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Ledyard Rowing teaching teamwork and leadership for all ages

Gales Ferry — Members of the Ledyard Rowing program regularly encounter a variety of birds and fish during their sessions in Poquetanuck Cove and the Thames River, but Thursday's seal sighting was a first for the club.

Spotted by Carly Paterson and Bernice Sylvestre from their two-seater rowing shell, the seal was by the railroad bridge at the edge of the cove. Rowers in the program's two 25-foot gigs made their way toward the bridge, lifting their oars when they got close to "let it run" and not startle the animal.

After a snack break, during which rowers swapped cookies, gummies and seal puns across the sides of their boats, they raced inland to the Route 12 bridge, counting out strokes to stay in time.

The communication is one of the things coach Russell Smith said he likes about rowing, as the sport brings people together without their electronics and forces them to work together toward a common goal.

"They have to talk to each other to get the boat to move," he said. "It builds leadership, makes the shy kids more confident. It's a good sport."

Smith said he was 5 when his uncle taught him to row. He has coached and competed regionally, and he started Ledyard Rowing with a youth program through the town's Parks and Recreation Department around 2008. At the time, he lived further inland in Ledyard and had to transport the boats every session. In the early days of the program, he started rowers at Highland Lake, progressing up to Long Pond before taking them out to the Thames through the Yale boat launch.

Today, the program is run out of Poquetanuck Cove, and Smith stores and launches the boats from his Gales Ferry property's water frontage. While he's taught both rowing and crew over the years, he said crew boats are much harder to store and maintain because of their length, and they can't handle rough waters.

"Last Wednesday, we had the kids out in foot-and-a-half waves in the Thames River because I had enough confidence in them," he said. "They've rowed enough that we rowed right over to Montville in foot-and-a-half waves at low tide, and you can't do that in a rowing shell."

The kids, ages 12 to 18, train on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings after the women's group, and the co-ed adult group trains on Thursday evenings, though some of the kids also joined this week's Thursday session. The program runs during the spring and fall.

A former employee of both the Mystic Seaport Museum and Project Oceanology, Smith said he likes to make the sessions educational, pointing out the area wildlife and geology during their sessions. After the race to the Route 12 bridge Thursday, he told one team about a former casino and speakeasy once located in the adjacent Happyland section of Preston during Prohibition.

He also runs a boat maintenance class through Parks and Recreation in the winter, training community members on how to take care of marine vessels while they practice on the rowing program's boats.

This year's spring rowing session was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Smith decided to run a special summer session to make up for it. Parks and Recreation Director Scott Johnson said the rowing program was the first in the department to reopen.

Smith "basically led the way for us starting our programs back up. Because it's a sport, the guidelines have a little bit more leeway as opposed to an indoor class where there's more cleaning and requirements for spacing," he said. "Plus it's small groups, so you're able to keep the same few people in the same boat each week as far as cohorting."

Johnson said Smith does a lot of his own promotion of the program through posting on social media and hosting open houses, allowing people to try the program for a day before committing. During non-pandemic times, he also coordinates with the schools to include the boat launch as an approved bus stop so students in the youth program don't have to worry about getting rides after school.

Eric Cooper, who joined the program six or seven sessions ago, said he initially found out about it through the quarterly Parks and Recreation brochure. On Thursday, he sat in the stroke seat, which is the rower who sets the pace, and throughout the session he talked with his fellow rowers and coxswain Darlene Williams to keep that pace.

"I love outdoor stuff anyway, I like exercise, nature and the peacefulness of being out on the water all together," he said, adding that he likes being able to kick up his feet during their snack break and just enjoy being in the boat.

Some of the rowers, including Williams, Sylvestre, Paterson and her mother, Carol, who sat in the front mid-oar seat behind Cooper, have traveled with Smith to races in Hull, Mass. The Hull Lifesaving Museum offers its own rowing programs as well as the Snow Row, normally held in March but canceled this year due to the pandemic, the Head of the Weir River Race in October, and the Icebreaker in November. 

"It's very chaotic and fun," Carol Paterson said. "For the Snow Row, when you win, they give you a clam shell ... and they put it on a necklace so it's like a medal."

"It's fun to put everything that you do in practice into a race. It's finally like we can be competitive and actually go for it, whereas this is more just fun to do," Carly Paterson said. "When everyone finally rows together and you can hear the bubbles under the boat and it's all in sync, there's no better feeling."

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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