Harry Carroll can laugh now as he describes the chaotic scenes that would break out in the fenced-in area on the banks of the Cooper River after the first clap of thunder was heard or initial bolt of lightning was seen, signaling an approaching storm.
Scholastic rowers, at times as many as 500 of them, including some from Carroll's crew at Bishop Eustace, would scatter for cover like frightened geese, sprinting to their cars or back down North Park Avenue in Pennsauken to the prep school's campus.
"You know, you put 500 high school kids in the same fenced-in area, and it's not exactly the place you want to be," Carroll said. "It was great to be on the water. It wasn't so great to be around the water."
But downriver a couple of hundred yards, there now stands the spanking-new Boathouse at Cooper River, a cedar-colored structure with a copper roof that stands like a welcoming oasis for about 600 rowers representing seven nearby high schools, the South Jersey Rowing Club, and the crew from Rutgers-Camden.
It is perhaps the finest, most modern, and most ecologically correct boathouse in the Philadelphia region, which is rich in rowing tradition.
"We like it," Jamie Stack, the Rutgers-Camden crew coach and boathouse manager, said proudly.
Except for three winter months, Stack, assisted by Tom Morrissey, typically spends about 16 hours a day managing the boathouse, directing traffic and booking social events for its upstairs banquet room, which seats 200 and has a wraparound balcony that offers a picturesque view of the river and the city skyline across the Delaware.
The conditions for rowing on the Cooper River have long been considered almost ideal. For nearly four decades, it has hosted regattas. Once again, an Intercollegiate Rowing Association event, the men's championships, will be held there, from May 31 to June 2. Last weekend, Bishop Eustace hosted the New Jersey State Championships there. On May 13, the Eastern College Athletic Conference will host the Eastern Sprints there.
But until the 23,000-square-foot boathouse was completed before the start of the fall rowing season at a cost of $6.5 million, the venue was lacking a first-class facility. No more. The boathouse, which took 18 months to construct, has six bays housing about 100 boats belonging to Bishop Eustace, Camden Catholic, Moorestown, Haddonfield, Haddon Township and Collingswood high schools, as well as the South Jersey Rowing Club and Rutgers-Camden.
And it's environmentally friendly: The air-conditioning and heating systems are geothermal and the docks are made of recyclable material.
"It's the only boathouse I know of that's gone sort of green," Stack said.
Funding for the boathouse came mostly from a state Green Acres grant, along with loans from the Delaware River Port Authority and some Camden County money. The schools pay $75 a seat for boat storage, and Stack expects the fee to be lowered when revenue from the banquet hall starts coming in.
The boathouse opening comes at a time when rowing is going through a boom, especially at the high school and women's collegiate levels, the latter because of Title IX. Both Carroll and Camden Catholic coach David Reader said a majority of their crews were composed of girls, partly because of the increased scholarship money available to collegiate women's rowers.
"If you look at the schools that are expanding in women's rowing - Michigan, Tennessee, dominant big football schools - a lot of it is designed to balance off the scholarships that football gets," said Carroll, who has about 85 rowers at Eustace even though the program began only six years ago.
"You can have a women's team at the collegiate level of 75," he said. "So is there money out there chasing these girls? Absolutely. And it's a good thing, good for the sport. The rise in women's rowing in terms of quality within the last five years has been remarkable."
Meanwhile, the days when these most dedicated and hardworking athletes have to run to their cars for cover, leaving their belongings and shells exposed to the harsh elements, are finished. And no one misses them.