Plying the Glass-Smooth Waters

Ten years on, diverse ages and motivations at the Sag Harbor Rowing Club
The Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club remains vibrant and growing 10 years after its founding, with instruction, affordable rates, and members ranging in age from 10 to 70. Johnette Howard

It was a little after 7 a.m. on a postcard-pretty Saturday and the water on Sag Harbor Cove was glimmering and still as cars began to pull into the parking lot where the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club meets.

Among the 20 people who showed up that day was a mother and daughter duo who decided to enjoy the sport together, and three high school-age girls who were tweaking the lone boy in their group about balking at being assigned to share a four-person scull with them. There was Robert Montgomery, a former Citibank exec with a deep FM radio voice and rakish canvas hat atop his head. He first took up rowing in 1973. And there was Jill Scheerer, who said she joined the club just three weeks ago after much good-natured “nagging” from her friend Rachael Sweeney, whom she graduated from East Hampton High School with in 1973.

“I was nagging her,” Sweeney admitted with a laugh.

Scheerer laughed, too, saying, “She mentioned something about coming here and having a lesson, and I said, ‘A lesson? For rowing? Don’t you just row? What is there to it?’ Then I thought, ‘Boy, either I look like I’m a complete klutz or there’s more to it than I know.’ And sure enough, there is a bit more to it than you think.”

Still, none of it is too complicated to learn — which is among the reasons the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club remains vibrant and growing 10 years after Lee Oldak, a member of the Breakwater Yacht Club in Sag Harbor and current owner of the Amagansett Beach and Bicycle Company, started the group to promote the sport. 

Oldak said he was already stocking some recreational rowing sculls at his shop when he went to a regatta in Riverhead back in 2008 to check out the racing side of the sport. “What I saw there was all these teams, a whole tailgate scene, everybody was happy, and I said to myself, ‘Okay. I can do this,’ ” Oldak recalled.

He went to Gregory Ferraris, the mayor of Sag Harbor at the time, and asked if there was anywhere in the village where his new nonprofit club could row. 

“He said, ‘I’ve got this lot off Redwood Road doing nothing. Why don’t you use that?’ And that was pretty much our start,” Oldak said.

A decade later, two things remain important to Oldak to stress. “We’re a community rowing club, so it’s open to everyone — it’s not a private club that’s expensive,” he explained. “We charge $325 for an adult membership. And from May 1 to Nov. 1, anyone [who is a member] can come on their own and row at any hour, any day of the week, so long as there’s daylight. It’s easily one of the best deals in the Hamptons.”

Nowadays the club’s rowers range from 10 years old into their 70s. Youth memberships are $159 a year. Members get on-site use of the club’s lightweight torpedo-shape sculls that come in two types (racing and recreational) and three configurations: single, double, or quads (four-person). The narrow hulls feature a sliding seat for each rower that’s mounted on tracks, a footboard with Velcro bindings to strap their feet into, and collared locks for the 10-foot-long oars, which are also provided. The boats are stored on outdoor racks at the Redwood Road lot, which also features an equipment trailer and a grassy shore where the rowers wade in and launch the boats.

Everyone from beginners to advanced rowers is welcome. There are weekly Saturday morning and Tuesday evening group sessions where everybody seems to know everyone’s name, and the camaraderie is free and easy as the rowers carry the boats down to the shore and decide who will team up with whom that day. There are competitive teams for middle schoolers and high schoolers. The club also provides lessons.

As an added twist, Oldak has invited in a different college rowing coach each week this summer and boarded them at a member’s house. (Numerous colleges offer scholarships or financial aid for their rowing teams, particularly on the women’s side of the sport, as universities try to meet the gender-equity requirements of federal laws such as Title IX.) 

On July 14, Paul Casey, an assistant rowing coach at Princeton, was wrapping up his week in residence by zipping back and forth across the cove in a motorized skiff to chat with the rowers in each scull, offer personalized suggestions on their form, and answer their questions. He also had some private lessons booked after the group session finished.

“Learning how to row is something you can pick up in just a few weeks,” said Vivienne Keegan of Sag Harbor, who joined the club three years ago after her son went to college. She enjoys learning about the technical side of the sport, she said. 

The basic rowing stroke has four parts, starting with the “catch,” where the rower sits with his or her seat forward, knees bent, and oar handles rotated forward with the blades ready to dip into the water. Second is the “drive,” where you push against the footboard with your legs and pull the oars through the water as the seat sides backward. Next is the “finish,” which involves rotating the oar handles toward your stomach, causing the blades to lift or “feather” out of the water. Last is the “recovery,” where the rower slides back into the original forward position with their oar blades skimming just inches above the water, preparing to repeat the stroke all over again. 

When sharing a scull, there’s the added challenge of working in tandem so everyone moves in the same rhythm.

The goal, of course, is to integrate all four phases of the stroke into a smooth motion that can seem almost effortless and makes you feel as if the boat is flying lightly over the water. 

“That’s the part that can feel almost addictive,” Keegan said, “because the closer your stroke gets to perfection, the more it feels almost liquid. Just magical.”

The reasons people join the club are as individual as they themselves are. Some say they row to get in shape and they love the full-body workout. Some row to get outdoors. Some row because they’ve tried other sports but, for them, nothing is quite as meditative or serene as being out on the glass-smooth water as the sun peeks over the Sag Harbor bridge and the village begins to wake up or wind down for another day.

Montgomery, the oldest member of the club at 73, joked that when he was growing up in Idaho, “the only thing I knew about rowing was that’s something those Ivy League schools and the English do.” But he was aware some American squads had great success at the Olympics, and he eventually helped start the rowing team at the University of California-Santa Clara back in the early 1970s.

By the time Montgomery moved to Philadelphia to pick up an M.B.A. at the Wharton School before embarking on a 32-year Citibank career, he was hooked on rowing. He said he lived for a while near 10 other boathouses in an attic room at the Vesper Boat Club “with the river as my backyard” and the 9,000-acre Fairmont Park unfurling all around him, with its three museums, gorgeous grounds, and seven antebellum mansions scattered about.

“And do you know what my rent was? Zero,” he said, laughing. “The only condition to live there was you had to row competitively.”

To this day, Montgomery remains the most decorated competitive rower in the Sag Harbor club other than Dan Kirrane, a self-described Hamptons “summer kid” who rowed collegiately at Columbia University and competed for a U.S. under-23 squad and U.S. senior national team at the 2012 and 2014 world championships, respectively.

“I probably never would have been able to accomplish that if I didn’t have this summer program to train with here,” he said.

Montgomery took a 40-year break from the sport once work and family and life intervened, returning to it only when Oldak started the Sag Harbor club in 2008. But now that he’s back in the water, Montgomery said, the allure of rowing is the same, and as gripping as it was back when he had an epiphany as a young man still living at the Vesper Club.

“I remember noticing this man who would begin coming to the club in early spring, and by late fall he’d still be rowing,” Montgomery said. “He’d arrive every day at 3 o’clock. You could set your watch by it. And he’d go out to the rocks and back every day, which was a six-mile row.”

“By my last year there he was 83 years old. That’s when it really hit me that this is something you can do your entire life.”

Montgomery smiled and added that he’s had many jobs and traveled to many places in his life. His Citibank career took him to London. He had earlier jobs as a factory worker, a construction laborer, a merchant mariner, and a U.S. foreign serviceman, among other things. But the memory of that man at the Vesper Club, like the personal joy he still gets from rowing, reminds him of a line he once read in a book.

“It’s called ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ ” he said, “and there’s a character named Rat that says to his friend, ‘There is nothing better in the world than messing about in a boat.’ ”

Vivienne Keegan, in pink, began her rowing day on the water just before 7:30 a.m. as two other members of the Sag Harbor Community Rowing Club carried their scull to the club's launch site just off Redwood Road. Johnette Howard