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Big water rowers race at Balmy Beach

Most rowers like their water flat, but not Samuel Lavoie.

Watching half-metre waves plow up Balmy Beach after the opening heat of Ontario’s first coastal rowing regatta, Lavoie was all smiles.

Steady wind promised even bigger surf for the 6 km final.

Rowers from the Club d'Aviron in Alma, Quebec, compete in a coastal-style, or open-water regatta at Balmy Beach on August 16. Hosted by Hanlan Boat Club, the regatta drew 45 rowers from three clubs and was the first sanctioned event of its kind in Ontario. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Rowers from the Club d'Aviron in Alma, Quebec, compete in a coastal-style, or open-water regatta at Balmy Beach on August 16. Hosted by Hanlan Boat Club, the regatta drew 45 rowers from three clubs and was the first sanctioned event of its kind in Ontario.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

“I came today because they said it would be really windy this afternoon, so hopefully it’s going to be crazy wavy,” said Lavoie, sounding more surfer than rower.

Given the right waves, coastal rowers can surf – their metre-wide boats sit higher and feel more stable than the sleek but tippy shells used for flat water racing.

Back home in Alma, Quebec, a lakeside town north of Quebec City, Lavoie and his team row on Lac Saint-Jean. On windy days, the shallow, 40-km lake gets short, choppy waves that make for good surfing – quick rowers can ride one for 10 to 15 strokes, Lavoie said.

But Lake Ontario is another story.

“Here, you don’t really have protected water,” he said, nodding at the open shore and sea-like swell.

Nick Matthews is president of the Hanlan Boat Club, which hosted the August 16 regatta at Balmy Beach. He said the club started getting coastal-style boats partly because flat water is hard to come by in Toronto’s Outer Harbour.

“Our recreational rowers really enjoy them because they can go out in any conditions,” he said. “The rougher the water, the more people enjoy it.”

Besides riding waves, coastal rowers also crash through them, which is why modern coastal boats are “self-bailing” – they open at the stern so any water that splashes in can channel out under the rowers’ feet when the bow rises.

“You get wet, but that’s part of the fun of it,” said Matthews. “As long as you’re rowing hard, you don’t get cold.”

Jean-Christophe Marly leads the coastal rowing program at Hanlan, which owns three doubles boats and a quad with a fifth seat for a cox.

Marly has been rowing for 35 years, but like most rowers in Canada, he is new to coastal rowing. While there is a long tradition of racing “Viking” and fishing-style rowboats in Canada, modern designs are mostly made in France.

“That’s where they started this crazy thing,” said Marly.

“It’s still cheaper to get the boats than trying to build a dyke,” he added, laughing. “That’s the philosophy – deal with what you have.”

Lavoie says coastal rowing is already growing at home – after the Alma club raced the new boats at the town’s summer festival, 40 new members came on board. The stable boats are popular with beginners, he said.

“It’s not hard to jump in, not like the little shells,” he said.

As for competitions, Lavoie hopes coastal rowing becomes an Olympic sport in 2020, so he can try out for Canada’s first national team.

“I want big wind, I want to see big water,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to cancel a regatta because of the wind.”

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