Despite Weather, Rowers Welcome Sport

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
2 October 2011
By Timothy McNulty

Dismal rain and cold made it a lousy day to watch the 25th anniversary Head of the Ohio Regatta, but the rowers welcomed the way rain flattens choppy river water.

Saturday's race -- one of the biggest single-day rowing competitions in the country -- was also memorable for reversing its traditional course. Instead of finishing at the Point, the races started there and ended 21/2 miles away by the headquarters of the Three Rivers Rowing Association on Washington's Landing.

When the races began back in 1987, the North Side riverfront was a wasteland, and rowing fans had the whole area to themselves.

Not so anymore: Due to conflicts with home Pitt football dates, finding surface parking for 80 unwieldy boats and trailers, construction of Stage AE and North Shore hotels, and strict rules for using Point State Park, organizers decided to move upriver.

"It's a blessing to have that riverfront development, but it's a mixed one," said Lee Kulinna, the coach for Carnegie Mellon University's crew team and a longtime city rower.

The Pittsburgh race has established itself as a premier East Coast event, three weeks ahead of the internationally known Head of the Charles in Boston or the Halloween-weekend Head of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. The fall races (among small boats carrying one rower to large ones holding eight) are decided by the fastest times, rather than head-to-head competition.

The famous Boston race is known for its narrow course, giving prominent roles to the coxswains, who steer boats.

The Allegheny River course is broader and affords rowers and spectators nice views of Downtown.

"It's one of the most picturesque cityscapes in the country," said chief referee Lloyd McDonald of Scottsdale, Ariz., and formerly of Mt. Lebanon. "Sometimes when you're on the water in the middle of nowhere it's boring. [Pittsburgh's skyline] adds to the experience."

Race organizers looked at holding it on the South Side -- or even closing down the 10th Street Bypass for the day -- but went with the Washington's Landing finish line to preserve its longtime course between the Ft. Duquesne and 40th Street bridges, which usually attracts curious onlookers.

The race "brings a lot to Pittsburgh," race director Rick Brown said. "You don't need to know a lot about rowing -- it's just neat to look at."

Some spectators grumbled about the new finish line, which could not be seen from the rowing association offices, and required many rowers and their families to park across the river in the Strip District. Of course, rowers can be a cranky lot, as anyone subject to grueling 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. practices would be.

"I call them 'morning prayer' and 'evening prayer,'" Mr. Kulinna said.

Conditions were not so much better at the former finish line on the North Shore. There, a few spectators idled under umbrellas while dodging 600 runners in the 5K "Lupus Loop" fund raiser, messy flocks of geese, and a Plum man with 35 dogs trying to set a Guinness dog-walking record.

The temperature reached a high of 50 degrees by 1:53 p.m., according to the National Weather Service, with rain accumulation of a third of an inch.

Ashley Suder, 23, of Wheeling, W.Va., was skating the 5K race with other members of the Ohio Valley Roller Girls.

Ms. Suder, a roller derby jammer who goes by the name of "Demolition Mortician," said the weather "was difficult, and I have lupus, so that only added to the excitement."