Originally created 02/11/99

Rowing contests date to early 1800s



A century before golfers came to Augusta to chase little white balls for a green coat, rowers chased each other down the Savannah River hoping to win a silver serving tray.

Although the Augusta Rowing Club has existed in its present form only since the 1980s, its boats glide over the same waters churned by Augusta oarsmen a century before.

"We became aware of the boat clubs that existed back then and we thought it would be a good thing to bring that back. We saw it as a way to enhance the regatta," Superior Court Judge Duncan Wheale, one of the founding organizers of the Augusta Rowing Club, said in an interview in 1995.

Rowing competition on the Savannah River dates back more than three decades before the Civil War, with impromptu races staged by slave crews hauling cotton and other goods up and down the river.

As the races became more organized and plantation pride went on the line, owners pulled the more athletic slaves off area plantations to train full time for races against rival crews, according to Tidecraft, a book by boat historian Rusty Fleetwood.

By the late 1830s, newspaper accounts report the sport drew the attention of "respectable gentlemen of the city" whose rowing was a "noble example to others to encourage a most innocent, healthy and interesting amusement."

According to a July 19, 1837, article in Augusta's Chronicle and Sentinel, a race between three boats drew throngs of people to the riverbanks and threw the city "literally into a commotion."

The gentlemen in the "white pantaloons, broad blue striped shirts, blue starred collars" of the Minerva club took home the silver set that day.

For years after the Civil War, Augusta supported two rowing clubs -- the Rebel Boat Club and the Augusta Boat Club -- which were eventually merged.

"They faded into obscurity around 1870. We don't know too much about the club after that," said Larry Fletcher of the modern-day Augusta Rowing Club.

After 100 years of rowing dormancy, Augusta civic leaders decided in the early 1980s it was time to make better use of the Savannah River. Judge Wheale and others then on the Augusta Port Authority dreamed up the idea of holding an annual collegiate regatta as a way to draw tourists and their dollars to the city.

After the success of the first regatta in 1984 came Riverwalk Augusta, two other annual boat races and a renewed interest in the Savannah River.

"I'm amazed people never thought to use the river as a resource. It's such a big part of our lives now," Judge Wheale said.

Today's club was formed as an afterthought partially to organize a pool of volunteers for the Augusta Invitational Regatta, but the group has made its mark on Augusta.

The club was host to the 1994 Masters National Championship on Lake Olmstead -- the top level of competition for rowers age 27 and older. The club also was key to attracting the U.S. National Sculling Team to Augusta in 1994, bringing Olympic hopefuls and their families to Augusta to prepare for the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Improvements to the boathouse on Riverfront Drive were completed in 1996. Since then, Olympic scullers and high school, college and masters rowers have trained out of the same building.

"When I remember we were clearing the banks the day before the first race so spectators could have a place to stand, it's amazing what has happened. ... Augusta is fast on its way to becoming a rowing mecca in the South," Mr. Fletcher said.