Racing To A Solution

By Brian Panowich

The list of traditions and organizations that make the city of Augusta unique and wonderful goes beyond Augusta National Golf Club, and the world-renowned Masters Tournament. The city is also host to popular arts and entertainment festivals, eclectic live music and off-Broadway stage performances. For some attending admirable sporting events outside the world of golf, there is none more steeped in tradition than the Augusta Rowing Club and its annual Head of the South Regatta held on the Savannah River and the Augusta Invitational Regatta at Langley Pond across the river in South Carolina.

The annual Head of the South Regatta, now in its 25th year, is ranked one of  the  top regattas in the country. Along with the Southeast Masters Regional Championship and the Augusta Invitational — which hosts high school and collegiate rowers from schools like the University of Georgia, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Alabama, Clemson University,  Auburn University and others — these events bring in more than 2,000 renowned athletes and fans annually. Augusta’s regattas are respected worldwide, with a long list of some competitions dating back to the early ‘90s and even further. 

These head races are not solely for elite athletes. According to Head of the South Regatta Director Megan Buckalew, “We are constantly hosting open clinics all year round and fielding requests from university rowing coaches that are looking for the best facilities for training. They want to come here. Not only that, but we are a very inclusive organization — open to all levels of rowers. The idea is to accommodate everyone and anyone with a passion for the sport.” 

Photo of the Augusta Rowing Club by Mark Albertin.

“We strive to be the center of rowing excellence.”

Megan Buckalew, Director of the Head of the South Regatta.

Buckalew is not a novice to the sport. Raised in the world of rowing, she is the daughter of a West Virginia University rowing coach who also now helps Megan organize these massive events in conjunction with Richmond and Aiken counties. “We strive to be the center of rowing excellence,” Buckalew says, and that goal is most definitely within reach. She explained that the Head of the South Regatta is not just one of the top three highest-rated and most attended events in the Savannah River Region, but the positive economic impact of the event is vast and vital.

One essential component of the sport is the Augusta Rowing Club. The ARC has been a staple in the city for decades carrying the torch for rowers of oar-powered boats dating back to the first race in 1837. Few other sports have endured for that long, and few other clubs have brought the community so close together. 

The ARC hosts events that local spectators, as well as rowers and regatta enthusiasts from around the country, look forward to year after year. Yet after all the prestige the club has offered the city and surrounding areas, along with the successful economic impact from the regattas, both are currently in limbo as they may be without a home in the near future. 

“At the heart of the ARC is its boathouse, an expansive facility with four bays of boat storage along with two bays of shop area, a large gym housing rowing machines and weights, and a swingulator room for simulating practice in a boat,” explains ARC President Kirsten Aylward. 

The Boathouse Community Center had been long overdue for costly renovations potentially reaching a $5 million price tag. That’s a staggering number and most definitely worth serious consideration. 

But after much discussion, in an about-face decision by the Augusta Commission, the plan quickly turned to demolish the landmark, instead rebuilding one from scratch. 

On paper that sounds rewarding: A new home for the ARC and a brand-new facility that could host events and create memories for the residents. But let’s think for a second about what that means in the interim. Where are the rowers meant to reorganize? What does “new and improved” mean to the people who have developed loyalties to The Boathouse over the years? 

And not just for the members of the rowing club or its fans, but for the people who made The Boathouse a waypoint for the biggest decisions in their lives, such as the couples who exchanged wedding vows there. For them, The Boathouse is more than just a building. It’s a monument — a testament to the most important memories in their lives. 

Even the  publisher of Augusta magazine, Ashlee Griggs Duren, remembers her time as a young rower out of Evans High School. She recalls her formative years at The Boathouse and on the river fondly. There are hundreds of Augustans who can pinpoint a pivotal life moment that revolved around the legacy known as The Boathouse.

“This facility, the envy of most rowing clubs in the Southeast, has been instrumental in providing the rich legacy of rowing for the citizens of the CSRA.  Discussions are ongoing between the city of Augusta and ARC to identify a viable and sustainable solution to address the boathouse condition, preferably extending the useful life of the existing boathouse or identifying a suitable alternative,” says Aylward. 

As talks continue between the city and the Augusta Rowing Club, the hope of both parties is to come to a cooperative resolution. All parties recognize the significance of the club and the economic impact their events bring to the area.

 “We need to really take a close look and see if this is the best way to utilize these funds in some rehabilitation that, honestly, I think we all recognize is probably going to be short-lived,” said Commissioner Brandon Garrett in a March 2023 article published in The Augusta Chronicle. Commissioner Alvin Mason echoed the sentiment in the same article by saying, “Where it sits is a diamond for us. I’m more in favor of tearing it down and bringing it back as something the citizens of Augusta-Richmond County can really be proud of in conjunction with any other entities for what we’d like to see on the river.” 

Photo by Milledge Austin.

“ARC’s leadership remains hopeful and confident that a solution will be identified which will be celebrated by both the city and the ARC. Clearly, the common objective is to identify a win-win solution.”

The Augusta Rowing Club

But, is new necessarily better? Not to mention that the plan to rebuild will take several years and where might that leave the rowing club? 

The club’s coach, among others, is concerned about being left out of the conversation. 

Coach Brad Holdren, who has been in charge of the club for the past eight years, stated to The Augusta Chronicle, “We’re going to need a large enough space to not only store our equipment in but still operate and function out of. One of the commissioners said we could put our stuff in shipping containers. Well, if we’re boxing our stuff up, then the club’s going to end up shutting down if we’re not out rowing on a regular basis.”

That leaves this time-honored entity’s future unsure. The outlook of this Augusta tradition, which has outlasted its current citizens, is being called into question, so the return call for help is sounded. The timetable is ripe with urgency. 

It’s the job of elected representatives to protect the things that make us who we are — to preserve the unique and beautiful, the sacred and the special, the blessings we might sometimes take for granted when simply looking at budgets and spreadsheets. 

We can only hope at the end of the day that these are some of the things that matter to them, because they are the things that matter to area residents. 

Seen in the November/December 2023 issue of Augusta magazine.

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