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Speed of rowers makes waves in harbor

Members of the Bainbridge Island Rowing Club train in Eagle Harbor this past summer. - JESSE BEALS/Staff photo
Members of the Bainbridge Island Rowing Club train in Eagle Harbor this past summer.
— image credit: JESSE BEALS/Staff photo

Rowers ask, should vessels powered by oar be subject to wake restrictions?

You can’t break the four-minute mile if you only train at a leisurely jog.

The same goes for rowing, said Bainbridge Island Rowing Club member David Ward, who lobbied the Harbor Commission Tuesday to boost Eagle Harbor’s 5 knot speed limit for muscle-powered shells and other club watercraft.

“You can’t train at half speed and then compete at full speed,” said Ward, who regularly pushes 8 or 9 knots with other club members in preparation for regional competitions.

Despite Ward’s pleas, the commission stood by the 5 knot limit, citing safety reasons.

“I want to do everything I can to make everyone safe,” said commission member Bob Schoonmaker. “The (inner) harbor needs to be a slow area and five knots for everyone seems to be the magic number.”

Using City of Seattle rules as a guide, the club and Bainbridge city planners have drafted an ordinance change that would allow “watercraft propelled by only human power (to) exceed the uniform speed limit.” The draft would also allow the club’s motor-powered, low-wake support boats to exceed the speed limit when in “obvious proximity” to rowing vessels.

The central harbor, roughly between the ferry terminal and Winslow Way’s west terminus, limits all watercraft to 5 knots, approximately 6 mph. The far west portion of the harbor carries the 5 knot limit and restricts most motorized travel.

Some commissioners suggested the club take its shells to the outer harbor, where higher speeds are allowed and the waters are not as congested with boaters.

“I take exception to (the inner harbor) being the only place to row,” Schoonmaker said, while commission member Paul Svornitch suggested that club members go out into the sound and row to Blake Island.

But taking the shells beyond the inner harbor is out of the question, Ward said.

“These boats are built for flat, calm water,” he said. “If we got them out to any sort of waves, they’d break in half.”

Now in its fifth season, the nonprofit club competes with more than 15 other rowing organizations around the sound and hosts a variety of beginner and intermediate programs.

The club’s junior program boasts more than 45 teenage rowers who paddle the harbor every day after school.

While expressing support for the club’s role in the community, most commission members agreed that boosting the speed limit could endanger other boaters and the rowers themselves. They cited a collision some years ago in which one of the club’s row boats struck a dinghy.

According to police records, no collisions involving rowing vessels have been recorded, and no citations have been issued for rowers speeding in Eagle Harbor.

But that doesn’t mean a serious accident couldn’t happen, Schoonmaker said. One drowned young person would be too much, he said.

“A lot of young people on the island are gravitating to water sports,” he said. “I want them to be safe in that busy part of the harbor.”

Ward contends that rowing is a very safe activity for young people and that the club member involved in the crash commissioners cited is no longer a member.

Commission chair Rob Jacques and Kathy Ivy were the only two commission members in support of the proposed speed change.

“I think the benefits to the rowers outweighs the risks,” Jacques said. “Our denial of the change surprised me.”

Ivy, who lives aboard a vessel on the harbor, said the club has proven itself a safe and considerate neighbor.

“I see them as being very careful,” said Ivy. “I see their shells go across all the time. You just have to watch for them.”

Marine business owner Mark Julian said he hopes a compromise can be reached allowing the club to train at a competitive level.

“This is a good program that provides a lot of opportunity for kids,” he said. “It should be able to run with a competitive basis along with the rest of the state.”

The commission’s decision is not binding but will be considered when the City Council hears the proposed ordinance amendment.

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