The HyLife: Find fitness, friends and nature’s beauty at the Washington Rowing School
BY JESSICA ARENDS
At 5:30 a.m. we gather quietly at the river. Silhouettes in the dark, we follow the commands of our coxswain to synchronize each step: Place one foot in the boat, lower our bodies down, tie into the boat shoes and push away from the dock.
We drift backwards into the belly of the river, a dark warm place that has waited for us all night. The arms of the river banks open, welcoming our narrow eight-person boat along with the day’s first light.
Through the mist, we see shapes at the banks, as if on a stage before the curtain opens. Ghostly white egrets lift their heads to watch us pass. An archipelago of turtles waits for the sun on a dead branch. Splash! An excited fish flashes its white belly. Suddenly, a sweet fragrance.
Our eyes adjust to the dark: The trees are covered with sparkling white blossoms. A veil of tiny clematis stars undulates down each side of the river.
“Arms, back, slide … row! Arms, back, slide … row!” Over and over, our strokes sync up, beating out a steady rhythm. Leg muscles wake up as we slide our seats and pull the oars through the dark water. With each row and release, row and release, my preoccupations and worries flatline; that boundary between me and my surroundings dissolves a little.
“Way ’nough!” the coxswain shouts, and we come to a stop. Coach Cindy zooms up in her motorboat and leads us through drills like “cut the cake.” Before each row, we pause to wave our shiny oars back and forth in the air like a water ballet. The sky is now a generous peachy-orange, everything illuminated by a magical glow.
Back at the dock, we detach from the boat. Our limbs look and feel awkward, like we’re penguins climbing back on land. We are slow to break our meditative silence, still rebuilding our pre-pandemic social skills.
We’re novice members of the Washington Rowing School at Bladensburg Waterfront Park. Each August, as part of the Community Row Challenge, beginning rowers train at the school throughout the month. The month-long Community Challenge culminates in a race called the Bladensburg Races, in commemoration of the anniversary of the 1814 Battle of Bladensburg.
Cindy Cole previously coached at another local rowing club and noticed how the membership fee and size of the club excluded many community members. She also observed expensive rowing equipment sitting unused during the offseason. In response, she founded the Washington Rowing School in 2006.
The school is a welcoming and inclusive place for community members to enjoy working out and partaking in the beauty of the river. Currently, about 150 adults and youth enjoy this low-impact team sport at the school each year, sharing equipment year-round.
“Rowing is very pleasurable,” Cole said. “You’re like a big bird — the rhythm. It cures whatever ails you.”
Indeed, this deep satisfaction and healing joy is evident among the novice rowers. Community Challenge rower Celeste O’Neill, who just moved to Hyattsville, had been missing the mountains of Colorado, but said, “[The] river is filling that void.” The regular exercise and social interaction helped her feel more connected. “I really needed this,” she said.
Hyattsville resident and mother-of-five Allison Lipari said she appreciates the space to do something for herself. After rowing, she said, “I can reset and then come home happy to my household.” Lipari also appreciates the unique challenge of not being able to stop when rowing. She explained, “You have to press through — whether it’s a physical or mental block, you have to keep going.”
Hyattsvillian Robin Fernkas, who is frequently on the sidelines for her son’s and husband’s sporting events, said she relished the chance to try rowing: “It can be grueling — carrying the boat, getting bruised — but it’s that shared experience that can build friendships.” Fernkas added that she and her son, who is on his high school crew team, now share the language of rowing.
The Washington Rowing School offers adult and youth classes, including a Learn-to-Scull class, which involves smaller boats and two oars. More information can be found on the Washington Rowing School website, washingtonrowingschool.com.
Jessica Arends is the arts, culture and lifestyle columnist for the Hyattsville Life & Times.