rows a few times a week, even in the winter. His favorite day to row is Sunday in the summer when the group can row further into Penobscot Bay and stop. The ritual they adopt is to float for 10 to 15 minutes in silence.

“It is a moment of mediation and reflection. You are out there in nature. You don’t have that space very often, to be in that calm, that mood,” Green said. “I don’t go to church. This is my church.

Russ Eagleston and his wife, Noreen, moved to Northport last March. Like Cutting, he had never rowed before. And the retired airline pilot embraced rowing with absolute fervor.

In less than a year, Eagleston worked his way up to winter crew. Recently, he was selected to be in the pleasure boat that will compete in a winter race in March in Hull, Massachusetts. And this spring, Eagleston plans to take a boat-building course in Annapolis, Maryland, so he can have his own one-person wooden boat and be able to row all the time.

“When I first learned, I struggled for six weeks. It’s the hardest abdominal workout ever,” said Eagleston, 66. “I struggled feathering (turning the oar) without snagging it. But it was a good group of people. They are very welcoming. I rowed almost five times a week in the summer. Winter rowing is more difficult. It’s not about being faster, it’s not about being stronger, it’s more about timing, technique, it’s a great exercise.

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