Mak­ing Waves

Mo­tor­ized Launches Im­peril Row­ers on the Po­tomac

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home -

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 philwillems@com­


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.

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