Motorized Launches Imperil Rowers on the Potomac
A sure sign of springtime in Washington is the reemergence of rowing crews on the Potomac.
Especially in the early morning and late afternoon, collegiate, high school and other rowers are on the river in force as crews train for the regatta season. However, the increase in the number of programs with boats on the river has created a pressing need to control the wakes created by launches that accompany the fours and eights on their training sessions.
When I first started rowing out of Thompson Boat Center in 1980, recreational scullers were rare, and only a handful of colleges and high schools operated rowing programs. There were cigarette machines in the lobby of the boathouse, and the thought that people would pay for bottled water would have been absurd. Today, the cigarette machines are gone, $1 bills are needed to buy water from the vending machines and numerous opportunities are available for individual or team rowing through schools, colleges and the boat center itself.
The rapid growth of rowing, particularly competitive rowing, has placed increasing strains on the quality of the rowing experience for those of us who go out in singles and doubles for exercise and to enjoy the natural beauty of the Potomac. The river has become more crowded. The calm water that rowers delight in has become harder to find. This is caused not by the rowers themselves — whether singles, doubles, fours or eights — but by the increase in the number of motorized coaching launches whose wakes crisscross the river.
The fundamental problem is that coaches of competitive rowers are pretty much required to violate clearly defined laws regulating the use of the river. District municipal regulations state that “no powerdriven vessel shall be propelled or operated at a rate greater than six (6) statute miles per hour in the Potomac River upstream from Arlington Memorial Bridge.” And the buoys in the river carry an unambiguous “6 MPH, no wake” message. Why is this an issue? Well, coaches have to go fast enough to keep up with their crews if they are to be effective. How fast is that? Consider the times for eights in a 2,000meter regatta — typically in the 6- to 61⁄ minute range. That translates to a speed of roughly 12 mph for more than a mile. There is no way a coach’s launch can keep up without going double the speed limit. And a launch going that fast cannot help but leave a wake, particularly if it is carrying an assistant coach or substitute rowers.
For scullers, this situation is at best annoying, at worst dangerous. Single sculls are fragile craft, 26 feet long, less than a foot wide and weighing little more than 30 pounds. A launch’s wake can easily swamp, sink or overturn a single or double. On a weekly or even daily basis, many of my fellow scullers are either swamped or left bouncing in the wakes of coaches’ launches. While a few coaches are consistently considerate of singles and doubles, most seem to ignore the speed limit and no-wake laws. And enforcement by the D.C. Harbor Police is essentially nonexistent.
The solution is to require all Potomac rowing programs to use “wakeless” launches — catamarans with two narrow hulls that leave only a small wake — in exchange for higher allowable speeds that let coaches keep up with their crews. Although more expensive than conventional launches, wakeless models are available from several manufacturers. Other rowing venues, such as Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, have begun to make the transition to wakeless coaching. It’s time for Washington to do the same. Launches that break the law and endanger rowers are as out of place on today’s Potomac as those 1980 cigarette machines would be in the boathouses.
North Potomac The writer rows on the Potomac River almost every morning from March through November. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mornings on the Potomac River can be crowded with crew teams and scullers working out, especially at this time of year. Often, coaches in launches following the crews exceed the river’s 6 mph speed limit and produce a wake that can be dangerous to rowers such as those in the Potomac Boat Club, above and top.