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River of Dreams

Tom Paul and his Black Fly band don't bite; they row


Published June 23, 2010 at 4:04 a.m.

Sculling, rowing, crew — whatever you call it, this sport in which skinny jocks pilot skinny boats up skinny rivers comes with some unfortunate stereotypes. They’re a bunch of spoiled prep-school kids with expensive, effete watercraft, some say. Others quip the pastime is for elitist Ivy Leaguers whose best days are behind them.

Well, Vermont doesn’t have many fancy prep schools, and not a single Ivy. Nonetheless, sculling thrives here. And, as you might expect, Vermont rowing has a flavor all its own.

One of the tenders of the flame is Tom Paul, 51, a real estate lawyer from North Danville. In 2002, he held the inaugural Black Fly Regatta on his favorite stretch of the Connecticut River. Since then, the event has become known as a quirky, classic race that every eastern rower should experience. But Paul wants more than good competition. He has plans to build a community boathouse and introduce the sport to kids from all over Caledonia County.

On a recent Friday morning, I meet Paul on the quiet main drag of Waterford. He pulls up in a black Volvo and gets out wearing mirrored sunglasses, Spandex shorts and knee-high muck boots. He looks like a deranged endurance athlete who’s been abducted and raised by farmers. Later on, I learn the reason for the boots.

We drive a few minutes and turn left onto an unmarked gravel farm road. There, beside a lagoon of chicken manure, we park and proceed through a cornfield, then down a mowed path, these either muddy or teeming with ticks. Suddenly the dark, placid waters of the Connecticut River appear beneath us, and we scramble down to a niche carved from a small cove. There’s a 6-by-6-foot dock in the river and two boat racks holding three “shells,” which is the technical term for a sculling boat. “Welcome to our boathouse!” Paul says.

The sport of sculling was invented at Eton College in the late 18th century. It took hold in the United States in the mid-1800s, first in Detroit and then along the East Coast at schools such as Yale and Harvard. The boats, which have sliding seats and oars that fit onto outrigged oarlocks, hold one to eight rowers. Initially made of wood, today they’re constructed from Kevlar and carbon fiber, which allow a 27-foot craft to weigh just 30 pounds.

The competitive rowing season in the East begins in the spring with sprint-distance races, in which boats cover 1000 or 2000 meters in a single heat. The fall brings “head” races, such as the Green Mountain Head in Putney, which usually don’t exceed 5000 meters. During the winter, if it’s too cold to row outside, scullers log training hours on erg machines — one is the Concept2, made by the Morrisville-based company of the same name — that simulate the motion of a full stroke.

Like cycling, rowing is a non-weight-bearing sport that requires both strength and endurance. The difference is that rowing is more of a total-body workout; rowers use all the major muscle groups in the arms, legs, butt and back. And, because of the variety of race distances, serious rowers work on developing the two cardiovascular systems: aerobic endurance for longer, steadier-state competitions, and VO2 max and anaerobic threshold for higher-intensity efforts over shorter distances. Of course, you don’t need to race to glean the fitness benefits of rowing; doing it for an hour a few times a week is enough to keep a person in good shape.

Paul didn’t start rowing until he arrived at College of the Holy Cross on a Latin and Greek scholarship. Originally from a Chicago suburb, he grew up in a middle-class Irish-Catholic family and brings to the sport a tongue-in-cheek irreverence that’s evident in the club’s motto, “Morde Me.” It means “bite me” in Latin. “That’s what black flies do,” explains Paul.

After Holy Cross, he went to Loyola University School of Law in Chicago. But his girlfriend lived in Boston, and the long-distance relationship wasn’t working. Paul transferred to Vermont Law School, partly to be closer to her and partly because he loved Vermont. The girl left him six months later, but Paul stayed in Vermont. He found work in Brattleboro and, in 1988, opened a law practice with his wife in St. Johnsbury. He’s now divorced and calls himself Caledonia County’s most eligible bachelor.

In the late 1990s, Paul got the itch to row again. He started accessing the Connecticut River from a public boat launch and rowing on the seven-mile section between the Moore Reservoir and the Comerford Dam — part of TransCanada’s 15 Mile Falls hydroelectric generating facility. As he rowed along, Paul noticed a sheltered cove abutting a cornfield and thought it would be a good place to keep his boat. He approached the dairy farmer who owned the land, offering to draw up a lease and get insurance. But the farmer just said, “Well, I reckon it won’t harm nothing. Why don’t you just go ahead?” Paul recalls.

Since then, he and two other rowers — fellow lawyers David Sleigh and Greg Clayton — have had their own boat launch on one of the best pieces of water imaginable. It’s straight, usually sheltered from the wind, and mostly devoid of traffic.

In fact, Paul’s training ground is so good that he wanted to share it with other rowers. In May 2001, while attending a weeklong, black-fly-infested camp at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, he got to know some fellows from Maine. “I said, ‘Look, guys, you’ve got to come and row where I row; it’s beautiful,’” he says.

To get his new friends on the river, Paul announced that the first Black Fly Regatta would take place in mid-June. Seven people showed up on race day under less-than-ideal conditions: rain, wind and whitecaps. They all lined up, Paul nodded to the starter holding a shotgun, the blast went off, and the competitors rowed 6000 meters into a 20-mile-per-hour headwind.

These days, the race — it takes place this Saturday, June 26 — has upward of 70 boats. There’s still a mass start, but the weather is usually better. Unlike most rowing competitions, the Black Fly has few buoys and fewer rules. The only one enforced is that a charge of unsportsmanlike conduct results in loss of port-o-potty privileges.

When Paul and I reach the water’s edge, we find a guy in a ski boat waiting to take us on a tour of the course. Rowers and water-skiers happen to like similar venues — flat water with long straightaways — and the two groups get along well here.

On the way downriver, we spy a heron alighting from a bank and a loon diving for fish. Once, while rowing here, Paul had to stop to let a moose swim across the river, he says. Eagles have been known to roost in the treetops.

We round a slight bend, and the green line of the Comerford Dam, near the start of the race, comes into view. From here, the river narrows a bit, but width isn’t a problem in the race, since some competitors are quickly outdistanced by others.

On the way back upriver, Paul points out orange flagging along the bank and some downed trees in the water. “That’s where we want to put the boathouse,” he says.

What Paul has in mind is an 8000-square-foot facility in the shape of a dairy barn to serve the local high schools and communities. The same farmer who owns the launch site has offered to sell Paul a five-acre parcel with 575 feet of river frontage. Evoking the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans held off the Persian army, Paul’s fundraising strategy for purchasing the land involves getting 300 people to pay $1250 each over 10 years. “If the Spartans can do that, we can surely do this,” he says.

The Black Flies aren’t the only Vermonters rowing, of course, and beginners have several ways to sample the sport. The Craftsbury Outdoor Center runs summer camps and offers weekly lessons on Tuesdays and Fridays on Big Hosmer Pond, a 2800-meter body of water. The Black Bear Sculling camp and the Upper Valley Rowing Foundation are both located in or near Hanover, N.H.

Those places may have boathouses with four walls and a toilet, but they can’t lay claim to a span of water seven miles long and as flat as glass. “You can see why I wanted to get my buddies out here,” Paul says, as the sun shines and the green hills of New Hampshire recede to our east. “I wish the race were today.”

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