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10th annual Sarasota Invitational Regatta held at Nathan Benderson Park

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Two boats of eight sweepers — rowers who use both hands for one oar — surge through the finish line, mere seconds apart.

All photos Bailey Tietsworth/Catalyst

During a three-day stretch of sun, wind and oars, numerous competitors cumulatively rowed over 100 kilometers at the Sarasota Invitational Regatta (SIR). Waves of long, sleek boats glided across the 1,000 meter stretch of water last weekend, from Friday, Feb. 22 to Sunday, Feb. 24. The Sarasota County Rowing Club (SCRC) hosted the regatta—an annual event in its 10th year—at Nathan Benderson Park (NBP). Both Floridians and out-of-state spectators cheered for competitors in three separate divisions: youth, juniors and masters.

The SIR has occurred for the past decade as a Nationally Recognized Regatta by the US Rowing organization: a title held by rowing events around the country whose facilities, referees and practices meet the standards provided by the US Rowing organization. The regatta has not always convened at NBP, as SCRC Regatta Director Norm Thetson explained, since the park did not begin construction for the facilities until 2011.

A staff member, Nancy Flynn, holds a bright orange flag. Flynn’s flag helps the rowers know when they have about 250 meters left in the sprint.

“We have steadily upgraded the capabilities of the referees, the facilities and the accuracy,” Thetson said.

As the magnitude of the regatta has grown in the last 10 years, the pool of participants has more than doubled from its initial 300 boats and 600 competitors to 700 boats and 1500 competitors. Most of the rowers come from other parts of Florida, but the SIR also attracts groups and individuals from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Ohio, as well as a group from Canada and two racers from Serbia.

Competitors make a long journey around the island to reach the starting point where they can disembark from their boat. 

“The rowers like it because everything is compact, there are lots of vendors, it’s easy to launch and recover boats and the course is eminently fair,” Thetson said. “It’s rare to find a buoy course of this caliber anywhere in the country.”

Most races around the world use buoy courses, or the Albano buoy system, which consists of lines of buoys that mark the lanes for races.

NBP has more construction planned for its continued growth, but as of now, over $40 million has been invested into the facility’s construction. According to the NBP website, this funding helped equip the park with features that enhanced the rowing aspects of the park, including a “multi-function Finish-Line Tower and state-of-the-art wave attenuation system” that provides calmer, more controlled water for rowing.

Synchronized movements propel the boats forward at the start of the race.

On Saturday, the regatta held one of its key events, the Rowing For Life race. The race combined four members of a junior team with four master-level competitors. These groups of eight competed for a $1,000 cash prize, in which the winnings went to whichever four junior competitors won. The master-level rowers gave their time and energy in this race for the benefit of the junior rowers. Thetson has a vested interest in the mixed-age heat, as he feels that young people interested in rowing should be encouraged to row once they become adults.

Some skittish spectators crowd the floating dock, which extends out to 2,000 meters.

“Several of us started that about four or five years ago,” Thetson said. “We’re all masters and one of the things we’ve noticed is how rapidly the junior programs have grown. We think it’s very important for juniors to experience what it’s like, to show that there’s a future, that you can row your entire life: it isn’t just in high school or college.”

Information for this article was gathered from nathanbendersonpark.org, regattacentral.com, usrowing.com, sarasotacountyrowingclub.com and Wikipedia.

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