While Whatcom County hardly qualifies as a rowing hub, it certainly has the start-up goods: scenic venues, a climate for year-round activity, and hordes of can't-sit-still recreationists.
"Bellingham is blind to its potential in rowing," says Carlos Dinares, a native of Barcelona, Spain, who trains high-level oarsmen on Lake Samish. "It's like if you live in Tibet and don't hike."
The needed spark could come from two grass-roots clubs - the flat-water Whatcom Rowing Association, which started last year at Lake Whatcom, and the six-year-old New Whatcom Rowing, a smaller, informal group of open-water enthusiasts who play on Bellingham Bay and beyond.
Prospective rowers don't have to hunt far for local inspiration. They can draw from Dinares or Whatcom Rowing architect Bob Diehl, boat builder Ron Mueller, long-distance whiz Dale McKinnon, who in 2004 solo-rowed her wooden dory nearly 800 miles from Alaska to Bellingham, and the seven national champion women's crew teams from Western Washington University.
Prospects - whether two-oared scullers or single-oar sweep rowers - merely have to buy in and adopt a demanding sport that can be agonizingly repetitive and devoid of publicity. The advocates, though, are happy to sell their sport.
Dinares, who rowed in three world championships for Spain and has coached U.S. national team scullers: "Rowing's very addictive. If you like being outdoors and on the water, you're going to like it."
Mueller, who recently retired from selling open-water rowing shells and boat kits, but at 70 still rows more than 250 days a year: "Every day is different, and it just clears the mind. Totally encompassing, exhilarating."
Lindsay Mann-King, Whatcom Rowing's program director and a WWU assistant coach, on rowing in an eight-person shell: "There's an intense bond you get when everyone is working hard, moving a 65-foot boat together."
DIEHL TOOK THE LEAD
Without Bob Diehl, Whatcom Rowing today wouldn't have 120 rowers on Lake Whatcom. Or nonprofit status, eight shells, six new rowing machines and plans for a boathouse at Bloedel Donovan Park. No Diehl, no club.
A former Western men's coach, the longtime president of Diehl Ford initiated the club in late 2010, using his business acumen and contacts to generate volunteer support and donations.
"I was a little pushy to get it off the mark," says Diehl, a lifetime rower who came close to forming a club two decades ago. "Now I'm a little more democratic."
The club mostly involves sweep rowing, but also has a sculling coach and one double sculling shell. Organizers anticipated 30 to 40 participants the first year, and cheerfully welcomed 80, two-thirds of them female.
"A lot of middle-aged or older women didn't have Title IX," says Mann-King, a member of three Western women's title teams. "Women are looking for companionship in sports. Men always had that."
Seeking affordability, the club priced annual memberships at $150 and classes at $10 each, allowing people to enroll in beginning classes without becoming members.
"Our memberships cost about half of other rowing clubs," Diehl says.
GETTING IN SYNC
On a cool yet sunny Saturday in May, a Whatcom Rowing drop-in class gathers in the morning at Lake Whatcom. In the coaches' boat, Rachel Ourieff bullhorn-bellows politely to a nearby "8."
"Dot, can I have you take a stroke, please?
"Everyone, arms and body, nice and light.
"Paul, square your blade, matching and catching with John.
The degree of difficulty of meshing eight mostly novice rowers into a cohesive unit measures about 9.9 on the 10 scale. It can be a few months or longer before newer rowers compete in races.
Head coach Christin Clawson says "catch timing," the coordination of a blade entering the water, troubles beginners the most.
"Once you get to having eight rowing at once, all the problems magnify," says Dave Nichols, a retired Whatcom County Superior Court judge who joined the club last year as a rookie. "The sport demands total concentration."
Understanding that stroke power comes mainly from the legs took Nichols, 72, many sessions to master.
His petite wife, Dot, a retired school counselor, spent much time as a coxswain last year. Also 72, she found the responsibility of being a non-rowing boat commander "frightening," but quickly grasped the importance of teamwork.
"For us," she says, " it's a thrill to experience a new learning curve at our age."
Sporting a healthy age mix, the club made teenage rowers an early priority, in part choosing Lake Whatcom over the calmer Lake Samish because of public-transit access for youth. This summer, the number of youths roughly doubled to 25.
Sisters Keegan and Maddie Dohm of Bellingham, both active swimmers, were steered toward oars by rowing-savvy cousins in Vancouver, B.C.
"Terrifying," recalls Keegan, 17. "I thought we were going to flip the whole time."
"You have to learn to trust everyone in the boat," says 16-year-old Maddie.
Rowing fulfilled Griffin Holmes' desire for a team sport, and, like the Dohms, the trim 13-year-old relishes his time on the lake.
Recalling when someone asked him "Don't you have to be really buff to row?" he laughs, then turns serious. "If you row a lot and are dedicated, you really will get fit."
Members of New Whatcom Rowing, mostly single scullers, receive comparable fitness benefits and often a bigger dose of adventure.
McKinnon's 2004 voyage undoubtedly inspired some outdoors lovers to try rowing on saltwater and join the club. The group grew slowly before it had to drop its insurance when rates skyrocketed in 2010, turning the then-nonprofit group into a more informal gathering of about 50.
Newcomers can still get lessons from McKinnon, a former elite swimmer who started rowing in the Bay Area. When teaching beginners, she puts a tether in her dory, and usually after two or three lessons they're good to row.
"At the get-go, I have them close their eyes and relax," she says. "We try to get them into an intuitive relationship with the blades going into the water."
Mueller, whose boat business in Fairhaven used to be a hangout for club rowers, notices changes in the open-water market - more women buyers and fewer men in their 30s and 40s. He wonders if a weak economy eventually will keep the middle class from buying boats.
He sold Echos, popular open-water shells, and uses one for most of his rows. A new Echo costs about $5,000, he says, a cost that could strap a couple with kids.
Most club members have their own boats, but in 2010 the club bought a used Echo and a Maas, both housed at the Community Boat Center in Fairhaven. New members pay a one-time $200 fee, which helps pay for the rental space and boat maintenance.
Dave Deschenes of Bellingham, who began open-water rowing last year after a short tutorial by McKinnon, frequently uses the Maas for racing. Deschenes won his division in this year's Dan Harris Challenge on the bay.
He loves the serenity of rowing while being amazed by the waves, the changing conditions and nature's raw power. "Sometimes it makes you feel a little insignificant," he says.
New Whatcom President John Rybczyk, an environmental science professor at Western, had done kayaking and canoeing before embracing open-water rowing a decade ago. Though the club organizes the Dan Harris event and has some speedchasers like Deschenes, he says it isn't focused on racing.
Rybczyk distinguishes two groups attracted to the club before Whatcom Rowing's launch.
"One, people who rowed competitively in college and missed it. They'd contact us because we were the only game in town," he says. "And two, people who were interested in the adventure aspect - the camping, crabbing, fishing. There's a romanticism attached to that.
"In a way, the open water is still like the wild, wild West."
Whatcom Rowing Association: whatcomrowing.org
New Whatcom Rowing: sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/nwrowing
Carlos Dinares: carlosdinares.com
Dale McKinnon: firstname.lastname@example.org
ROW TO GOOD HEALTH
Provides good aerobic exercise, using the body's major muscle groups.
Burns calories, helping to maintain or lower weight.
Helps clear the mind and relieve stress.
Builds a sense of camaraderie if rowing with a crew.
ROW TO COLLEGE OPTIONAL BOX
Carlos Dinares not only would like to see more young people racing on Whatcom County lakes, he'd like to help them get college rowing scholarships.
Dinares, who lives on Lake Samish, has built a reputation for training elite-level scullers, but says he also enjoys coaching beginners. He has assisted University of Washington crews, and in 2010 was a U.S. national team coach for two boats in the world championships in New Zealand.
Having contacts with university coaches, Dinares says he could be a scholarship connection for youngsters with rowing ability and good grades.
"I think Bellingham has a lot of potential for kids," he says. "It's just a matter of getting them out there on the water."
Bob Carter is a freelance writer in White Rock, B.C.