MYSTIC — Looking out at the Mystic River under darkening clouds on Friday, Stonington High School’s boys crew team raced against the clock on portable rowing machines set up on the grass at the future Mystic River Boathouse Park.
“We’re starting off the fall season, so it’s a good way to test their fitness and see if they’re in shape or how much work they have to do,” said Tyler Page, head coach of the boys varsity crew team. “Some did really well and some took a little bit of time off in the summer and need to get to work.”
When the boys were finished, the girls team tested their mettle on the machines but were interrupted by a downpour, causing the athletes to scuttle into a makeshift storage facility, lugging the rowing machines with them.
“That’s why you need [a] boathouse. This building is great for storing equipment, but it’s not suitable for training,” said John Thornell, who is in charge of the website and social media for Friends of Stonington Crew, a nonprofit that supports Stonington High School rowing.” If we have a bad day, the coach can say go upstairs to train.”
With limited facilities for training, the rowing program at the high school is now 21 years old and going strong, said Mike O’Neill, who is the director of rowing for Friends of Stonington Crew. He is also vice chairman of the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee, which is chaired by First Selectman Rob Simmons.
“In 2016, we won our first state championship in boys, taking first and second,” he said. The school is a part of the Connecticut Public Schools Rowing Association.
O’Neill coached the high school’s crew teams for 10 years and retired three years ago to concentrate on bringing a boathouse to fruition, not only for the high school teams, but also as a community rowing center for town residents.
To be known as the Hart Perry Community Rowing Center, the privately-funded $2.2 million boathouse will be located on the 1.5-acre site at 123 Greenmanville Ave. In September 2016, voters approved acquisition of the property and the town purchased it for $1.67 million in Jan. 2017. In April, the Friends of the Stonington Crew Boathouse Committee chose Anmahian Winton Architects of Cambridge, Mass., from a group of 23 firms to design the boathouse. Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture of Mystic is the designer of the project’s master plan.
The park will include a boardwalk and two docks — one as the public launch for kayaks and canoes, and the other to be used for crew shells.
This spring, 80 students signed up for crew, about 30 signed up for the summer session and about 55 have registered this fall. Mystic Seaport Museum allows the program to use the dock in the spring and fall but not the summer, because it’s the heaviest tourist season.
“The equipment is kept outside at the Seaport dock,” said Thornell. “The shells are not meant to be kept outside. They’re fragile, they’re meant to be protected.”
In the meantime, the crew teams have been nomadic in the off-season. Last winter, they were given space to train at Pawcatuck Roofing.
“We rowed out of there last winter, the winter before we were in the HTP building and this winter we’re going to be at another industrial facility. Every year we just need to find a new place in the winter,” said O’Neill.“We’ve been very fortunate to get all of these spaces, but we need a home.”
When the boathouse is fully operational, the programs will be similar to those at the COMO, he said.
“There are a lot of people who want to row,” he said. “There will be programs for anybody that lives here, for young kids, junior high, high school, adults, adaptive rowing, senior programs.”
O’Neill said the project was complicated because of all the entities that have to come together, including the Department of Transportation, because Greenmanville Ave. is a state road, and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for the environmental issues.
“We’re trying to accomplish a lot of things on an acre and a half,” he said. “First, how to maximize the site as a park so that the community can get the greatest purpose out of it, and then how do we fit a boathouse on the site that meets our requirements.”
Planning the project carefully will yield the best possible results, even if it takes longer, he said.
“People in the community want to know why it’s taking so long to get all this going,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned is you can’t plan enough for projects like this. If you do the planning right and you really cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, things turn out really well.”