With the city of Charleston still asleep, the College of Charleston crew team takes to its boats, launching them by flashlights and the vocal instructions of coaches. Most mornings, the team is lucky to have still and untouched water, making their job easier.
Both men and women rowers bundle up in jackets, sweatshirts and hats to embrace the cold, early spring mornings. In the dark, the team unloads the boats from a parking lot trailer, carries them down the long dock and places them in the water before retrieving the oars. They then settle into row for an hour and a half.
Around them, Charleston wakes up. The skyline gets a little brighter, the traffic on the Ashley River Bridge gets heavier, and the sun begins to peak over the Ravenel Bridge in the distance.
The boats continue up the river toward the interstate and then circle back around to complete their workouts and return to the dock.
The College’s crew team was established in 1989, marking this year as their 25th anniversary. A few college students, some of whom rowed in high school, wanted to start a competitive rowing team at the College. Dr. Robert Frankis Jr., a biology professor, stepped up as the team’s first advisor. During the team’s initial days, the school had no boats, so they started off using an erg, which is an indoor rowing machine.
Because the school did not have any boats, the team borrowed some from a variety of sources. Over the years, they have practiced out of several locations, including Dolphin Cove on the north side of the peninsula, Trophy Lakes on Johns Island, Duncan Marina in North Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant County Park. The team currently calls the Bristol Marina on the Ashley River home.
Bristol Marina has hosted the College crew team for a number of years now. When the complex was being built, they agreed to give the team space. The team houses their boats in a trailer in the parking lot adjacent to Brittlebank Park and has access to several slips in the marina to house their captains’ boats and launch the crew boats.
Today, Charleston crew consistently fields about 50 rowers who compete in singles, doubles, pairs, fours and eights. The team travels the South and the East Coast to compete in regattas, including the Head of the Charles in Boston, which is the largest regatta in the world. In addition, they compete against numerous other schools such as Georgia Tech, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Duke. The team has an extraordinary record, especially for a squad their size. They have garnered over 110 medals throughout the last few years.
Coached by Travis Landrith, a 1998 Charleston grad and crew alum, the team is quickly formed at the beginning of each academic year to prepare for the numerous fall regattas. Most members of the team have never rowed before, but under Landrith’s guidance, as well as that from the older members of the team, the rookies are soon placed in boats and trained to succeed.
Crew has two squads: varsity and novice. Rowers begin on the novice team to learn the ropes, adjust to the sport and decide if it is something they really want to pursue. Rowers are required to participate on the novice team for a year before moving up to varsity, regardless of their skill level. The novice squad practices in the afternoon, while the varsity squad has the privilege of accessing the river at 6 a.m. The retention rate from novice to varsity is somewhat low, but it weeds out those who are less dedicated.
Crew is not just a fun activity; it is much like a full time job. These rowers get up at the crack of dawn, head over to the marina for 6 a.m. practice, and then attend a full day of class. Most, if not all, of the rowers have a job or internship during the day, in addition to afternoon workouts. They finish their schoolwork and attend occasional team meetings at night. Their weekends are spent on the road en route to lakes or rivers across the southern U.S. to compete against a wide range of schools, while sleeping wherever they can find space.
“The rigorous practice schedule sets you up to learn good time management,” said junior rower Shannon Brown, who serves as secretary of the varsity squad.
The crew team may not be a school-sponsored team, but they operate much like one. Early morning practices on the water are accompanied by afternoon workouts on the ergs, located in the College’s gym.
However, crew does not have the resources that would be available to a varsity team. Without a boathouse, the team is forced to keep its expensive boats on a trailer that has moved around Charleston over the years.
A few years ago, the homeowners association at the marina decided they no longer liked the trailer on their property and forced the team to move it elsewhere. For some time, the trailer was parked outside of Joe Riley Stadium on Lockwood Drive, requiring the rowers to carry boats a quarter of a mile until they reached the launch dock. Finally, the team and the marina came to an agreement and the trailer is now housed under the trees a little ways from the dock.
In addition, funds are hard to come by for the student-run team. Crew is known for being one of the most expensive sports due to the extensive travel, pricey equipment and relatively short life of most of the boats. The club runs on dues from its rowers, as well as additional fundraisers throughout the year. Dues have increased each year due to the rising costs the team faces, but the team has stepped up by sending fundraising letters, holding bake sales and cutting costs in whatever ways they can.
Cutting costs has come to include sleeping on church floors during regattas on the road and buying a van off of Craigslist to transport the rowers. Although staying with friends and family has always been an answer, it has become harder to house the growing team of almost 60 students. All the dues go toward expensive equipment, so travel, accommodations and entry fees are forced to come from fundraisers and donations.
The love of the sport is what drives these athletes to the top. Many times, the crew team will row against varsity boats from well established and respected teams from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. With intense drive, dedication and perseverance, Charleston has stayed competitive against bigger and better teams.
In their 25th anniversary year, the team won a regatta for the first time – the Augusta Invitational, held in Aiken, S.C. on March 15, 2014.
The team earned four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, scoring enough points to defeat Davidson College, N.C. State University, Georgia State University and St. Louis University to win the regatta.
Charleston crews scored gold in the men’s and women’s four’s, men’s eight, and the men’s double. Silver medals came from the women’s eight and the mixed four, while the sole bronze was won by the second women’s four.
Winning a regatta for the first time in the 25-year history of the program was definitely something to celebrate, especially since the crew team often goes unrecognized and gets little outside support.
Three years ago, the crew team started to ramp up their program. They obtained their first championship win in 2010, and in 2011, the team ventured to Boston to compete at the largest regatta in the world, the Head of the Charles. The team has medaled in every regatta in which they have ever participated, despite their lack of resources.
Joseph Berger, who serves as an assistant head coach and the men’s varsity coach, is credited with reviving Charleston’s crew team. A 2013 graduate of the College, Berger came aboard in 2010 and took the team to the next level, winning event after event and dedicating his time and energy to the sport. He was so passionate about Charleston crew that he immediately came back after graduation to coach.
Despite all of the time, effort and money that crew demands, Charleston rowers only have positive things to say about their experiences on the team. “One of the things I love most about the team is that we make the best out of every situation and hardship we face, and we’re a stronger team because of it. Crew is one of the most challenging, but rewarding sports and it completely consumes you. I’m constantly asked why I wake up so early, workout twice a day, and put in countless hours on the erg while everyone is going out. Is it all worth it? I always answer ‘yes, absolutely’,” varsity captain Morgan Wright said.
The Charleston crew team is quickly and quietly entering the national rowing scene. They are expected to do well at this year’s American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) national championship, the premier collegiate crew event of the year, against the top schools in the country who are better funded, more widely recognized and have the latest equipment.
The College has always performed well at ACRA, but this year, coming off their first regatta win, Charleston will be a force to be reckoned with.
The dedication and passion that these rowers develop for a sport that gets so little recognition is what drives them to succeed and has led them to great success.
“There is something about being out there on the water, winning a race, and letting adrenaline take over that you can’t really describe; it’s just such an exhilarating feeling,” Wright said.