ROCKLAND, Maine — Muriel Curtis, director of Station Maine, started her organization in 2001 to get midcoast boys and girls closer to their heritage by putting them on the water.
“I don’t think there is a kid on the coast who doesn’t have the God-given right to get down to taste the sea to make sure that it’s salty,” she said.
Station Maine offers both sailing and rowing opportunities.
The seafaring veteran knew putting kids in boats could lead from recreational pursuits to racing.
“Once you get two boats together, there’s going to be a race,” she said, laughing. “There’s no avoiding it.”
Rather than trying to discourage racing, Curtis embraced it as part of Station Maine’s rowing program in 2002.
“The meat of our program is our racing crew and our high school crew,” said Curtis.
“Eighth-graders and up can be part of the high school racing crew,” she said. “That’s three days after school from 3 to 5 [p.m.], hard-work rowing.”
Every year she welcomes rowers, both veteran and raw, to the race crew. The season is held in the fall, but they practice at least once a week throughout the year. A boat crew is made up of six rowers and a coxswain in the Cornish pilot gigs they race.
“Last year I went to the school where the eighth-graders the year before had been and where they were now ninth-graders,” she said, “and I just made a blanket announcement in every lunch period … ‘we’re forming this year’s racing crew and you’re welcome to come join us.’”
Six kids, both boys and girls, signed up, joining a few returning veterans.
“A couple of kids came to me who had never rowed before and I got four kids who had rowed with us last year as eighth-graders,” she said.
A couple came from Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, a few more are home-schooled and others find it by word of mouth or happen upon the website at www.stationmaine.org.
Rowan Walauski, a 16-year-old from Swanville, started rowing when she was 9 and joined the racing crew at 14.
“It’s so powerful to move a boat that heavy with just body strength,” she said. “It’s all core and legs and everything.”
“They can shoot those boats out at 8 knots [9.2 mph],” said Curtis.
Walauski agrees with Curtis about the racing aspect.
“We all try harder when there’s a boat racing next to us,” Walauski said.
“Sometimes we race [against] the clock,” she added. “We do better when we’re racing other people.”
Some get that fire more than others, according to Curtis.
“I was in France with my crew one year, a big international contest,” she said. “There were like 20 other boats. … Every time we pulled up near a boat, Kyle, my stroke [lead] oar, started to pull harder. As soon as he saw another boat, he tasted blood. And the girl pulling the [oar] next to him [said, because she had to match his stroke], ‘I hate you, Kyle; I hate you, I hate you.’’’
Katie Cormier of Rockland, 15, was one of those new additions 18 months ago.
“I had recently transferred in,” Cormier said. “It was my first year and I was very shy.”
A girl she had made friends with was going to see a presentation by Curtis, and her friend suggested that she go, too.
“I met Muriel, and my friend and my parents said I should do it,” she said.
There was only one thing she knew about crew.
“I knew not many did it,” she said.
Cormier, who is usually the stroke oar or second oar, has learned a lot in 18 months and is now a watch captain, which means she had to learn seamanship, first aid and more to be able to handle any contingency on the water.
She sees the difference it has made in her.
“Oh my gosh, I still really love it,” she said. “I’m stronger, more confident and more outgoing.”
The high school race team is an offshoot of club racing, which was what Station Maine entered into in 2002.
“Mark Jackson over on Vinalhaven built the first boat,” Curtis said. He suggested that Curtis’ group get one like it.
Now there are midcoast clubs on Vinalhaven and North Haven and in Rockland and Belfast.
They all race to win, but it’s often not the most important aspect.
“Two years from now, no one will know who won, but everybody will remember who was an idiot,” said Curtis.
Not all of the clubs have high school programs. That means travel, something Curtis considers part of Station Maine’s mission to show her students what can be accomplished by looking outside their current slice of the world.
If racing helps them do that, that’s fine by Curtis.
“I see developing kids as another part of their education,” she said. “Every kid participates. We’re here to help the kids grow.”
It’s something to look forward to for younger rowers.
“Anthony Marsh [who is part of the seventh-grade class that’s in the learning phase now] is already asking about joining the racing crew,” said Curtis.
The trip to France was one of several trips the team has made there over the years. Others have included Cornwall, England; Quebec; Lake Champlain in Vermont; and Hull, Mass.
Last year they went to Erie, Pa., to be part of the crew on the Niagara, a two-masted brig that’s a replica of the ship that helped win the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.
Cormier sailed on the Niagara and noted the depth of her group’s preparation to be on the much larger ship.
“We were all taught seamanship and man-overboard [beforehand],” she said. “Once we went, we didn’t have to learn hardly anything.”
Walauski went on the Cornwall trip.
“That’s where it [crewing] all started,” she said. “Everybody takes it seriously.”
But when they’re not racing, all the teams get together to socialize, before and after, said Walauski.
“Sometimes before races, we play games together. We’re all friends even though we’re on different teams,” she said.
After two years of racing, Walauski has become one of the veterans of the team.
“Most of the people who were on the team when I joined are not there [now],” she said. “We have a lot of new people.”
She has seen a major change in her feelings about the sport from when she started seven years ago.
“When I first joined … I didn’t think I’d like it,” Walauski said. “I can’t imagine my life now without rowing.”