Twenty-eight years ago someone mentioned to Charlie Butt that students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington wanted to start a rowing team but had no qualified coaches. Butt looked into it, figuring he might attract a few recruits for the Potomac Boat Club crew of which he was a member.
He's been coaching at W-L ever since and has become a guiding force in area competitive rowing.
Butt recalled that at the first meeting at W-L, "110 kids showed up. A lot of them went to the meeting just to get out of class." At a second meeting, after Butt outlined a few training rules and regulations, 30 students turned out, most of them without any rowing experience.
"We lost our first race - to George Washington High School, which had had a team for a couple of years - and we won all the rest," Butt said.
Butt coached that 1949 team to a national championship. His crews have repeated that feat 11 times since then, including eight consecutive national titles from 1957 to 1964 and 1969, a year W-L did not win the national title. Butt coached his teams to world championships by winning the Henley Regatta in England.
Declining enrollment at W-L and improved competition locally from T. C. Williams, Stuart, Fort Hunt and Yorktown teams have curtailed Butt's success somewhat in recent years. The W-L team hasn't won a national title since 1966.
"It's a great sport involving rigorous training and providing an excellent team experience," said Butt, 57, who rowed for Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1938 to 1941. "When an '8' (a shell with eight oarsmen and a coxswain) really gets going, it feels a lot like flying. Crew provides an avenue for people who don't want to participate in other sports."
Butt laments that "there aren't many jocks - football player types" on this year's team, comprised of 48 boys and 37 girls who compete on various levels from beginner through advanced. Size and strength are often advantageous in a crew as in other sports, but staminia and desire are equally important, he said.
"Frankly, if a football player compared the work we do on a regular basis with what he's used to he'd probably poop out." Butt said. "The level of effort in crew is very difficult."
Daily after-school workouts for W-L begin at 3 o'clock at the Potomac Boat Club. By 5 'clock, team members will have run three miles and rowed seven miles.
The grueling workouts are necessary, Butt said, because the one-mile races crews row in meets demand roughly four minutes and 50 seconds of total exertion.
"When you're in a race, you're in it for the duration," he said. "There aren't any timeouts like in other sports. You put out completely all the way."
Butt's contributions to crew aren't limited to coaching W-L. He has been a catalyst in a drive to raise about $25,000 for development of a rowing facility at Occoquan that would give more schools the opportunity to participate in crew. To date, more than $15,000 has been collected from various groups.
The Occoquan facility will consist of a 40-by-80-foot boathouse, a launch ramp, a launch float and a buoyed race course.
"When Occoquan is completed," Butt said, "a lot more schools will be able to compete. It's sport that will continue to grow."