Twenty Years of Local Boat-building, Rowing, & Racing

Featured image for “Twenty Years of Local Boat-building, Rowing, & Racing”

With special commentary from LCMM rower and high school rowing coach Andrew Rainville.

For the past 20 years, Vermont Family Forests has partnered with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum on an transformational boat-building program for high school students, known at the Champlain Longboats Program. Every year, LCMM offers an alternative learning experience, in which students spend the entire spring semester working with master boat builder Nick Patch and other LCMM staff to build a 32-foot wooden pilot gig.

Every year since the project began in 2001, VFF executive director David Brynn has taken the students into the woods to see the big white pines that will be cut to supply high-quality wood needed for boat building. Twenty years into the project, LCMM now has a beautiful fleet of boats, and has launched a high-school rowing program that engages hundreds of area students each year, as well as a vibrant community rowing program. LCMM made a great short video about the Champlain Longboats program–take a look! 

A few of us from VFF participate in LCMM’s community rowing program, which includes racing with other teams throughout New England. One of our teammates, Andrew Rainville, wrote up the story of our final race of the season, the Head of the Weir, which took place in Hull, Massachusetts, in early November. Andrew rowed with the Mount Abraham High School in 9th-12th grades, then rowed for 4 years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and has been rowing with LCMM ever since, as well as coaching the Mount Abraham High School team. This is his 12th year on the water–nearly half his life!

Andrew’s story, below, will give you a taste of the exhilaration of rowing these graceful, rugged wooden boats made with wood from healthy, local forests. Come check out the LCMM community rowing program next spring!

Like Andrew, Emily Weber began rowing through the high school rowing program (Vergennes). She has been a coxswain for the community rowing and racing programs for many years. Here, she’s waiting for the 2021 Head of the Weir race to begin, in LCMM’s newest pilot gig, Rising Tide. Emily painted the beautiful rudder.

Racing at Head of the Weir

By Andrew Rainville

The fall classic of open water rowing, the Head of the Weir in Hull, MA,  returned in 2021 on November 6th with 44 crews (pilot gigs, workboats, liveries, ocean shells, and more) from around New England and New York competing. Vermont restrictions on school sports teams prevented any of the numerous youth crews from participating, so the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum was represented by just two six-oared gigs, both consisting of adult community rowers.

Together, the LCMM crews featured some of the Museum’s most tenured adult rowers alongside some of the newest. Among them, three alumni from the robust Vermont high school rowing program participated. LCMM’s newest pilot gig, Rising Tide, was rowed by the buffalo plaid-adorned crew of Mary Hennessy, Maria Cimonetti, Evelyn Hladik, Gretchen Richer, Shining Chang, and Becky D’Avignon, and coxed by Emily Weber (Vergennes ‘15). The boat was one of two entrants into the Amateur Pilot Gig division. The second LCMM pilot gig, Frank Beckett, was rowed by the blaze orange-capped crew of Andrew Rainville (Mt. Abraham ‘13), Tim Cowan, Tim Hodson, David Brynn, Aiden Lavigne (Mt. Abraham ‘21), and Sandra Murphy, and coxed by Ben Mayock. The boat was one of seven entrants into the Pro Pilot Gig division.

Andrew Rainville (far left) and the intrepid crew of the Frank Beckett, 2021 Snow Row.

Under sunny and calm skies, the teams launched Rising Tide and Frank Beckett at 10:30am from Steamboat Wharf, the nearest boat launch to the start line. From there, they rowed roughly two miles to the starting area, a rare but welcome warm-up for the 5.5-mile race that lay ahead. Upon arrival, the teams jockeyed for position in the congested river as all 44 crews arrived and prepared to begin. The start of the race is staggered – each crew is separated initially by 30 seconds. With bow numbers 34 (Frank Beckett) and 36 (Rising Tide), the Vermont crews had to wait just over 15 minutes after the first crew began at 1 o’clock.

At 1:16:30, the crew of Frank Beckett roared off the starting line, preceded by two crews from Dharma Voyage of Westport, MA. Within the first half-mile, the team had caught and passed the first Dharma boat (Bow 33) and, just a half-mile later, found the second Dharma boat (Bow 32) and passed them. Holding a pace of 34 strokes per minute for the majority of the race, the team methodically worked through a field of fours and a crew from Mass Bay who were rowing the LCMM-built gig Mad Martha. They reached the finish beach at Windmill Point with a time of 48:49, averaging just under nine minutes per mile.

At 1:17:30, Rising Tide’s crew began their push off the start line, following just a minute behind Frank Beckett. Separating the crews was a Hull Lifesaving Museum crew in LCMM-built Windrose (Bow 35). Rising Tide left their sole amateur pilot gig competitor (an HLM crew in Kittery, Bow 37) in their wake; Kittery would never catch up to Rising TideWindrose’s 30-second lead on Rising Tide gradually closed until, around the halfway mark, the LCMM crew pulled together a spirited power set to overtake. The crew would also pass a handful of other competitors in smaller boats before arriving at the beach with a time of 58:36, roughly 10.5 minutes per mile.

Rising Tide crew relaxes post-race, 2021 Snow Row.

In the final results, Rising Tide placed first in the Amateur Pilot Gig division and had the 24th fastest time of the event. Frank Beckett placed third in the Pro Pilot Gig division behind two crews from Belfast, ME, and had the 7th fastest time of the event.

D’Avignon, the bow seat in Rising Tide, had raced just twice previously. She said, “Both boats did amazing, and I can’t wait for the next race! I’m so proud and honored to be a part of such a great rowing community.”

Rainville, the stroke seat in Frank Beckett, has been rowing for over 12 years, including multiple Head of the Weir races. His take on the race echoed D’Avignon’s positive outlook, saying “We felt strong and confident leading up to race day. All that remained was to prove it on the course which we did in a big way. I’m looking forward to continuing this momentum with more strong practices and even better racing to come!”

With the 2021 racing season finished, the LCMM rowers will get their next racing opportunity in the 2022 season which starts with another Hull race – the 3.5-mile Snow Row in March.