FALL RIVER — Waterfront development in Fall River is in full swing now, but not on the waterfront you might be thinking of.
For the past several years, the Watuppa Rowing Center has quietly made its home on the shores of the South Watuppa Pond off Jefferson Street, teaching young people and adults the sport of crew rowing on the pond’s smooth waters. On Oct. 31, the club made a big noise, hosting the Massachusetts Public School Rowing Association’s Fall Championship Regatta and welcoming hundreds of tourists to town.
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“What we originally thought was going to be 1,000 participants, after the regatta we guesstimate we had over 2,000 people," said Kim Smith, executive director of the United Way of Greater Fall River and a board member of the Watuppa Rowing Center who helped coordinate the regatta. “Unbelievable. It was epic. It was amazing.”
The regatta is the MPSRA’s major fall tournament, a daylong meet bringing together athletes from 18 schools statewide from Worcester County east to compete in 32 events including a 2.5-mile race. This year’s regatta was even more special, as it marked a return to competition for the athletes after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic.
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As buses of students and caravans of parents and support crews streamed down Jefferson Street toward the pond, Smith acted as triage, directing traffic and welcoming everyone to Fall River from schools like Hingham High School, Brookline High, Arlington-Belmont, and others. She was joined by Mike Labossiere, city forester with the Water Department, which owns the land on which the Watuppa Rowing Center sits. He said he’d stopped by the event as the club's “landlord” to keep an eye on his tenants’ party, but found himself caught up in the adventure.
“Cars were coming in from Connecticut and Rhode Island," Labossiere said. “Part of the excitement is you knew you were tapping into this culture. Just add water. They didn’t have massive advertising or anything. We just put out a welcome sign and these people just streamed into our town.”
South Watuppa Pond: Place of boats
Fall River isn’t exactly the type of place one thinks of when one pictures crew rowing. The sport — which involves rowers individually or in teams up to eight speeding along the water in long, thin boats called shells — has long been stereotyped as the sole domain of the Ivy League. You think of crew, and you imagine places like Harvard, Princeton, Yale.
Part of that elite reputation is because of the expense. Racing shells are pricey, with a 60-foot eight-person vessel costing tens of thousands of dollars. Liability insurance can be expensive, too, and Smith says the athletes need coaches who know what they’re doing.
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But rowing’s reputation can change, and it can become a part of Fall River’s culture. In fact, Fall River is perfectly suited for rowing, Smith said. The South Watuppa Pond is 1,500 acres of unobstructed water, 3 miles long and 1.5 miles at its widest. The pond is protected from high winds so, for the most part, the surface is peaceful. Even the name "Watuppa” is appropriate — in the Wampanoag language, it means “place of boats.” Anyone looking to hold a boating event couldn't do much better.
Rowing has been tried in Greater Fall River before. A venture called Watuppa Rowing Club opened in 2015, just over the city line in Westport on the South Watuppa Pond, by Boris Kusturic, a national rowing champion. Smith said that venture lasted a few seasons before closing. Today’s Watuppa Rowing Center opened in 2019, the brainchild of retired attorney Joe Mullaney, and was called the Bay Coast Rowing Center before changing its name.
“The pond lends itself beautifully to rowing," Smith said. “It doesn’t have any tidal waters or currents per se. … There are no bridges. There are no obstructions. It’s wide enough and long enough that we can live peacefully with other boaters and people that want to take advantage of the water and the resource that the Watuppa Pond provides. We’re right off the highway. It’s kind of ideal, honestly.”
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The Watuppa Rowing Center is a nonprofit, surviving on grants and donations in an effort to spread the love of rowing to Fall River — and for kids, it’s absolutely free.
“We've had tremendous support from our community, everyone from banks to the United Way to individuals supporting the programs,” Smith said. “And thus far, we’ve been able to offer the program free for our youth, and that’s age 13 to 19, or seventh grade to senior in high school.”
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The United States Rowing Association is aware of the sport’s highbrow reputation, and has offered support to Watuppa Rowing Center as part of an outreach effort to foster more diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport. They’ve received donated boats from Harvard.
“We are a two-time recipient of grants from the Head of the Charles/Philadelphia Gold Cup Foundation, which is promoting diversity in rowing and building capacity for startup programs like us who are in gateway communities, low-income communities where rowing isn’t a thing,” Smith said. “We’re really proud of that. We were one of seven rowing centers to be awarded that grant in the entire country.”
Smith became involved with the club when her daughter joined, now a high school senior. She spent time watching her and other kids pull together — learning how to get into the “swing,” when all the oarsmen are in perfect unison, cutting a smooth, beautiful line through the water — before taking lessons herself. Smith said it's given her daughter leadership skills, since she’s taken on volunteer duties as a teacher and coach.
About 80% of the kids who take classes at the club are from Fall River. As part of their training, they get an opportunity to do strength training and conditioning — both vital when racing a boat for miles through the water, but also beneficial for general health. Colleges offer scholarships for rowers, including girls, giving kids opportunities to further their educations at prestigious universities. And the students learn other things too.
“Rowing isn't just about being on the water and paddling a boat around,” Smith said. “It’s really about teamwork. You’re in that boat most of the time with seven other people. … The spirit of teamwork is apparent immediately.”
Rowers learn grit, to push themselves in propelling that shell through the water — and trust, since they’re facing backward and have to rely on their coxswain to steer them in the right direction and to set the rhythm.
“They also get to learn about the boats themselves, maintenance of the boats and putting the boats together,” Smith said. “It’s also about caring for the equipment and then being environmental stewards.”
Fall River departments pulling together as a team
Team spirit is infectious around the Watuppa Rowing Center. It wasn’t the first choice to host the MPSRA’s fall regatta, but picked up the event when another venue fell through. Smith said the club had less than two weeks to prepare for a sports event where hundreds of out-of-town kids would find themselves in the water. They needed help from the city — departments from public works to police and fire to the harbormaster.
“Not once did they say, ‘We can't do this,’” Smith said. “They only said, ‘How can we make this happen?’”
Smith said every city department that was involved pulled together and coordinated their efforts in the same direction — rowing in unison, one might say. A fire department dive team was on hand with a Zodiac boat for safety. EMS and police were there for support. Permits for the event were rushed through. Food trucks were on hand for the hundreds of parents, support crew and spectators.
“I cannot stress enough the incredible collaboration and teamwork and enthusiasm and positivity that we got from all the city departments,” Smith said. “[It] was a turning point for us and really kind of showcased that, jeez, if we can pull this off in 12 days, imagine what we could do if we had six months to plan.”
The result was a safe, well-populated event that impressed the MPSRA President Mark Grinberg and could lead to more events in Fall River's future.
“We were thrilled with Watuppa Pond, the Watuppa Rowing Center, and Fall River's ability to swoop in and save our organization's race at the last minute," Grinberg said. “We look forward to continuing to partner with the city of Fall River and the Watuppa Rowing Center to bring more safe, well-run, and exciting rowing events to Fall River.”
Labossiere, who stumbled into helping direct traffic at the event, said he came away from it with a new respect for what could be achievable, and what could draw tourists to Fall River. “This is an economic development thing,” he said. “We talk about it a lot for the waterfront, but this is up and rising fast.
“There’s two themes,” Labossiere said. “Hospitality. And the second is our environmental brand, which I really believe in. You start putting together all these things — the Bioreserve, the Quequechan Rail Trail, the Taunton River. We have an environmental and outdoors recreation brand that I think we undersell.”
“We’ve got our rhythm,” Smith said. “We’ve found our swing. We’re ready to hum on that water and find the zen.”
Dan Medeiros can be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Watuppa Rowing Center regatta sparks Fall River waterfront tourism