How I came to participate in HOTO 2009 by Jim Fishback – reprint

[Published Fall-winter 2009]

I moved to Morgantown in July 2008 and spent a lot of time on my road bike through the end of the fall. On one of my trips up the bike path, heading to the Decker’s Creek trail, I noticed a flyer for Mon Rowing but made no effort to contact the club until early this year. I had rowed for TC Williams High School in Alexandria, VA my junior year, one summer with the Occoquan Boat Club while I was in college and two summers with Boulder Community Rowing about 5 years ago. I was really excited about the prospect of rowing again.

Following an email to, I was contacted by John Duarte who informed me there would be a membership meeting in early March. I attended the meeting, met some of the members, and began rowing the Alden Horizon within the next few days with the help of Eric Hopkins. After a few trips out in the Alden I managed to sprain a leg trying to gorilla that big plastic boat around. Three weeks later I was back at it, rowing the double “SeaShell” and then the new Edon with its pontoons installed. In early June I scheduled a lesson with Meg Ayers (volunteer coach for WVU Women’s Crew) who suggested I take the Peinert out; I was reluctant because I had never rowed a scull prior to the Alden and Edon, but agreed to give it a try.

I never went back to the beginner boats and began to accumulate much water time in the Peinert #23. In fact, I have logged more miles on the river this summer than I have on the bike this year. As I write this I have been out for about 100 sessions. Most of these trips have been solo, however Andrew White has accompanied me on a handful of runs and more recently Jenna LaPointe (WVU Men’s club coach) has joined me in the old Vespoli.

But I digress; this article is supposed to be about the 2009 Head of the Ohio. In preparation for the race, Dr. David Rosen offered to let me try out his ECHO Ace on CheatLake. In the event that I couldn’t find insurance for one of the club boats I wanted a backup plan. As the Ace is a modern high tech design it definitely rowed faster than the Peinert but I didn’t quite attain proficiency keeping it on keel in the few trials I made. Right around this time, just for laughs, I “built a boat” on the Vespoli website. The next day I received a call from John Sekulich (“JP”) from Vespoli. We talked for a while before he asked me if I would be going to HOTO. He said he would be there with boats to look at; I asked if it was possible for me to race one. That possibility turned to reality.

I made the run up to Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon with hopes of getting a chance to try the Matrix 27 before race day. My timing was off; JP had left the Three Rivers Rowing Association facility for the parking lot between PNC and Heinz field where all the boat trailers would assemble in the following hours. After taking a look around the TRRA boathouse I made my way down to the finish line and parking lot. I had already made arrangements to meet JP in the morning so I grabbed a bite to eat, my registration packet and wandered around the waterfront. While eating I met some folks from TRRA and told them about my hopes of rowing that evening. Fortunately they had boats that needed to be rowed down to the start line; the rules of the race dictated that all boats must originate from the finish line docking area the following morning. So I took a launch ride up to the TRAA boathouse and helped row an 8 down to the start.

I was up by 5 am the following morning, out of the hotel and on the road by 5:30. I arrived early enough to park right next to Heinz, within 100 feet of the Vespoli trailer. I met up with JP and watched him set up the Matrix before I went down to watch the WVU women come down the course, for 3rd and 6th places in the 14 boat women’s open 8+ race. Shortly after, I hustled to get my clothes on and get the boat down to the water.

My first few strokes were nothing short of embarrassing but I was quickly across the river and out of site of immediate scrutiny. Moments later I heard a very tiny voice say “I think you should weigh enough”; a high school 4+ was right off my bow! I dug the blades in for a sketchy stop and an almost swim. After recovering physically and emotionally I made my way up to the start area for a longish wait for the singles races to begin.

Less than a couple minutes before the men’s singles were called to the starting area I noticed the brace and oarlock hardware for the starboard rigger were levitating. I was bummed! The nut that secures everything was still there but a few washers had gone missing. I hand-tightened all and asked a couple boats near me if any had tools. No-one had tools but moments after raising my hand a launch was by my side handing me a wrench. I got all tight and made my way just in time to start in order. Another minute and I would have had to start at the end of all the singles and out of my age-class. Not how I wanted to do my first race in over 28 years.

The start worked out, I had two boats pass, but then I went off course. I thought missing a buoy was a 30 second penalty, so I spent at least that long pivoting the boat back inside the buoy with only a few hundred meters left to race. At the finish I heard cheers for “Fishback!” I recognized Meg’s voice joined by many others, who I assume were WVU women, though I guess it could have been other well meaning spectators too.

After docking, getting the boat back up to the trailer, and thanking JP profusely, I went back down to the water to watch some more races. Eric had called while I was on the water and we met up a few minutes later. After running into David Rosen and his daughter and chatting (and admiring David’s gold medal) Eric and I walked up the racecourse to watch the boats come down from additional vantage points.

The weather and water were a little ugly that day and got worse as the afternoon wore on. We ended up on a lookout area near the start when the last race went down the course. It was the last race of the day because of the misfortune we were about to witness. First, one men’s 8+ came down looking like it was just being rowed poorly and then we noticed it was taking on water in the bow, and moments later it was fully submerged. While launches arrived to pluck the passengers from the swamped boat another 8+ came down the course. A coach from this boat was also on the lookout and was dismayed to see the Bowman had lost his seat and couldn’t manage to get it back. Soon this boat was completely swamped too. In total three boats went down before the rest of the events were cancelled; all were contesting the same race.

I had a fantastic time at the HOTO and can’t wait to get out there and race again. It’s been great to get back on the water and like living alone for the first time I am really enjoying the freedom of sculling. If our club can muster enough folks for a crew I would like to re-experience that too. I am so grateful that MRA is here in Morgantown and that I was able to connect with them. I would like to acknowledge Meg Ayers for the lessons she gave me and WVU women’s crew for sharing their boathouse with us. Also, thanks to Jimmy King for taking the Peinert up to HOTO for me, in the event I couldn’t row the Matrix I wanted a backup. This weekend I am driving 500 miles to Dexter, NY to look at a “previously owned” Vespoli Matrix 27 – I am that into this sport. Anybody interested in a nice road bike??

[This article was initially published during the winter 2009-2010]

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