3 August 2022
By Göran R Buckhorn
For the first time in his life, HTBS reporter Göran Buckhorn watched currach rowing and said no thank you to Irish whiskey.
Just like London in England has its River Thames, New London in Connecticut has its Thames River (though here it rhymes with “James”). For the American rowing community and the readers of this website, the Thames River is known for the yearly races between the crews from Yale and Harvard. The universities’ varsity four-mile race starts just under the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and goes upriver with the finish line just pass the so-called Rock. This year was the first year the collegiate races were back since the pandemic put a stop to the races in 2020 and 2021.
Another rowing regatta on the Thames River also came back this year after having been forced to wait out the Plague. This regatta, maybe a more obscure event on the rowing calendar, took place last Saturday, 30 July, from the Custom House Pier at Waterfront Park in New London, downriver from the Gold Star Memorial Bridge. Here, the water, being as it is in the city’s harbor, is wider and trafficked by large vessels and ferries going to Fishers Island, Block Island and Long Island.
The regatta, in Irish working boats currachs (other spellings exist), is an annual event hosted by New London Currach Rowers. The currach is a traditional Irish boat from the west coast with a wooden frame covered with canvas, which is painted to help seal the hull.
The New London club had invited the seven other members of the North American Curragh Association (NACA). Showing up on this sunny, but blustery day in New London were Albany Irish Rowing Club (New York), Boston Currach Rowing Club (Massachusetts) and Philadelphia Celtic Curragh Club (Pennsylvania). The other members of the NACA, which didn’t show up for the regatta, are clubs in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Leetsdale (Pennsylvania), Annapolis (Maryland) and Milwaukee (Wisconsin).
On the program were seven races: 4-man; 4-woman; 2-man; 2-woman; 1-man/1-woman; 1-man; and 2-man/2-woman.
The first person I talked to at the event was Maureen Plumleigh, who is one year in as the president of the New London Currach Rowers. Plumleigh told me that the club has a dozen members but only six who have enough experience to compete.
“We are starting from the beginning because COVID cancelled out our regattas and practices during the last three years,” she said.
Plumleigh introduced me to Jim Gallagher, a gentleman in his 90s, who is a historian on everything currach rowing and Irish. Gallagher, who is a former president of the New London rowers, is now the liaison between the club and the NACA, he told me. During the afternoon races he was acting as the finishing umpire.
Gallagher and I stood under a palm tree, and he looked out on the slightly choppy water in the harbor (the wind would pick up during the afternoon) and pointed at two large, yellow buoys which were close to where we stood.
“The crews start here,” Gallagher said, “and row to the other buoys over there.” He pointed to two other yellow buoys further away in the outer part of the harbor. “There the boats will turn and row back here, where they started.”
It made me think of the old professionals who raced long distances and had to “turn the stake”. Who among the HTBS’s readers doesn’t remember Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake?
In the New London harbor, the yellow buoys – the turning markers – were maybe 1 mile away, making the men’s races a 2-mile affair, while the women crews raced half that distance, Gallagher told me.
Around 50 people had come to the pier to look at the rowers braving rough waters.
The four teams had brought their own supporters so when the first race, for 4-man crews, started, slightly delayed, everyone cheered on the boats out on the water. Every crew who passed the finish line got equally warm applause whether they came first or last. It was nice to see the comradeship between the teams both out on the water and on land. The 4-man race was won by the Boston crew, followed by Philadelphia and New London; Albany didn’t have a crew in the class.
However, Albany did have a crew in the 4-woman event, which they won. The Albany crew were followed by Philadelphia, Boston and New London.
Each team had a canopy which offered nice shade between the races. Unfortunately, there was no shady spot for the spectators and a rowing reporter out on the pier. However, an eatery at the foot of the pier served typical American “fast food” which offered tables under a large canopy and that’s where this reporter headed when the hunger set in.
The John P. Holland Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is an Irish-American Catholic fraternal organization, also had a canopy on the pier where they displayed Irish culture books and articles. The organization was one of the sponsors of the regatta. The other two sponsors were the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London and the Irish pub Forty Thieves in Groton, which is located across the river from New London.
Currach rowing is a far cry from the narrow shells we normally see at rowing regattas. The currach is a heavy boat to row and the crew really must put their backs into it to make the vessel move. The windy conditions out in the New London harbor made it hard for some crews to keep a straight course.
There was a long wait between the races as the clubs didn’t have a boat for each of their crews. The boats had to be rowed back to the pier to change crews. The seven races therefore took a long time to go through.
Here is a two-minute video from the regatta:
When the regatta was completed, the teams headed over to the prize ceremony held at the Forty Thieves across the river – by using the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, so they didn’t have to row over to the Groton shore. Special for this evening at the pub was a new line of mixed drinks from Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey that was inspired by Peaky Blinders, the famous Netflix show.
Although this reporter was invited to come along to the award ceremony and to try out the whiskey, it had been a long, hot day in the sun, so I humbly bowed out.