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Tampa a winter paradise for paddlers

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:13 AM
TAMPA -

Rowing has been a part of Tampa since Jose Gaspar's mythical pirates came ashore to sack the city.

Nowadays, rowers in sculls no wider than the trunk of a palm tree slice through the tea-colored Hillsborough River near downtown, leaving only the sound of oars dipping in water and an arrow-like wake.

Rowing is the over water, underground sport in Tampa. Little by little, it's catching on with the city's young people, who share the river with rowers from northern colleges and prep schools who come here when rivers in their cities are frozen sheets of ice.

Often, the rowers come and go without fanfare, leaving only a splash of colorful college graffiti on downtown sea walls — a signature, of sorts.

"The secret is getting out a little bit," said Tom Feaster, president of the Stewards Foundation, which advocates for the sport, offers opportunities for underprivileged Tampa youths to participate and coordinates a couple of annual rowing regattas.

Tampa has several competitions involving boats, paddles and oars, including dragon boat races and a couple of competitive rowing events — one of which takes place this weekend.

The Roosevelt Rowing Regatta is named for Teddy Roosevelt, who stayed in Tampa more than a century ago before embarking on a Rough Riders raid in Cuba. The regatta hosts college, high school and middle school competitions in several classes.

"We want to showcase the sport," Feaster said. Spectators on Saturday and Sunday can watch the competition from Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park for free.

The upcoming regatta explains the increase in river traffic this week as razor-thin and feather-light shells silently traverse the lower reaches of the Hillsborough River.

The river, which was home to Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War, seems to be cozying up to the shells. The University of Tampa first put a team on the water 72 years ago. Though the school discontinued the men's rowing team in the 1980s, a Spartan women's team still competes.

Feaster, who also is a director with the United States Rowing Association, said the sport is as much a part of the Tampa tapestry as rolling cigars and make-believe pirates.

"We tracked rowing back to 1941," Feaster said. That's when Jim Nesworthy, then the rowing coach at Boston University, came to Tampa to help start the rowing team at the University of Tampa.

"They stored the boats on the veranda of what is now the Plant Museum," said Feaster, who has been rowing competitively since the 1960s. He coached the Spartan rowers from 1975 to 1979.

During the past few decades, word of Tampa's weather and abundance of waterways got out. Feaster said that between January and April, when the competitive rowing season begins, some 1,500 rowers will dip their oars here.

They share the water with several local high school teams and area rowing clubs, not to mention the program set up by the foundation that teaches local teens to row. Feaster said last year 20 young people enrolled in the program; this year, 80.

This week, they practice alongside scores of out-of-town scull riders, he said.

"There are a lot of people rowing right now," he said. "Tampa has got such great water."

The economic impact is considerable, he said. One downtown hotel housing the visiting rowers competing in the regatta this weekend will make more than $300,000, Feaster said.

The epicenter for the rowers is the Stewards Foundation training center at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. Rowers from Georgetown, Michigan, Indiana and George Washington University are training in Tampa this week and will participate in the regatta. Prep high schools from Connecticut and western Massachusetts also are in town, Feaster said.

It's the kind of tourism that the city should court, he said. "We are utilizing the water in an environmentally friendly way," he said.

Rowers were at the park's boathouse at 8 a.m. Thursday, peering up and down the river through the fog. But after they warmed up and got their 60-foot-long boats — with names like Tenacity and Revolution and General of the Potomac — into the water, the fog had lifted. From there, they turned either left or right, heading upriver or into Hillsborough Bay.

The water was calm and unfrozen. The weather: perfect.

"It's 9 degrees," said Conny Kirsch, a 34-year-old assistant coach for Indiana University, talking about the weather in Bloomington, Ind. She said her team, consisting of dozens of rowers and a handful of coaches, has come here every January for the past decade, maybe more.

Kirsch, from Germany, has rowed all over the United States and Europe. She said the conditions in Tampa this time of year are perfect for training.

"The water here is good," she said. "And it's an easy trip for us. Flying here is easy. The hotels are nearby."

Brad Stevens, 26, came here and stayed. He rowed competitively for the University of Albany in New York and now is a coach for the Stewards Foundation. He rowed in New York City and upstate, he said, and much prefers training on Tampa's waterways.

"In New York, the water is always choppy," he said. "Here, the water is perfect, every day." He coaches rowers who go out rain or shine, he said.

"The only thing that will stop us," he said, "is lightning."

Most commuters who pass over the bridges into downtown Tampa don't realize the popularity of the sport, catching only glimpses of sculls in the water beneath them. For many, the only hint that visiting rowers were here is the graffiti splashed on the bridge supports announcing that such-and-such university was here.

Under an agreement with the city, the Stewards Foundation monitors and removes graffiti on bridges along the Hillsborough River, primarily on the Kennedy Boulevard bridge but also the Brorein Street and Laurel Street bridges. They all got fresh coats of white paint last summer in preparation for the Republican National Convention. The city, in part because it has no maintenance responsibility for them, does not monitor graffiti on sea walls along the river.

Among all the collegians and high school rowers this week was 67-year-old Ken Parker, a Tampa businessman who rows maybe three mornings a week before going to work.

He's been into the sport for 26 years now.

"When my knees said I couldn't run anymore," he said, "I had to find something else."

There is nothing quite like rowing the Hillsborough River at sunrise, he said. "In my opinion, these waters are the best in the nation. The river is not fast moving and always calm. You can go 8 miles up river or 8 miles around Davis Islands."

Out-of-town rowers are discovering the region, he said. Recently, a group of French tourists came to town and rented sculls from the foundation.

"This," Parker said, "is the place to row."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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