The second weekend in May finds Philadelphia playing host to the largest collegiate rowing event in the United States, the Dad Vail Regatta. Named for Harry Emerson “Dad” Vail, a famous college coach of yesteryear, the event has run continuously since 1934, with a respite for WWII. It attracts over 100 teams from the United States and Canada and for two days thousands of athletes battle other teams, the weather, and the Schuylkill River itself. The two-kilometer course bends under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and follows the Kelly Drive through Fairmount Park, which is exceptional in both its natural beauty and its scale. The racers finish up in front of a newly refurbished grandstand area replete with food vendors, sponsor’s areas, and tents of all sizes and colors put up by the students and alumni of the various schools who are racing.
All in all, it is a very festive environment and a perfect place for couples or families to spend some quality time in a very pretty setting. The walk up the river from the Art Museum to the finish line is over two miles and will take you past the world famous Boathouse Row and to the makeshift “Rower’s Village.” This is where the teams prepare for the races and where the boats enter and exit the water. It is a beehive of activity and well worth a visit – but be alert to the teams moving the boats along the sidewalks as it is a lot easier for you to move out of the way then it is for them to change course to avoid you.
Since it is a bit of a hike up to the “Rower’s Village” and even farther to the start finish line, many people take advantage of one of the frequent, and free, shuttle busses. Open air and double-decker buses loop through the ball fields of Fairmount Park, where the remote parking lots are located, and then head south on Kelly Drive (one-way and closed to most traffic) with stops along the racecourse.
Once you get to the race area the level of intensity goes through the roof as the athletes prep themselves and their boats for the grueling competition ahead. The Dad Vail hosts 2, 4, and 8 person boats for both male and female contestants. The boats themselves appear to be simplistic slivers that are barely high enough to keep the water out (usually), but are, in reality, complex marvels of modern technology. These racing sculls (as the boats are known) utilize kevlar/carbonfiber skins sandwiched over nomex honeycombs and are often coated with the same epoxy resins that are used in the space program. If they sound expensive, that’s because they are. A 2-person competition scull will set you back $10,000 while an 8-person scull that will keep you competitive will go for $30,000 and up. Of course there are less expensive boats, but the problem is that there are also much more expensive boats. While the quality of the crew is paramount, the equipment does play a role, which puts well-funded programs at an advantage.
When you go to the event, you will see that the four and eight person boats actually have five or nine people in them respectively. The extra person is called the Coxswain (or Cox, for short) who is charged with steering the boat, making tactical decisions on the course, and providing encouragement to the crew. They also act as a human metronome, and using a microphone and speakers built into boat, will shout a cadence to keep the oar strokes in harmony. After listening to the commands and demands of the cox (who is “just sitting there” while the others row ever harder) it is easy to see why the cox is often thrown in the water to celebrate a victory and it is a wonder that they aren’t just tossed out somewhere along the course on a more frequent basis.
Events like the Dad Vail Regatta don’t just happen, but require an enormous amount of work. While the competitors are training all winter long to get in top physical condition, the organizers are working just as hard to make the event seem effortless and hassle-free. Over 160 races are run throughout the two-day event and that would seem to be the easy part! Transportation is provided, roads are closed and detours are routed, quality food vendors are selected, sanitation facilities set-up, police and emergency personnel needs are established and met, and then there is trash pick-up, parking, signage, volunteers, safety boats, judging, and a myriad of other issues that must be dealt with.
The reason we bring this up is two-fold. First, the organizers of the Dad Vail do a first-class job and, from what we understand, it is getting ever better. Our hats get tipped to these fine folks. Secondly, it costs a lot of money to put on a show like this. It may be free to the spectators but this event is anything but free with costs mentioned in the $500,000 range. Here we have to once again tip our hats, this time to Aberdeen Global Asset Management. With the event in serious jeopardy of leaving the state due to lack of funding, Aberdeen stepped in to provide primary sponsorship and kept the event in Philly.
The local economy owes Aberdeen, the City of Philadelphia, the Dad Vail Regatta Organizing Committee and a host of others a huge thank you for working to keep the race on the Schuylkill River. Not only will the banks of the river remain lined with spectators, but more than $16 million a year pours into local businesses as a result of this event. True treasures are rarely defined by their monetary worth alone and such is the case with the Dad Vail Regatta. It is an event well worth attending and we urge you to mark your calendars for next year’s races now.