Detroit moves in sculls and sweeps

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In the old Spanish style building on Belle Isle closest to the bridge, it appears as if not much is going on. The vegetation is lush, if overgrown, in front of the weathered walls. But despite the building’s still and careworn exterior, it’s a strange and fantastic menagerie inside.

Members of the Detroit Boat Club Crew team start their days early. Sometimes as early as 5 in the morning, they get up and drive themselves over to the boat house. From there, it’s a run around the island in the quiet fog, or a work out in the antiquated ballroom — with a view of the river and modern skyline. The ergometers or “ergs” are the machines that simulate rowing, and all face the leaded glass windows.

After the warm up and conditioning, the rowers head down to get the boats they call sculls or shells in the water. There are two kinds of rowing you can do: sculling and sweeping. Sculling is when the rower has two oars, one in each hand. Sweeping is done with just one oar. Sculls carry one, two, or four people. Shells can carry two, four, or eight not including the coxswain.

Sharing water with freight ways, Detroit rowers have to weather the elements and traffic compared to others across the country, who often row on man-made conditions. “We just row through it.” says Brennan Brophy, the women’s varsity coach. “We consider it an advantage when it comes to competitions.”

Behind the rowers sits the coxswain, who leads, steers, and motivates the rest of the team.  Some would say being the coxswain requires a bit of a Napolean complex. They’re usually of smaller stature, but a definite call-and-conquer type. “They have to be very mature and very competitive,” Brennan says. A coxbox helps them gauge how many strokes per minute their team is taking. But while reading the weather and water outside and keeping an eye on competing boats, the coxswain has to be very aware of the mood and energy of their team. They’re kind of the antennae of the group.

“I was thinking about playing volleyball, but decided on rowing. It’s so peaceful out here,” Claire Dettloff, a new rower, explains. It really does seem to be a meditative sport when you get the hang of it. More than the just the scenery, there are breathing techniques that accompany the strokes. Some rowers exhale during the stroke and inhale during recovery, others do the opposite, but either way it’s a very grounding force when competition becomes intense.

The amount of power these teams wield is incredible. “There was an episode about it on Myth Busters,” Brennan Brophy starts. “People don’t believe the strength in these sculls, but they proved that a men’s varsity team is able to pull someone on water skis.” They’re fast, too. Coaches follow the sculls in motored boats, calling out instructions to pick up or slow down the strokes.

Detroit heads out to some really prestigious races, most notably the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. “Our goal is always to be competing at national and international levels,” Brennan says. The history is there. Members of the Detroit Rowing Club like to say they’re “first on the water,” both in its success and being the oldest rowing club in the United States. Olympians have qualified in the pools in front of the building (most notably Johnny Weissmuller, who played the original Tarzan). In fact, more rowers from Detroit Boat Club Crew have gone to the Olympics than any other rowing club in the country.

The club isn’t just for those with Olympic aspirations, though. Sometimes success follows success. If you become passionate about rowing in high school, it can help academically too. “A lot of the girls on my team went to school for free,” says Brooke Largay, assistant coach of the women’s team, and an alum of the Detroit’s rowing program herself. “But it’s not just about getting scholarships. It can help you get into more prestigious colleges.”

This is particularly true for young women. With Title 9 mandating equal funding be dispersed between men’s and women’s sports, rowing is a great way to balance out football. You can get 50 to 60 girls on a rowing team.

Still, with the amount of time rowers spend at their sport, some parents become worried that grades will slip. Brooke and Brennan have found the opposite to be true. “My grades were highest when I was also rowing.” Brennan explains. “It teaches you how to prioritize…. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

“It gave my teammates and I a sense of purpose. I needed a goal in high school,” Brooke recalls. “I found something huge to work toward myself, but I also found people I could depend on no matter what.” The camaraderie in rowing makes it what enthusiasts call the ultimate team sport. “Rowing has made me who I am today,” Brennan insists.

It is, however, one of the more expensive sports around. Traveling to different races gets costly, and sculls can cost thousands of dollars each, not to mention upkeep of all the boats and boathouse itself. “We hate to turn anyone away for money,” Brooke says. With this sentiment, Mac Nash, the masters rowing head coach and president of the boat club crew started a program with Detroit’s Parks and Recreation Department. Kids from the Coleman Youth Recreation Center come to the boat house and take rowing lessons.

“It’s built up entirely out of volunteers and partners. There’s no cost to the city or to the kids participating,” Mac says. There are about 25 kids participating right now, but a smaller core of them who have really taken to the sport. “We’d like to get them together to row with the varsity team this spring season,” Mac says.

This fall season has already started, but the coaches say there is still room on board if anyone else would like to try it out. “We welcome anyone,” Brooke says. “Come anytime and jump in!” She means it, too, and offers her email address if anyone has any questions. For more information on the Boat Club, visit and stay tuned for more in our unusual sports series.

Photo credits are Karpov the Wrecked Train

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