One early autumn afternoon, Ellen Ripper paused on the Key Bridge and stared down at the Potomac River, hypnotized by the rippled choreography of the Washington-Lee High School boys crew team.

Yearning for a rowing opportunity of her own, Ripper never forgot that Saturday spectacle, one that took her 40 years to experience herself.

"I saw the boats go by, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life," said Ripper, 57, recalling how she plopped on the riverbank for a closer look. "Just to hear the thunk of the oars and to see the symmetry. It was like watching a centipede, where everybody was in perfect unison. I never lost that dream that someday I wanted to try it."

Ripper, and many other older women whose schools did not offer rowing--and certainly not for girls--are making up for lost time in the Prince William Rowing Club, thanks to a twist on family tradition.

Competitive rowing is not a sport the parents are handing down to their children. It is a sport the children are handing up to their parents. Most of the 50 or so men and women in the Prince William Rowing Club joined after experiencing rowing through their sons or daughters or nieces or nephews.

"They row because their kids are rowing," Ripper said Monday before practice at the Lake Ridge Park Marina, the tree-lined Occoquan River in front of her shimmering with late afternoon sunlight. "A lot of the people who row with us, their kids have already graduated. They don't even have kids in the school anymore, but they just love the sport and stay with it.

"This means a lot at this stage of your life to be doing something like this. It takes hold of you. It becomes a passion," she added, her voice trailing off into an emphatic whisper.

Some adult rowers, like Ripper, advance well beyond the novice level and tap into determination and endurance they might not have realized they had. They not only are making up for lost time, but they also are making darn good time in the process.

A crew from the Prince William club set a women's Masters (27 and older) record last year at the Wye Island Regatta, a challenging 12-mile tidal water event 18 miles southeast of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The team finished in 1 hour 29.34 minutes, 6:26 faster than the previous record, set in 1996 by an Alexandria crew.

Ripper and teammates, encouraged by reaching the semifinals at a recent national competition, are entered in the women's four race at 10:15 this morning at the seventh annual Wye Island event. Each member of the boat discovered rowing through young relatives, except for Angela Kerby, 30, who turned mother and teammate Sandy Kerby, 56, on to the sport.

To the elder Kerby, inviting parents to row is like a salesman luring a prospective car buyer into a spiffy new model--once you get them behind the wheel, chances are you can close the deal.

"If you can just get them in the boat for a few times until they're comfortable, you got 'em," she said. "They're there for a lifetime."

The First Time

Sandy Kerby remembers the day Angela came home from Gar-Field High School with a newfound enthusiasm for rowing.

"Mom, I want to join crew."

"Excuse me?"

"I want to join crew."

"A crew of what?"

"No, Mom, it's crew. It's rowing."

Three weeks later, mother-of-five Kerby was drafted as team "go-fer." She soon started rowing in the coaches' "chase" boats and attending clinics. She filled in for absent boat members. Then she became an assistant coach and, now, head coach at Hylton High School. Angela Kerby is head coach at Robinson High School in Fairfax.

"Every opportunity I had to get in a boat, I got in a boat," Sandy Kerby said. "Now my life is crew. Eat, drink and sleep it."

Ripper tagged along with a sister and nephew to a Gar-Field crew parents day. It was then, at age 53, that she first began to fulfill the passion for rowing that had stirred in her four decades before.

Bev Furman, 50, another member of the women's four, became interested in the sport when her son rowed at Woodbridge High School. Coxswain Anne Jacques, 47, a five-year rowing competitor, had daughters who rowed at Fairfax County high schools. Jacques now coaches at Langley High School in McLean.

Just as parents benefit from their children introducing them to crew, their children benefit from parents experiencing the sport. As a rowing mother who became a coach and then a competitor, Sandy Kerby has seen it from all sides.

"When [parents] have that opportunity, they understand that this isn't an easy sport," she said. "It's very demanding. It tends to get them to loosen up a little bit in the spring when we have a really hard season and the kids go home and they're exhausted and still have homework. Mom and Dad know what it's about, and they kind of do those little things: I'll do the dishes, you go ahead and take care of your homework and go to bed."

Helping Hand

The Prince William adult rowers, who organized their club three years ago, are dependent upon the four Prince William high school programs, all of which share a boathouse at Lake Ridge Park Marina.

Ripper's team rents a boat--Crazy Horse--from Gar-Field. A Hylton father or Woodbridge father transports the boat to competitions. The adults work around the high school rowers' schedule, sometimes literally. At the boathouse Monday, the women had to wait for the students to hit the water before they could gain access to equipment.

And because the competitive high school season takes place in the spring, the adults do not have access to the boathouse from the end of the fall season until June.

The adults, who will race on the Occoquan on Oct. 17 and Nov. 6, would like to purchase their own equipment. But first they need somewhere to store it. Oxford House, serving Gar-Field, Hylton, Potomac and Woodbridge high schools, is stuffed, and there is talk of other high schools forming teams.

Colleges are on the lookout for female talent, however. More and more athletic departments are launching women's rowing teams to help equal the number of men's and women's athletes in their sports programs. Call it Tidal IX. The number of women's rowing team's has almost doubled the past six years to 120. Jacques has a daughter who earned a rowing scholarship to Jacksonville (Fla.) University.

That's great for women today--last spring Woodbridge High School had 47 female rowers in its freshman class alone--but the growth is about 30 years too late for Furman, Ripper and Sandy Kerby.

"In our generation, we didn't have the opportunity to compete at the level that our kids do now," Furman said, a point not lost on the others.

"I try not to [think about it] because it just makes you angry," said Ripper, a U.S. Rowing official. "I'll always wonder what I could have been. When you go to high schools and watch the regattas or go to the colleges and see the women who are rowing, they're amazing."

Heated Race

The Prince William Rowing Club has entered three Masters boats in today's Wye Island Regatta--a women's eight, a women's four and a men's four.

Like novice marathon runners, the Prince William women's eight crew that competed there for the first time last year made the trip with the sole intention of finishing. Not finishing first, or second, or third, just finishing the race, which involved about a half-dozen entries.

The women welcomed the overcast skies, moderate temperature and relatively flat water, but they knew there were many factors working against them. Besides their inexperience, the team was limited in its training regimen: The course around Wye Island is more than 12 miles, in varying water conditions. The Prince William team was accustomed to practicing at distances half that long, and doing so on the glassy calm of the Occoquan, not the choppier saltwater of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We didn't even know if we could do it because we'd never rowed that far in our lives," said Ripper, whose crew members--including Furman and Angela Kerby--varied in age from 30 to 56.

Not only did they do it, they did it in record time--despite being cut off by a crabbing boat and then nearly being hit by a men's boat ignoring right-of-way rules.

"Our oars almost hit," Furman said of the latter incident. "That really woke us up and pushed us."

Sandy Kerby, out with an injured back last year, and Jacques are the newcomers in the current women's four shell. The crew's secret weapon might be Jacques' magic elixir--the coffee she guzzles.

"I drink it from morning to night," the understandably perky Jacques said, gripping a mug the size of a small coffee pot. "It makes us go faster. I make them really hurry toward the end because I really need a Port-A-Potty."

"That's our incentive--to get Anne in to the bathroom," Sandy Kerby added with a laugh.

Jacques might have to hang on for a few extra minutes this morning. Regatta officials yesterday said wind and debris could be factors in the races. But it would take a lot more than that to discourage the Prince William women's four.

"There's not a person in this boat who doesn't just love what they're doing when they're out there," Sandy Kerby said. "And we always come in smiling, so I think we must be doing it right."