Philadelphia is replete with strange and wonderful events. Little can top the Mummers Parade, to be sure.
We officially commemorate Flag Day, mostly because Philly resident Betsy Ross may or may not have sewn the first American flag.
We also have the best sports victory parades - when we get around to winning the championships.
And for the rowing crowd, the Dad Vail Regatta falls into the category of being a top event. It is the largest collegiate regatta in the United States, but it doesn't always have the best teams, nor does it have any real championships. It is named after a guy, Harry "Dad" Vail, who had no real affiliation with Philadelphia and died nearly a decade before the first Dad Vail Regatta, which was held in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., anyway, in 1934.
"Dad Vail was just a good guy," said Henry Stinger, the spokesman for the regatta. "He coached way in Wisconsin, which was pretty much off the rowing map in those days, but the founders of the race liked him and so, well, here we are."
Philadelphia and its environs have long been a major rowing center. Its godparents were the Kellys - international champions Jack Sr. and Jack Jr., for whom Kelly Drive is named. Over the next month, three venues will have major regattas, all of which are fun and colorful things to behold. Besides the Dad Vail this weekend on the Schuylkill, there will be the 83d Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the largest high school regatta in the country, next weekend, May 15 and 16, on the Schuylkill. The Scholastic Rowing Association National Regatta, the titular high school national championships, will be held at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., where the U.S. Olympic team trains, the next weekend. The NCAA women's championships will be on the Cooper River in Cherry Hill from May 29 to 31.
The Schuylkill is a flowing river, while the Cooper River course, built on an estuary, is flat, and the Mercer Lake course is man-made and also flat. So, more or less, rowing on the Schuylkill is like cross-country running, which has many variables, while the other two venues are much like running track around an oval, where things are more controlled.
"We like to think of our [Cooper River] course as a 'fair course,' which means that each lane gets an equal chance," said Jamie Stack, who supervises rowing out of the Camden County Boathouse, finished in 2006 and home to a half-dozen high school teams, Rutgers-Camden, and other adult and student clubs. "We have always had national races here, but when the county built the boathouse, rowing exploded."
While rowing is indeed a sport - and a difficult one to master - regattas also have a bit of pomp and pageantry. Rowing clubs or high schools and colleges generally set up tents along the shores of the venue and do their own version of tailgating and partying throughout the day. There are often vending areas for food and commemorative T-shirts and paraphernalia, but most teams and parents and partisans tend to eat and party at their home tents.
Kristopher Grudt, executive director of the Princeton National Rowing Association, which generally supervises the events at Mercer Lake, suggests novices go to the U.S. Rowing Web site's guide to new spectators: www.usrowing.org/NewToRowing/Viewer'sGuide/index.aspx, which explains pretty much everything from terminology to equipment to myths ("Coxswains don't now and probably never did yell, "Stroke! Stroke!").
The coxswain, by the way, is like the captain of a crew boat. Small and loud, a coxswain steers and shouts to the rowers cues to pace and steadiness. He or she sits in the stern looking ahead on the course while the rowers face where they have come. Boats with eight rowers always have coxswains; those with four may or may not depending on the race, and those with one or two race without.
In boats with four or eight, rowers each handle one oar, and those boats are called sweep boats. With singles or doubles, the rowers handle two oars and the boats are called sculls.
High school races tend to be 1,500 meters and take, more or less, five to six minutes. College races are a bit longer, 2,000 meters, and take about eight minutes. Male and female races are separate, but equal, save that females often cox college male boats because coxswains need to be about 120 to 125 pounds and, by college, that is difficult for a male to maintain.
The better boats are usually in Lanes 3 and 4 in the middle, while the lesser ones are relegated to outside lanes. The lane farthest toward the west on the Schuylkill is especially difficult, since the islands in the river adjacent to the lane create eddies that make rowing more difficult.
At all of the three venues, there are grandstands at the finish line, but because the Schuylkill course curves and goes under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, it is impossible to sit there and see a full race. That is what Grudt likes about his home course on Mercer Lake.
"We've built the grandstand in such a way that because of fewer obstructions, someone with binoculars can see the starting line from the finish," said Grudt. Mercer is the home of the U.S. National team, and from May 15 to 17, the team will be holding a round of trials for pairs and doubles, primarily from 7 to 10 a.m. to avoid afternoon winds. There won't be the pomp of tents and barbecues, but these will be among the best rowers in the country trying out for places on the national team.
Dad Vail Regatta, today and Saturday on the Schuylkill.
Stotesbury Cup Regatta, May 15-16, Schuylkill.
Scholastic Rowing Association National Regatta, May 22-23, Mercer Lake, West Windsor, N.J.
NCAA Women's Championships, May 29-31, Cooper River, Cherry Hill.
For those who get inspired to row after seeing a race, there are clubs at all three venues ready to give lessons. South Jersey Rowing Club on the Cooper has details at www.southjerseyrowing.org. For information at Mercer Lake, go to www.rowpnra.org and for information about rowing on the Schuylkill, try www.boathouserow.org.