Everything You Need to Know About Rowing in New Jersey

Rowing has an enthusiastic following statewide and offers the chance to compete, get in shape, find community or just enjoy the water.

Nereid Boat Club members row on the Passaic. Photo: Laura Baer

On a cloudy June day by the Passaic River, with car sounds from Route 21 audible across the narrow waterway, a group has gathered at the Nereid Boat Club in Rutherford for a National Learn to Row Day open house. Kids and adults are in sculling boats on the river, while others try out rowing machines on the club’s outdoor grounds, groups of teens carry long boats over their heads, and adults mill about with drinks and burgers.

Competitive rowing, which has existed in New Jersey since the mid-1800s, is fiercely popular among its followers but has remained more under the radar for the general public. 

National Learn to Row Day, organized by USRowing, the sport’s Princeton-based national governing body, aims to change that by exposing non-rowers to the sport and, hopefully, sparking their interest in getting involved.

When people think of rowing (also referred to as “crew”), some picture it as an elite pastime for Ivy Leaguers. While Princeton University does have a long-established program, rowing is also offered at other colleges, public and private high schools, a few middle schools, and numerous rowing clubs all over the Garden State.

Rowing clubs are a vital part of the rowing scene in New Jersey and are found most anywhere there’s a suitable river, lake or inlet. According to USRowing, there are 88 rowing clubs in New Jersey. They offer members the use of boats and other equipment, training, the chance to join competitive teams, and the opportunity to row recreationally. Typically, clubs charge an annual fee similar to a gym membership. 

In addition to Nereid on the Passaic, notable clubs include the Viking Rowing Club in the Atlantic City area, Row New Jersey on Lake Hopatcong, the South Jersey Rowing Club in Mt. Laurel, and the Delaware River Rowing Club in Burlington. In most parts of the state, you can find a rowing club within a reasonable driving distance.

Rowing is great for groups and families. Photo: Laura Baer

ROW, ROW, ROW!

The sport of rowing can be divided into two distinct types. One is sculling, where each rowers has a left and right oar. The other is sweep, in which each rower has a single oar. The rowers in a sweep boat are deployed in an alternating left-right pattern to keep the energy even on both sides. In both rowing styles, the boats (called shells) are long, thin, and made of lightweight kevlar or carbon fiber. 

In both sculling and sweep, competitive meets, called regattas, feature a variety of sprints and distance races organized by boat size and type. Sprints are typically 2,000 meters, and distance races can be as long as 6,000 meters.

Regattas usually feature separate men’s and women’s sweep and sculling events as well as mixed races. Overall, the sport is pretty well-balanced between male and female participants. 

Rowing is a quintessential team sport, where each boat crew is only as good as its weakest link. “If you have one person in the boat who is subpar,” says Stan Bergman, who has coached the successful Holy Spirit High School rowing team in Absecon and the Penn rowing team, “it doesn’t matter how good the other ones are—it’s going to drag them down somewhat.”

That said, rowing doesn’t require the same level of athleticism or hand-eye coordination as many other sports. “You don’t have to be an incredible athlete to be a good rower,” says Alex Del Sordo, a longtime rower who hosts the Rowers Choice podcast and runs a boat-repair business. “You just have to be dedicated.”

“It gave me a new group of friends; it gave me a sport that I love and want to do in college now,” says Alisha Raja, a rower who started this year. “I couldn’t imagine my life without it.” Photo: Laura Baer

To ensure fair competition, boat lengths in sculling and sweep are standardized based on the number of rowers they hold. Sculling boats hold one, two or four people and include the 26-foot- long single, 31-foot-long double, and 40-foot-long quad.

Sweep boats hold two, four, five or eight people. They include the 31-foot-long pair; the 41-foot-long four with coxswain; the 40-foot-long four without coxswain; and the 60-62-foot-long eight with coxswain.

One rower steers in a sculling boat using a foot-operated rudder pedal. Sweep boats carry one non-rower, called the coxswain (pronounced  “cox’n”), who steers the boat and acts as the onboard coach. 

Another important aspect of rowing is that it can accommodate people with various disabilities through adaptive rowing programs. Not only is rowing an Olympic sport, but a Paralympic one, too. 

Some school programs and clubs offer adaptive rowing. “For anyone with a disability who’s interested in getting involved—if they can’t find an adaptive rowing program nearby—they could absolutely reach out to us,” says Jennie Trayes, the chief community engagement officer at USRowing.

Boats stored at Nereid. Their lengths vary based on the number of rowers. Photo: Laura Baer

BOATLOAD OF BENEFITS

The competitive aspect of rowing is a significant part of the sport’s appeal, but it’s not the only one. Among adults (anyone over 27 is considered a “master” in the rowing world), it’s also a noncompetitive recreational and fitness activity. 

You can row by yourself in a single sculling boat. If you’re an adult rowing-club member and have learned how to row—which typically takes four to six sessions over two weeks—you can take out a single boat.

Although it’s repetitive, the sculling motion provides you with an excellent workout. Not only do you use both arms, but you push off with your feet on every stroke, giving your legs an excellent workout. 

On its website, USRowing states that rowing burns more calories than biking for equivalent effort. It provides both strength and aerobic conditioning and is entirely impact free. Rowing exercises all major muscle groups and provides aerobic and strength training.

Dr. Glenn Gero is a 76-year-old naturopathic doctor and medical exercise specialist who rows three times a week at Nereid. Like many master rowers, he no longer competes. Instead, rowing is a vital part of his fitness regimen. 

“Rowing is probably the premier exercise because you’re engaging almost 80 percent of your muscles simultaneously,” Gero says. “Essentially, you’re doing repetition—leg presses—every time you do a stroke. And the arms and the upper body come in after that.”

Jessica Eiffert-Spitzer, a former NCAA championship rower, is a coach at Nereid Boat Club in Rutherford. Photo: Laura Baer

Besides the fitness aspect, rowers often find being on the water a zen-like experience. “You can almost get in a meditative state when you’re out there,” says Jessica Eiffert-Spitzer, who’s the head of athlete development and head varsity girls coach at Nereid—and a former NCAA championship rower. “The idea of becoming one with the water and the boat, and then just doing it, whether it’s by yourself or with your team.”

“The motion is nice and soothing,” says Briant Canha, a master rower in charge of membership at Nereid.  “I try to row every day. If I’m not on the water, I’m on the rowing machine.”

EXPLORING THE STATE

Besides rivers and lakes, people row in coastal waters off the Shore. Coastal Rowing is an offshoot of flat-water rowing, but requires larger boats to handle the waves and ocean currents. Coastal rowing is expected to be added as an Olympic sport starting with the 2028 games.

One of the advantages of coastal rowing is that it provides a more dramatic natural setting than a river or lake. “One of the things that I love is how close you can get to wildlife,” says Elinor Comlay, who often rows in the bay near Atlantic City. “Osprey nesting stations are close to our boathouse and along the bay. We regularly see blue herons, egrets and dolphins.”

Spring and fall are the prime seasons for competitive rowing, but there are also regattas in the summer. Summer is also an excellent time to partake in rowing camps, learn-to-row programs, and individual rowing opportunities at clubs.

It’s not safe or practical to row outdoors in New Jersey during the winter. To keep fit and continue to hone their skills during those months, people use rowing machines—called ergometers or ergs— available in rowing clubs, school rowing facilities and many gyms.

For those who want to keep competing through the winter, there are even indoor rowing tournaments using ergs, where the fastest rowers win. US Rowing sponsors the Indoor Rowing Championships every year in Atlantic City.

Whether you’re looking for competition, fitness, a new way to enjoy the outdoors, or just a chance to watch exciting amateur sporting events, New Jersey offers plenty of opportunities to get involved in rowing. 

Mike Levine is a writer, editor and content producer who lives in Bloomfield.


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