Ready to row: Keeping pace with the pull to stay fit

Members of the Rivanna Rowing Club tout both the physical and mental aspects of the sport. Photo by Ron Paris Members of the Rivanna Rowing Club tout both the physical and mental aspects of the sport. Photo by Ron Paris

Imagine a fitness regimen that combines the fresh air of running with the low impact of swimming. A form of recreation that can be social or solo, casual or competitive, for ages 13 to 103. Housed close to the center of town yet away from traffic or hubbub, the sport requires no prior experience or special equipment of one’s own, yet provides a total body workout like no other.

Welcome to the Rivanna Rowing Club.

While many people are familiar with ergs, the rowing machines situated among treadmills and stationary bikes in their fitness clubs, few realize that rowing on the water is a viable option in Charlottesville. Indeed, Albemarle County is the only area in central Virginia that has a public outdoor rowing club, open to experienced adults as well as juniors and beginners. Five miles of calm water on the Rivanna Reservoir, accessible just off Earlysville Road, provides an ideal venue.

Learn to Row Open House
Sessions at 9 or 11am Saturday, May 13
Meet at the rowing boathouse, 276 Woodlands Rd.
Open to ages 13 and up. Free; no registration required.
More info at

Mary Maher, boathouse captain, is in her 23rd season with the club. She remembers returning from a rafting trip in Colorado and wanting to reconnect with the water here at home. She noticed an ad in C-VILLE Weekly for the Learn to Row program at the Rivanna Rowing Club, took a class and was hooked. These days, all sorts of folks try it out.

“Some people drive across the bridge over the Rivanna and see the boats below and think it looks peaceful,” says Maher. “Others just like to be on the water in a boat, any way they can. We get a lot of burnt-out runners who’d like to try something different. It’s the perfect sport for those who are physically fit and willing to train, but it’s not that hard on the joints.”

Rowing is a total body activity that tones your arms, legs, chest, back and abs. Though most observers assume the arms are doing most of the work, power comes from the legs, driving the body forward and back on a sliding seat as the oars pull through the water. While the training provides rigorous cardiovascular exercise, stabilizes the core and improves joint health, rowing advocates find the intangible benefits just as compelling.

Melanie Dick, 33, picked up the sport last summer and appreciates both the physical and mental aspects of rowing. “It’s very challenging,” she says. “There’s so much to focus on—your pace, your breathing, your hands—that you can’t think about other things like work deadlines or bills. It’s a rhythmic sport, very meditative, because for that hour or so you’re only thinking about rowing.”

Adding to the mystique, a time-honored lingo peppers the speech of rowers. “Weigh enough” is a command to stop rowing (as is “let it run”). You don’t want to “catch a crab” (get an oar caught in the water) or be the “anchor” in the boat (slow everybody down). Rowers enjoy the social camaraderie of the pastime whether they intend to relax or race, and most admit to a near-obsession with the quest to perfect their stroke. They are continually in pursuit of an elusive sensation: the “swing” of a boat in precise harmonic balance.

John Wray, captain of the Albemarle High School men’s rowing team, says it’s the kind of activity that gets in your head. “After you row a hard piece and put the boats up, even though you’re exhausted, all you can think about is going out again,” he says. “When you do it right, it just feels good.”

And feeling good, after all, is the whole idea.

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