Photo courtesy of SoonerSports.com
It felt almost normal, like before the pandemic. The San Diego Crew Classic (SDCC) was back with in-person racing after three years. The event's tagline is "The rowing season starts here". This year the Crew Classic was more than just the first big spring regatta. It was a bellwether of the return to rowing and regattas while things are still not quite normal.
NK Sports was there. Charlie Biddle, Sales Manager, was in his usual spot in the vendor area. Alix James, CEO of NK, was racing. And, of course, many boats relied upon NK Sports instruments to race and sometimes win. We've got the buzz on what happened behind the scenes, some fun insights plus topics that competitive rowers should stay alert to.
San Diego Crew Classic –Regatta like Normal
Just before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Crew Classic, there were 413 entries registered. This year, there were 392. Bobbi Smith, SDCC's Executive Director, estimates the crowd at about 16,000 people, typical of past years. A packed schedule saw racing start at 7:15 am and go until 5:45 pm on Saturday, with a slightly shorter duration on Sunday. Flags were flying on the tents at Alumni Row, the Classic Brunch by the Bay was humming, and yes, beverages were enjoyed in the Beer Garden.
"The feedback has been really positive," says Bobbi. "The Omicron surge limited participation by international crews. We missed having East Coast men's university crews attend, although there was excellent participation by women's collegiate crews."
With a focus on improving the user experience, duel-style racing with just two crews competing was replaced by a full field for prestigious Cup finals. Masters' races were scheduled in the morning when wind conditions were better. In step with USRowing changes, age group racing was added, lightweight rowing was dropped and weigh-ins for youth coxswains were eliminated. SDCC went a step further. There were no weigh-ins for all age groups. For the youth crews which have not raced before or for several years, this may not seem significant. But it was huge for the Crew Classic organizers, reducing a major source of stress and complication for volunteers, coaches, athletes, and timers.
It has been a few years since Alix James, NK CEO, rowed the Crew Classic. She raced there while in college and training for a seat on the national team. After a break from rowing for some time, Alix came back to rowing and racing, competing with Vesper Boat Club and this year the newly formed Endeavor Racing Alliance. The course, the grounds and the vibe all felt very familiar. It really felt good to be back in the sun and warmth of San Diego.
NK CEO Alix James
While Alix's rowing story is not uncommon, what she was doing at the San Diego Crew Classic was unique. She must have been the only athlete with two SpeedCoaches running while she stroked two eights to victory. It was all part of NK Sport's fixation on continuous improvements, testing and data. Faced with supply chain challenges, the company has started using a different part. With so little rowing occurring during the pandemic, the Crew Classic was an excellent opportunity to test in situ. Like all Masters, Alix just wants the equipment to work well. It did.
Charlie Biddle had his eye on the racing from the vendor area. He thought that it was robust, especially at the Junior level. University of Texas women dominated their events, while the University of Southern California is clearly rising. "They have really gotten their feet under themselves," notes Charlie. Most of his time, he is chatting with customers, sometimes facilitating repairs, sometimes suggesting what might improve times, and sometimes just catching up. "It is especially exciting to see people who are early adopters of our equipment. We really appreciate their confidence in us, and we get excellent feedback for future improvements."
The Raggedy Blazer and Other Unusual Highlights
Perhaps the most charming photo from the regatta was of ASR Nereus coxswain Abe Bosma from the Netherlands holding the massive Copley Cup. Even more striking than his smile was the torn and ratty blazer he was sporting. In the Netherlands, you do not purchase a rowing blazer but rather, you must be gifted one. Abe's was particularly precious since it was 100 years old and had been lost for many years, only recently found. Rumor has it that blazers can only be washed after winning a national championship.
Blazers were not the only things lost and then found. London Rowing Club was victorious in 2019 for the Men's Masters D Founders Trophy. However, it was not clear where the cup was three years later. Ultimately it was tracked down to the Long Beach Rowing Association and returned in time to be won this year by an unaffiliated Canadian boat. The London crew opted not to go to San Diego to defend their title due to Covid concerns, but like many, is already looking forward to 2023.
The pandemic caused an entirely different problem. Setting the course usually takes two hours. This year, it took two days and many people's efforts, especially divers. There are 84 buoys along the exterior of the course running along lanes 1 and 8. They are connected to 300 lb permanent concrete anchors. Mission Bay is tidal, with silt rapidly covering the clay bottom. After several years without setting the course, the line that connects the anchors was lost. Normally a diver would be able to find the first anchor and then follow the line to the next one, and so on. Unfortunately, the lines were so buried this wasn't possible this year, and each anchor had to be found individually.
Yet another surprise challenged the regatta organizers. After two years of Zoom meetings, we take internet access and live streaming for granted. The regatta site was supposed to be part of an upgrade to 5G. Except it wasn't. The site had been overlooked, causing the SDCC to scramble to get a working solution running before Saturday morning. The sign of a great regatta is when no one realizes the level of effort required to make everything look easy and the race flow smoothly.
A great regatta might also be measured by the number of course records set. By that standard, the 2022 San Diego Crew Classic was remarkable. But wait. Remember that this was the first year of age group racing. After just one year of racing, whatever time is set is de facto a course record, no matter how slow or fast. Let's see what happens next year and the year after.
Hot Topic – Watch the Money
Rising travel costs may have been a factor in some collegiate crews not participating this year. Driving a trailer and flying a full rowing team with coaches and support staff across the country is much more expensive now. Regatta organizations are struggling after multiple years of reduced income and are facing their own inflationary pressures. Did you know that the price to rent port-a-potties has jumped dramatically during the pandemic? Rising costs put pressure on regatta vendors such as NK Sports. But Alix and Charlie plan to be back at the San Diego Crew Classic next year. The racing is just too much fun for Alix to pass up. As Charlie puts it, "There are people I need to see, customers I want to talk to. We can't miss any more years. Regattas are back, and so are we."