Lawrence Finn describes rowing as a beautiful choreography of arms and oars pulling in concert to move slender boats down a waterway. Today, those rowers are men and women in waterproof synthetics, rather than all male crews in striped wool, as were the members of Little Rock's first rowing club, the Boathouse.
It was 1882 when the Boathouse, a private affair at the foot of Main Street, launched its first race, and 1936 when it launched its last, deep-sixing the tradition of a Labor Day regatta on the Arkansas River. The Boathouse burned down — for a second time — in 1938 and there was little interest in rebuilding.
Now, 78 years later, the Arkansas Boathouse Club will bring back the tradition 21st century-style with the Six Bridges Regatta on Saturday, Aug. 30.
The Boathouse has swapped shores, from Little Rock to North Little Rock, and the boats in the regatta will no longer be named for debutantes as they were in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Other things are different too: Competitors may or may not indulge in moonshine two months before the races, though their antecedents had a rule not to, and not to smoke, either.
But the ABC expects the enthusiasm of the early days of river racing will repeat itself as crews from Wichita, Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Northwest and Central Arkansas and — and St. Louis, it's hoped — compete in the club's inaugural Labor Day races. The U.S. Rowing Federation-sanctioned event will include 5K head races in four categories — youth, collegiate, open and masters — that will start upriver near the Burns Park bluffs, where buoys and anchored pontoon boats will designate the starting line, and conclude at the Junction Bridge. (Boats will launch from the Boathouse dock between the Main Street and Junction bridges and row upriver to the starting point.) The club expects there will be five or six hours of racing, starting at 8:30 a.m., with 75 competitors from eight to 10 different clubs in about 30 different boats, including crew boats with a coxswain and sculling boats. The races are time trials ("much like the Tour de France," Finn explained) in which the boats race against the clock, not each other.
For those on land, there will be food trucks, hot-air balloon rides and a beer and wine garden under the Junction Bridge in North Little Rock, as well as the sight of boats headed down the Arkansas.
"It's such an amazing resource for rowing," Finn said. "Whenever we bring outside coaches they are amazed at the resource that we have and we recognized how underutilized it is."
Finn, who is competing in a scull with ABC member Ellen Sullivan, said a great way to watch the race would be from a bike, on the North Little Rock portion of the River Trail. "Just nip in at the Burns Park cliff and follow the boats." The Broadway, Main Street and Junction bridges will offer good views as well.
Formed in 2006, the Arkansas Boathouse Club has 25 active members and maybe twice that many nonrowing members. Club members launch from the clubhouse on Riverfront Drive — a former North Little Rock maintenance building — and also row on Lake Maumelle.
Though there is "a level of fitness that's required" to row, Finn said it's the ability to be mindful of balance, stroke counting and the movements of others in the boat that are crucial. "It's incredibly technical, akin to skiing on water or snow. When you're fighting the mountain or the water, you're expelling energy but losing the gracefulness that is the hard and soul of the sports. When you become comfortable with the technique ... it's not an arm-pulling workout. ... The choreography is exhilarating," Finn said. His partner, Sullivan, he said is a "much stronger" rower than he.
The last race of the day is hoped to restore what was a tradition of the old Boathouse: a sprint race between a Little Rock crew and a St. Louis crew. St. Louis whopped Little Rock in its first competition here, in six-oar barges, in 1923. Finn said an invitation from Gov. Mike Beebe to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to send a crew to compete for the Governor's Cup hasn't been answered; but then, Nixon has been busy lately.
Though the Arkansas River's reputation is that it can be dangerous, Finn said, "I haven't seen the Loch Ness monster yet." Use of the river — which Finn reminded a reporter is free — can "animate and change perspective" on the resource.
The regatta has gotten support from Little Rock, North Little Rock, state Parks and Tourism and individuals like Mike Coulson of Coulson Oil, who with his wife, Beth, is a member. So far, no slot machine is required to keep the lights on, unlike its predecessor in the 1930s. Finn said the boat club is already signing up teams for next year.