At dawn on the last Friday of the year there were just a few ripples in the waters off Owen Park in Vineyard Haven. The temperature hovered in the low 40s as the morning sun first peeked out from behind the treetops on the banks of the Lagoon.

Just then six women rowing a thirty-two-foot Cornish pilot gig appeared from behind the harbor jetty. They had just finished their morning workout, rowing the gig Grace between East and West Chops, and were headed for shore.

“Winter rowing is awesome,” Jude Villa said after landing the boat. “The majority of the time the water is like glass. It’s an amazing experience, a spiritual experience, to really be part of the elements.”

oars morning harbor
Oars drawn at dawn. — Ivy Ashe

Ms. Villa has been rowing for six years, at least three times a week in the summer, and a couple of times a week during winter, and is chairperson of the rowing committee (for Row MV of Sail MV). She often acts as cox, the person who stands in the stern steering the boat and calling out commands to the rowers. If someone “catches a crab” (their oar goes in too deep), the cox needs to call out quickly for the rower to lift the oar straight up, otherwise the boat’s momentum could break the pins that hold the oar in place. Ms. Villa thinks everyone should take a turn as cox because it gives one a good sense of how the boat operates, and the importance of rowing technique. The only problem with being the cox is missing out on the vigorous exercise.

Being active is clearly a part of the thrill of the gig experience.

“It’s the most unbelievable form of exercise,” said Marilyn Wortman, Edgartown’s Human Resources Coordinator. “If I don’t want to get up in the morning, but I go rowing, afterwards I feel fabulous. It starts the day a whole new way.“ Ms. Wortman is seventy years old, and has been rowing for about five years.

Wendy Gray has been rowing since Grace was launched in 2005. She started a kids’ rowing team that took the gigs to races on Lake Champlain, and is now offering a rowing class through The Charter School where she works as a learning facilitator.

boat beach harbor sunrise morning
Pulling in the gig Grace for the morning run. — Ivy Ashe

“Rowing is an equalizer of people,” she said. “It’s not just for joiners or big sports types. It’s a sit-down sport that everyone can do. Balance is not an issue.”

With the long oars, twelve to thirteen feet in length, and five or six people rowing at a time, teamwork is especially important, not to mention a great motivator. “I’m such a lazy exerciser, Ms. Gray admitted. “This makes you show up. You know they’re waiting for you.”

“Everyone is dedicated and devoted, you’ve got to really love it to show up in the morning when it’s 20º,” Ms. Villa added.

In the winter the women dress in layers and sometimes strip down to a T-shirt once they’re warmed up. They all wear Bogs, insulated rubber boots that let them step into the freezing cold water while launching the gig. Sail MV, which owns the gigs and oversees the rowing program, enforces a 20/20 rule: If the temperature is lower than 20º or the wind is blowing more than 20 mph, the rowers don’t go out. Otherwise, they’re out in all weather. When the water temperature is below 52º they carry a blowup lifeboat. Melinda Loberg, rower and president of Tisbury Waterways Incorporated, lends space for equipment and mooring off the beach for Grace. A second gig, Cassie, is out of the water for maintenance, being worked on by Brock Callen of Sail MV.

The creation of Grace and Cassie is the result of a dedicated and varied group of people. The gigs were built by Vineyard Voyagers, which was started by Malcolm Boyd in the early 1990s to take high schoolers on expeditions. The program was revived in 2000 by Malcolm and Sidney Morris as a nonprofit with the mission to “give young people a significant encounter with the sea.” Myles Thurlow, at age 18, designed and built their first boat, Mabel, a twenty-eight-foot, ketch-rigged open boat.

Later, in 2004, Vineyard Voyagers raised more money and Grace and Cassie began their life in a space donated by the Five Corners Shipyard. Over the next couple of years under the volunteer direction of Ross Gannon, Nat Benjamin, and Myles Thurlow about fifty people helped to loft, frame, plank, rivet, sand, and paint the boats. Grace was finished first, after being moved to the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, and launched in 2005. She was named after the stalwart Nantucket member of the SSA board of governors, Grace Grossman. Cassie, named after the Vineyard’s SSA representative, Kathryn Roessel, was launched in 2006.

When the rowing program started there were about 60 men and women involved. Now there are 40 or 50 rowers, mostly women, carrying on a maritime tradition, and experiencing a connection with the ocean often missed, even living on an island.

“Before I started rowing, I was never on the water,” said Ms. Gray. “On the Island you’re near the water, but now I’m out on it three or four times a week.”

Like people who walk the same path every day and watch the endless small changes of weather and season, the rowers ply the same waters daily. On the last Friday of the year, as the rowers headed back to their cars, Janet Woodcock remarked, “Someone asked me, ‘Isn’t it boring rowing the same place every day?’ I said ‘Every day is totally different!’”

The other rowers all agreed.


New rowers are always welcome. Contact Sail MV at 508-696-7644 for more information.