Funny thing about our town: A river runs through it. Not just one river, actually, but two.
For decades Washington turned its back on its stinky rivers, but in recent years things have changed. As water quality improved because of sewage treatment upgrades, folks took up fishing, canoeing and sailing on the Potomac again and a few brave souls even made forays up the turbid Anacostia.
Yet an element that has remained largely missing is competitive rowing. A few recreational sculls and a handful of fours and eights venture out around Key Bridge, but with only two boathouses to store the slender craft, facilities aren't here to support the sort of rowing boom sweeping Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
Too bad. Rowing wasn't always our forgotten cousin. At the turn of the century, 11 boathouses graced the riverbanks, according to Kay Keeler, president of the Washington Rowing Association.
Recently Keeler's group hosted the nation's top rowing figures at the national convention of the U.S. Rowing Association at Georgetown University, and she had good news for the visitors. She reported strong moves afoot to restore rowing to prominence in the capital.
Happily, key players in the effort share a conviction that when new facilities pop up, as they could as early as this spring, they should serve inner-city Washingtonians as well as the well-heeled competitors more often associated with the sport.
One of Keeler's colleagues, ex-Cornell rower Bob Day, hopes to start rowing teams at Anacostia, Eastern, Ballou, Spingarn and other District high schools, as well as some junior highs. Day, who heads a nonprofit organization called OARS (Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling), wants to stage an annual public school regatta on the Anacostia and send the winners to the championships at Britain's revered Henley-on-Thames regatta.
"If Eastern High's choir can go to a competition in Vienna and win," said Day, "why shouldn't a D.C. crew win Henley?"
Day, Keeler and J.W. Lane Jr., a newcomer to recreational rowing who also has high aspirations for the sport here, are pursuing separate routes to a common goal -- establishing by next spring a public boathouse on the Anacostia in an old warehouse under the I-295 bridge. The building is owned by the National Park Service and used for storage by the D.C. Department of Public Works.
Keeler said the boathouse idea has the verbal blessing of the Park Service, which surveyed the rowing community two years ago and found need for two or three more facilities. Harry Thompson Boat Center near the Watergate, the city's only public boathouse, has a two-year wait for rack space, Keeler said, and the private Potomac Boat Club in Georgetown is "chock-a-block" with boats.
So keen is the space need, Keeler said, that the shells Virginia's Yorktown High School keeps at Thompson's get used four times a day in season -- once by Yorktown, twice by Capital Rowing Club and once by Catholic University.
"Washington is hamstrung," she said. "If you own a boat, there's no place to keep it except on top of your car." Meantime, three boathouses built on the Occoquan River by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority are doing a big trade.
Why the sudden interest in this tough sport? Simple, says Lane, who at 63 recently took up rowing and designed his own lightweight recreational boat on the lines of a Chesapeake crabbing skiff, but with sliding seat.
"Rowing has been identified as the perfect physical fitness activity," he said. When he learned that, it puzzled him why so few Washingtonians partook, particularly with an ideal river resource right here.
Lane did a little research and found the problem. "Look at our waterfront," he said. "From Georgetown to Hains Point there isn't anyplace you can get to the water without going over a fence and down a five-foot wall. If you can't get to the water in a small, affordable boat, it might as well not be there."
Lane's search for a solution led him up the Anacostia to an area the wall-builders haven't hit yet. But when he proposed that the Metropolitan Police and Coast Guard jointly oversee a rowing program there, he ran into resistance over water quality problems, particularly after storms when combined sanitary-storm sewers overflow into the river.
Lane's response is that the Metropolitan Council of Governments is leading a high-profile, multimillion-dollar regional cleanup of the Anacostia watershed, and it's time someone started realizing benefits.
Day, who just returned from a two-year tour with the Foreign Service in Yugoslavia, said, "I've rowed in a lot worse," most notably the Danube in Belgrade, which he said was a stinker.
In short, the pressure is on and if Lane, Keeler and Day have their way, next spring will mark the dawn of a new age of rowing in the District. Who knows, by the turn of the next century we could be all the way back up to 11 boathouses.
The Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling (OARS) meets Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. at Sumner School, 17th and M streets, NW. The public is welcome. For information, call Bob Day, 202-363-0422, or the Washington Rowing Association, 301-986-0495.