By Steve Sherman
Imagine a lifetime spent engaged in a sport that began with a ride given to a hitchhiker.
That’s exactly how it started for Ron Ettinger, a longtime member of the Swan Creek Rowing Club in Lambertville, NJ
The year was 1974. The Watergate Scandal would soon derail the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon, and the Philadelphia Flyers were beginning a quest that would earn the Broad Street Bullies the first of two consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
The radio waves were dominated by the likes of The Jackson 5, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Jim Croce, John Denver and Stevie Wonder.
Gas was under 55 cents a gallon.
Meanwhile, Ettinger was an undergrad at Temple University, commuting to the college from his house in Germantown when he delivered a ride to a rower headed down to the Schuylkill River.
A former football and baseball player in high school, Ettinger had always been curious about rowing so he asked his rider where one might go to learn how to do it.
The hitchhiker directed him to Undine Barge Club, one of the oldest clubs on Boathouse Row.
“I spent a week knocking on the door before someone finally answered,” quipped Ettinger.
A few weeks later, Undine made Ettinger a novice member and the rest, as they say, is history. When Ettinger wasn’t rowing out of Undine, he was working further upriver, launching from a boathouse in Conshohocken.
After rowing for years on the Schuylkill, Ettinger moved to New Hope in 1998, joined Swan Creek Rowing a year later and started rowing on the Delaware. He rows the estuary five to six days a week out of the club’s base on the New Jersey side of the riverbanks.
“For most of the rowers that I know – long-term rowers, it becomes a lifestyle,” explained Ettinger, now an SCRC board member. “You look to move near a river. You organize your life to make sure rowing’s a part of it.”
Club President Ted Pytlar also started rowing in college, though he rowed competitively for Rutgers University back in the day. After college however, Pytlar became disconnected from rowing but he came back to the sport in 2005.
Then in his mid-50s, Pytlar joined Swan Creek just after the club suffered extensive damage to many of its boats due to flooding that decimated Lewis Island, the former home of the club that sits just north of the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge.
Still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Ivan that struck the region during fall 2004, the island – and the rowing club – took another hit when a spring thunderstorm dumped 5 inches of rain into the Delaware, sending some of the club’s boats downriver only to be cracked along the rocks.
The flooding took away pedestrian access to Lewis Island, so that summer, the club was forced to move to a site adjacent to the Lambertville Municipal Utilities Authority. Leased from the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission, Swan Creek Rowing rested on that parcel near the public boat launch for a decade.
Ownership of the land, which was thought to be New Jersey state park property, was contested however by the Black River and Western Railroad. When the dust settled on the land dispute, Swan Creek was once again without a home but this time, the Delaware Valley Powerboat Association came to the rescue, allowing the rowers to store their boats on their property a little farther north along Station Court.
A collection of 65 club-owned and privately held skiffs, Swan Creek Rowing sits in this spot currently. The club doesn’t have a boathouse; it never did.
“We’d like to have a boathouse but we’ve learned to live without it, learned to live without a dock,” said Pytlar. “It’s not essential. There are plenty of clubs operating under similar circumstances as us.”
When Pytlar first joined the club, it had less than 100 members. Now, it has more than 150, experiencing a resurgence in popularity similar to golf and other outdoor sports since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A longtime rower who is currently retired, Pytlar, 71, also gets out on the river almost every day and has been engaging in the sport for the past 17 years.
But not everyone starts rowing in their youth.
Beth Schurman, a 48-year-old pharmaceutical consultant from Richboro, started rowing just three years ago after persuading her daughter to give the sport a try.
Schurman soon found out about the Learn to Row program the club offers in the spring so she decided to give it a go in 2019.
“I tried it without knowing, really, anything about rowing,” she commented.
Her second time out, Schurman and three others found themselves sweeping rowing a quad in 50 degree temps in the pouring rain. As fate would have it, a couple of oars weren’t tied in properly and that caused the boat to flip, spilling all the occupants into the Delaware.
“We got out; it was fine,” Schurman said. “We got back in the boat and I still had fun.”
“I love it,” she adds. “It’s a sport that gets you out in a beautiful area.
“It’s amazing exercise and it puts me in a good mood.
“Every time I’m out on the river in New Hope, I think how beautiful it is and I get a different perspective on just how pretty this area is.”
When COVID numbers erupted in 2020, rowing in groups was not permitted for a time so Schurman purchased a single her size and learned to scull, though she says she prefers sweep rowing because it gives her a better workout.
Whether sculling or sweep rowing, Schurman says the sport is very technical and requires a good deal of concentration.
“You can’t be stressed about work or kids or anything like that,” she explains.
“When I’m out there, I have to concentrate on the mechanics of rowing and for me, that’s very meditative and so I always come off (the river) in such a great mood.”
Well, that and Schurman hasn’t had another boat flip since her second time out.
Schurman says she doesn’t think she’ll ever row competitively, though there are club members who do.
A team of Swan Creek rowers led by Alan Albanir grabbed a gold medal in the Men’s Open D4 at the Masters Nationals held August 2017 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The group, which included Dave Gallagher, Juergen Rahtz and Brian Price, teamed up with Brian’s wife, Roseann, as the coxswain to take first in the 50-59 age group in the 2018 Head of the Schuylkill rowing championships and again in 2019.
Patrice Glover took a first place in women’s veteran singles at the 2019 Head of the Schuylkill.
Founded in 1992, Swan Creek Rowing is a nonprofit that operates on a $40,000 annual budget. Fees range from $350 a year for a standard membership to $100 for a college student on summer hiatus.
The group once used spreadsheets to organize rowing slots for members but currently uses a computer software application called iCrew, administered by Schurman, an SCRC board member who currently rows six times a week.
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