The current on the Harlem River is strong. Despite the best efforts of a crew of eight 14- and 15-year-olds, it’s rapidly sweeping the long, skinny boat toward shore. Twelve-foot oars flail. One rower, her hand smashed between a paddle and the lurching shell, starts to bleed. “It’s burning,” she shrieks, eyes wide.
From a motorboat just out of whacking distance, a coach’s yells get increasingly frantic. “Row!” she shouts. “Row! You know how to do this!”
Amanda Kraus, the former University of Massachusetts rowing champion responsible for putting this boat on the water, likes to compare rowing to “poetry in motion.” But for a while, she said, practice is more likely to resemble “a bad paperback novel in motion.”
The rowers are part of a new 72-member competitive rowing program in Inwood. Until Row New York, Kraus’ Queens-based nonprofit, started recruiting in uptown public schools this fall, the idea of crew had never crossed these inner-city kid’s minds.
“Rowing is a sport that asks a lot of you,” she said. “It doesn’t happen in a week or a month, or two months. You have to be patient.”
Row New York is just settling into a routine at the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse in Swindler Cove Park. It took over operations after the New York Restoration Project, which built the boathouse to make rowing accessible to low-income uptowners, evicted the New York Rowing Association, which had provided programming for the past nine years.
Underwater financially, the association was ousted amid accusations that its rowing teams were too white, too rich and didn’t represent the community the boathouse was designed to serve. Amy Freitag, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, praised Row New York’s “focus on the community.”
About 200 teens from middle and high schools in Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood turned out for tryouts in October. Because no one had experience, judges put a lot of emphasis on teens’ enthusiasm about committing to daily, two-hour practices, Kraus said. The program, funded through grants, is free to participants.
“It’s really hard to pick,” she said, with a shrug and a laugh. “We like big feet because that means they’re going to be tall.”
Kraus is passionate about, as she puts it, “making boats go fast.” And she’s pretty good at it. Her Queens teams have won medals at the New York State Championship for the past four years and she’s sent a number of graduates to college crew teams on scholarships.
But in addition to athletic training, Kraus’ rowers also meet weekly for academic tutoring. Row New York keeps tabs on report cards. To make sure teens are mastering the material, Manhattan’s new rowers take regular assessment tests and are connected with tutoring and SAT prep.
When it comes time for the rowers to go to college, as virtually all Kraus’s rowers do, Row New York takes students on campus visits, helps them refine entrance essays and walks them through the complex process of applying for financial aid. The nonprofit stays in touch throughout freshman year at college, Kraus said, because “that’s a really tricky time.”
Eighteen-year-old Veronica Castillo had a C average when she joined Row New York in Queens as a 9thgrader. “I didn’t even know what the SAT was,” she said. When she graduated this June, she was making A’s.
Now she’s a freshman at Queensborough Community College. “Being a rower just kept me focused and made me more determined to do better in school,” she said. “I guess having more on your plate helps you manage your time better.”
At the Sharp Boathouse, there’s a general consensus among Kraus’ newly hired coaching team that teaching teens to row means more than showing them how to glide gracefully down the river.
“They are going to learn how to row and we push them to go to college,” said Brittany Aiello, who directs the middle school team. “But even if they don’t, what they get out of this — confidence, leadership, teamwork, camaraderie — they are going to take that with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives.”
For now, the teens are still figuring some things out. For example, instead of just telling rowers to “stop,” coaches shout “way enough,” said Patricia Destine, a bubbly 15-year-old with chocolate skin and a button nose.
“It’s like learning a whole new language,” she said. “Squaring your oars, settling your oars, feather, coxswain — it’s like, what are you talking about?”
Already, though, rowing has become such a big part of the teens’ lives that they can’t imagine quitting. Destine, who sometimes struggles to feel secure in her own skin, said the daily workouts have boosted her confidence. “I wore my bathing suit to get into the pool and my coach was like, ‘Oh my God,’” she said. “I look great in it.”
Because the teens have to rely on one another on the water, they’ve become best friends in a matter of weeks, said Julia Saltonstall, a 14-year-old with long legs and rosy, freckled cheeks.
“I feel like they make me a better person,” she said. “With the workouts, when I’m tired and I don’t want to do it anymore, they keep motivating me and motivating me. I trust my teammates with secrets I would never tell other people.”