One of Richmond’s oldest surviving outdoor recreation clubs has transformed itself into a thriving producer of national champions and fresh converts, crediting the mighty James for its feats. And you’ve probably never heard of it.
The Virginia Boat Club(VBC) was founded about a decade after the Civil War ended and has existed continuously in some shape or form since a few baseball players began rowing regularly from what is now a boat ramp in Byrd Park in 1876. While membership has peaked and waned in competitive focus over the years, the 2012 club men’s team won every regatta it entered and brought home a silver medal in the Men’s Quad (four-man boat) from the National Championships in Worcester, Mass.
The club currently boasts a downtown division at Rockett’s Landing and a suburban division, taking off from Robious Landing Park in Midlothian. Sculling (two oars) and sweeping (one oar) rowing styles are equally popular at the two locations. With easy river access and multiple specialization options, it is easy to understand why the club is growing and also winning.
Sean Bamman, VBC Secretary and Robious training leader, was a successful high school and collegiate rower. He sought an outlet while in the midst of starting his own business.
“Lots of parents are getting involved in rowing when they see how much fun their kids are having. A lot of people are Northeastern transplants (where rowing is very popular).
Molly Brannan, downtown leader and club Vice President, sees rowing as an opportunity for the throngs of Richmond endurance junkies to change the routine.
“Lots of members are active already, people who enjoy the outdoors. People who seem to take to the sport the most are not necessarily the youngest, but those who love the thrill of starting a race. Most people pick it up pretty quickly.”
She also adds, “Rowing is a combination of ballet and powerlifting…it matters where you put your pinky, but you have to be really strong and technical.”
The club offers Learn-to-Row and Learn-to-Scull programs in the summer from its downtown boathouse. A winter training program focuses on technique and conditioning in preparation for the summer “Sprint” season followed by the long course “Head Races” rounding out the late summer.
In addition to fielding teams and offering conditioning programs, VBC members are using their sport as a vehicle (or a vessel?) to share with the community. The club partners with Sportable to help athletes with physical or visual disabilities get out on the water. Boathouse time is shared with VCU’s team when school is in session.
Team members all pitch in to orchestrate an annual “Rockett’s Landing Sprints” regatta, which showcases the James to teams from around the country each June. According to Bamman, the event was twice as big this year as in previous years. While the goal is not to grow the event by adding more teams, Bamman intends to create a fun spectator atmosphere that includes the whole community.
“I would love to see everyone come out for race day to watch the races and socialize….sort of like a Strawberry Hill or a Foxfields.” (These are annual horse races in Richmond and Charlottesville, respectively, which are known for festive tailgating and race-watching).
Both Brannan and Bamman hold the James in high regard.
“Because it is a tidal river, training conditions are ideal…the James is almost always perfectly flat and we can focus on rowing well,” says Bamman.
He said he gets a thrill from sightings of soaring bald eagles, and from gliding past densely wooded nooks hiding all sorts of wildlife on the river’s banks.
The two agree that one disadvantage to “ideal” training waters is lack of preparation for the choppy Northeastern rivers, where most of the competitive events are held. Based on the past year’s results, however, the more placid James has not impacted the team’s ability to win.
So, if you happen to be out for an early morning jaunt to the river and hear the coxswain shout of “Way’nuff!,” you know that the Virginia Boat Club is finishing up its pre-dawn work out.
To find out more about team events and programs, check out the Virginia Boat Club website.