The pure pleasure of rowing

by Toby Cooper

Sounder contributor

In 1997, Orcas high schooler Breona Gutschmidt decided she wanted to row. She had no boat, no money, no coach, and no plan. But she was a teenager with a dream, and that dream fed her passion, and Gutschmidt’s was the kind of passion that makes things happen.

Gutschmidt corralled her friends and infected them with her vision. Rowing will be fun, she told them. Maybe she spoke of Ivy League style, or Olympic glory. We do not know. But her words reached Mike Reid and Dave Roseberry, two islanders with open-water races under their belt, and before long Orcas Island Rowing was born.

Roseberry tells of humble beginnings. OIR secured its first boat through a Seattle-area restaurant owner who knew of an old shell slated to become a salad bar. Until they built the legacy boathouse in Moran State Park, team practices at Cascade Lake involved launching off a trailer that was pulled to and from Reid’s home.

Later, with the help of Eastsound’s Susan Aspinall, a former college, the youthful OIR team incorporated and recruited a coach.

“So many things came together,” Roseberry said. “People showed up. We won races with that salad bar boat. Orcas wanted a rowing club and nothing was going to stop it.”

Today, OIR runs a “junior program” for ages 13 to 18 — functionally a varsity program for the schools — plus popular on-shore fitness classes and on-water rowing for adults. Coach Tina Brown, whose resume includes rowing for Team USA at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and a stint of college coaching in Washington, DC., is a gifted mentor to all, but it’s a demanding volunteer role. Even she feels the limits after 20 years of juggling 6 a.m. practices, team travel, fundraising, newsletters, relations with the park, bookkeeping and more.

OIR suffered setbacks from two years of pandemic disruption followed by the ’21 floods which hammered the boathouse with the fury of a creek turned rogue. Assistant Coach Tom Ahearn took charge of the club’s rehab, reporting that Moran State Park “has been a genuine partner” in supporting the club’s return to normal.

Still, rowing on Orcas enjoys an almost cult-like following. “We’re learning the fine art of going backwards in skinny boats,” says Jennifer Mosley, 59, of Rosario. Fellow first-time rower Sara Lucia echoes, “The kids take ‘backwards’ for granted, but it’s unnerving at first.” Once they overcome the initial jitters, everyone seems to fall in love with the pure body pleasure of running the boat in silent swiftness on a glassy morning lake.

In testimony to its timelessness, OIR is a family affair — four Ziers, two Suttons, three Pietschs, even Roseberry’s son Tom, to name a few — all boosting the club’s beneficial community support. Best known is the raucous New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge with T-shirts for sale, and, in true Orcas style, a mayonnaise jar on the table for donations.

See OIR’s website for updates on reopening: http://orcasislandrowing.org/.