There are more than just fish in the Cochecho River.
Cutting across the water in quads, eights, and singles is Great Bay Rowing (GBR), a community crew organization based out of Dover. GBR offers programs for middle schoolers through adults, teaching people how to row and competing across New England. Several Oyster River High School students have taken advantage of the high school team, discovering a love for crew, a new community, and lots of opportunities post-graduation.
“Rowing opens so many doors, both in high school and beyond,” said Hallie Cheyne, GBR’s head coach. “You meet incredible people, you get in great shape, and you learn important life skills like resilience, perseverance, discipline and teamwork. You get to travel to new and interesting locations (some of which are astoundingly beautiful), and you become part of a greater community that is filled with good, earnest, hard-working people.”
Katherine McEwan (‘23) has been rowing for the GBR women’s varsity team since fall of her sophomore year. “I liked being outside and being on the water,” McEwan said. She explained that being outdoors and constantly moving is very motivating, whereas “with other forms of exercise, you’re doing the same thing and you’re in the same place and it’s kind of boring. I think being outside makes it way more interesting.”
Another of GBR’s rowers, Greg Caron (‘25), says he got involved with the team because he “wanted to get more active and it was a great way to stay in shape.” He kept going with the team, though, because of the people on it. “The community is great,” he said. “We’re all very supportive of each other.”
“Beyond just being an amazing sport, we’re just such a nice community,” agreed team captain Eleanor Raspa (‘23). “One of the best things about rowing in particular, especially our club, is we aren’t connected to a school. […] You could be someone popular at your school, you could be unpopular, you could be the nerd, the geek, whatever, and we’re just a big mixing pot.”
Cheyne also emphasized the positive team culture. She said, “I genuinely have never coached a group of athletes who are more supportive, welcoming, and friendly with each other. I share a simple rule at the start of the season: ‘don’t be a jerk.’ The athletes on our team have taken that and run with it, creating a community that is always looking for ways to help out and make each other a better rower.”
This sense of community is important to achieving success on the water, Cheyne explained. “Rowing is the ultimate team sport. Not only do all athletes need to be giving their best effort in a race, but they have to do it completely in sync with each other. Creating a fast boat depends on all rowers being incredibly precise and powerful as they balance and accelerate a skinny carbon boat down a race course.”
In the narrow boats, rowers sit in a single row of two, four, or eight people. Learning this precision and balance that Cheyne described is vital, because, if oars cross or row out of line, it can cost boats the race—and even make them capsize. The rapid, constant movement of rowing is made even harder by the fact that rowers, facing backwards in the boat, can’t see where they’re going.
“That’s where coxswains come in,” said Raspa, who is a coxswain for both men’s and women’s boats. “You don’t really see them, but for basically any boat that has more than two people, coxswains are in the boat. They look at where they’re going, they steer the boat, and they have a microphone to yell what to do and encouragement.”
Coxswains “double as a mini coach on the boat,” Raspa explained. During regattas, coaches are too far away to give instructions to the athletes like they do in other sports, “so coxswains are there to relay what the coach would say if this was on land.”
In order to hone their skills, the high school athletes of GBR practice five days a week for two hours after school, plus day-long regattas every weekend. Crew has two “official” seasons, spring for short races and fall for long races, but the team has opportunities for indoor strength-building practices in winter and outdoor practices and races in the summer.
While the time commitment is big, Raspa says it’s manageable. “When I’m fully utilizing time in school, plus time before and after practice, it just kind of works out. For other extracurriculars, I usually pick stuff that happens during school, like book club [during flex], or volunteering like I usually do on the weekends.”
Still, all that hard work is worth it to the athletes. Raspa said that, by being a coxswain and captain, “I’ve gained so much confidence in myself in other parts of my life. I feel like I’ve gained leadership skills.”
In addition to being “really fun,” McEwan added that crew “gets you outside, which I think is very good for your mental health. Exercise is also good for your mental health, and being outside is good for your mental health. Put the two together, that’s efficiency for you!”
Crew is also a very scholarship-heavy sport, especially for women. Both McEwan and Raspa have been recruited to top colleges for rowing, and GBR alumni are racing for schools including Yale, Northeastern, Loyola, Ithaca, and Mercyhurst.
Recent seasons have been filled with success for GBR, and they’re expecting further success in the upcoming spring season. “We have a lot of athletes who are going to be very fast when they hit water in April,” Cheyne said. “Our current women’s quad (four people with two oars each) had an undefeated fall season, and we are planning on taking that momentum and making a run for Nationals qualification in May. I’m also excited to see how our U17 athletes come along this season. There is a group of boys who have all been rowing together since middle school and now at the varsity level they are ready to also push for a nationals qualification. On a more general note, spring racing is way more exciting than the fall—imagine the 100m dash, but with six, sixty foot long boots lined up next to each other. Oars are flying, coxswains are screaming, and the crowds are going absolutely wild on the river bank. It’s an atmosphere unlike anything else.”
There is still time to join the team. “Anyone who is interested in working hard and having fun while they do it should try rowing. We like people who are up for a challenge, who are friendly and willing to try something new,” Cheyne said. “You don’t need to have any experience to start rowing — new high school athletes join the Novice team, which is entirely made up of people within their first year in the sport.”
GBR’s spring season began on April third. Registration for their summer season is open now at www.greatbayrowing.org.
– Zoe Selig