It’s a sunny, blustery day at Fort Bragg’s Dolphin Isle Marina. Eight women and one man are gathered at the slip where the Helen Dee is anchored.
Within just a few minutes, after checking the boat’s supplies, loading in life vests, and strapping on cushions to the rowing seats, the Noyo Women’s Rowing Crew is ready to spend an afternoon on the Noyo River, and weather permitting, take a short foray into the harbor.
Founded about five years ago, the rowing crew was conceived and developed by Mendocino Coast resident Sandra Kearney, according to crew member Ann Walker.
“Sandra inspired dozens of women to try something new and appreciate our beautiful coast by getting onto the water together,” says Walker.
The crew is part of the Fort Bragg Chapter of the Lost Coast Traditional Small Craft Association (TSCA), a non-profit organization established in 1970, dedicated to preserve and continue the living traditions, skills, lore, and legends of working and pleasure craft, while encouraging the design, construction, and use of boats that embrace contemporary adaptations of traditional designs.
The Helen Dee is a whaleboat, otherwise known as a Monomoy Surf Boat. Its wide hull makes it safe and comfortable. “These are the boats used by Coast Guard Rescue crews. Think the boats you saw on the deck during the Titanic movie,” Walker smiles. “They feel extremely stable in the ocean.”
The Helen Dee is used by several whaleboat crews including the Women’s Rowing Crew, who, with their coxswain (rhymes with “toxin”) Ned Huff can be found leaving the marina most Fridays for a two-hour row.
It is a community-owned boat – the first of its kind in the history of the organization, and one of two boats used by the rowing crew. Their second wooden boat was built by local boat builder Ejler Hjorth-West, commissioned by the Lost Coast TSCA. “By having a second boat, more of us can get out on the water,” Walker continues.
Crew members pay a very affordable $5.00 every time they row, which helps to cover slip fees, maintenance, and upkeep for the boats. “We have hull insurance through our membership with the TSCA. Our crew was the organization’s first, regular crew, and we’ve been using the boat continuously since Sandra got us started,” Walker continues.
Because of the incoming tides paired with a pretty rough sea, Ned decides to take the boat up the Noyo River for the afternoon. The coxswain is responsible for steering the boat – standing on the bow, looking forward to the stern for obstacles or other hazards while calling out instructions to the crewmembers. Though the group started out as an all-woman crew, they don’t consider themselves an exclusively female organization, and over time have worked closely with Ned and other male and female seafarers who have helped them hone their skills.
Currently, there are about 15 active members in the crew, but that number has fluctuated over the years, with over 100 women lining up to try their hands and muscles at rowing when Sandra first founded the group.
“Initially we were meeting three and four times per week, particularly when we were training hard for racing,” says Walker.
“We’ve done some long, long training rows – 10 miles north, 10 miles straight out to sea. We’d row till we could just see the horizon,” says crew member Lori Davey.
The crew has rowed to Albion, to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, and north to Ten Mile Beach.
Rowing is definitely a skill that takes some time to master. Feet are strapped in atop a wooden brace on the floor of the boat. The crew generally rows with composite oars, which have a scooped-out curve, making them easier to use than their wooden counterparts, which they have reserved for competitive events. Along with mastering how to consistently pull and feather the oars while responding to the commands of the coxswain, rowing is a team sport and requires the group to work in synch with one another.
“We’ve had women who tried it out. They enjoyed the rowing, but they decided that they preferred a solo sport like kayaking,” explains crew member Cheryl Conwell. The crew synchs their strokes to that of the lead oarswoman, and when everyone is in harmony, the only sound one hears is the twisting of the oars in their oarlocks, and the swish of the water as the boat moves forward.
“It took months for it all to start coming together because I’d never rowed before. You’re focusing on feathering, reaching, thinking you’re doing ok and then realizing you have to pay attention to your wrists,” smiles crew member Patty Woodruff.
The crew delights in the very regular sightings of wildlife – encounters with whales, dolphins, jellyfish, harbor seals, sea lions and seabirds, along with migrating ducks, geese, herons, river otters and even an occasional shark. “Every single time we go out, it’s different, and the wildlife really makes things interesting,” says Walker.
“Learning to row was only the beginning of our adventure. Sandra taught us new skills in strength training, rope tying, navigation, wind and currents, and water safety,” Walker continues. The crew has participated in local races, a regatta in Vallejo and has officiated at a race in San Francisco.
The crew is grateful for Ned’s expertise and willingness to act as coxswain. Several of the members have taken Coast Guard safety classes and are cross-trained as coxswains, “but most of us prefer rowing,” smiles Walker. “You always want to have an additional person to steer, because the coxswain is the most likely person to fall out of the boat.”
Regular safety drills are part of weekly rows. “We train so that the oars come in at the same time, making sure the oars are parallel so that we’re not dragging the boat,” Walker notes.
Crew members hail from all walks of life and backgrounds, and age is certainly not a barrier to becoming part of the team. “I think we’re all in our 50s and 60s. The average age was about 62 at our first race,” says Conwell. “We currently have several women rowers in their mid-70s, and all of us were over 50 when we started out. We probably wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for the rowing.”
Through their shared passion, a sense of camaraderie and friendships have blossomed. The group participates in many community service activities, moonlight rows, social events, costume-themed rows and even created an ocean tribute for a member who passed away. “We’ve had so many unique, special moments together,” says Walker.
Ann loves team sports and loves the conviviality and social aspect of rowing. “I’ve gotten to meet fabulous women, and row in an active, commercial fishing area, which is fascinating.”
“The first day I rowed, we were all newbies. I got in the boat, started rowing, and knew I had to keep doing this,” says Davey. “So many of us live on the coast, but we’d never been out on the ocean. For most of us, that’s a big goal,” says Walker. “Along with returning to shore for Happy Hour,” laughs Conwell.
The Noyo Women’s Rowing Crew meets most Friday afternoons for a two-hour row. An introductory rowing class on the Helen Dee is offered most Saturdays, weather permitting. For more information, visit the crew’s Facebook page.