It would be a colossal shame to see rowing leave the Schuylkill — and Philadelphia. The Schuylkill sorely needs dredging, or it will risk losing two showcase regattas in North America: Dad Vail, the nation’s largest intercollegiate rowing competition, and the Stotesbury Cup, the largest high school rowing event in America. Both are scheduled to unfold back-to-back next month on the Schuylkill. After that, all bets are off.
Rowing on the Schuylkill has been a big part of this city’s sports DNA for a long time. John B. Kelly, the bricklayer and father of iconic movie actress and princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, won three Olympic gold medals in the 1920s. His son, Jack, won the famous Henley Cup in England. Philly-born artist and rower Thomas Eakins portrayed on canvas the perfect simpatico between the sculler and the water in a series of more than 20 portraits set on the Schuylkill during the last quarter of the 19th century. My father rowed for the Crescent Club on the Schuylkill in the ’40s, and I’ve been going to the Dad Vail Regatta since 1968.
The problem? Silt has built up in the lanes of the iconic racecourse, causing shallow water and uneven depths in some lanes, disadvantaging the boats that travel in them. The river has not been dredged for nearly 20 years, and if not dredged soon, it will force rowing organizations like Dad Vail and Stotesbury to look for another venue. The Cooper River in Camden County has soared in stature over the past five to six years as a premier rowing racecourse and could entice rowing officials of the Dad Vail and Stotesbury to move their regattas there.
The cost to complete a dredging of the Schuylkill is estimated at $4.5 million. Right now there is about a $400,000 shortfall. If the Schuylkill Navy River Restoration Committee can raise that money by the end of this month, dredging can begin by July in order to save the 2020 spring rowing season.
We will lose much if the regattas go to another venue.
We will lose two Philly sports showcase events — tantamount to losing the Penn Relays or the Broad Street Run. Dad Vail and Stotesbury draw thousands of fans to the banks of the Schuylkill to watch the competition. I’ve been out on the river in the coach’s boat with the Temple University crew team, at 5:30 in the morning, to watch their crew prepare for Dad Vail. I’ve seen the visceral emotion on these kids’ faces during the workouts; rowing in Dad Vail on the Schuylkill meant everything to them, many of whom come from high schools in Philly.
We will lose an economic flurry in Philly. Dad Vail and Stotesbury generate revenue for city businesses. Restaurants, hotels, stores, and tourist spots get a boost during these events.
As well, Dad Vail creates a sense of community, an environment of fellowship, and sportsmanship. Hostility and trash talking among the athletes and the fans surrender to handshakes and congratulations all around.
Perhaps, though, what we lose most if Dad Vail, Stotesbury, and other regattas leave is a piece of the city’s soul. The rowing season is a harbinger of spring in Philly. Cherry blossom trees are blushing along Kelly Drive; the banks of the river are flushed in green; the soft sun sparkles on the water like flashing diamonds; the rowers cut a majestic swath through the water, slicing their oars in and out in a rhythmic display of power, speed, and grace. Rowing is as much about physical poetry as physical prowess.
Dad Vail and Stotesbury define Philly rowing. If we lose them, we might as well also lose the soft pretzel and cheesesteak.