Diamond State Masters RegattaMay 26, 2015 05:43PM ● By Steven Hoffman
John Schoonover peered out intently at the rowers racing toward the finish line. He lifted his camera and captured the image of several of the boats clustered together in the fast-paced race. It’s Saturday, July 26, the first of two days of the 2014 Diamond State Masters Regatta, and Schoonover is pleased that another race day has arrived.
It was 24 years ago that Schoonover and Howard Smith, then board members at the Wilmington Rowing Center, were at the center of the effort to establish a regional regatta for rowers over the age of 21.
“We wanted to create another opportunity for master’s rowers to compete in one of the most idyllic venues in the country,” explained Schoonover, a resident of Wilmington. “Masters rowing has been growing nationally.”
The first Diamond State Masters Regatta took place on Aug. 4, 1991. There were approximately 350 rowers competing in 35 different events that first year, and even then the event was able to attract participants from a wide area.
According to Schoonover, the tranquil Noxontown Pond was the natural choice to serve as the venue for the event. He is a graduate of St. Andrew’s School, which overlooks Noxontown Pond. The picturesque setting offers tremendous views of the water for race spectators, and they can enjoy most of the action along the course.
“For the spectators to see almost two-thirds of a race is very unusual,” Schoonover explained, noting that the course is approximately 1,073 meters from the starting platforms to Rodney Point across from the school campus.
A. Felix du Pont, who helped found the school in 1929, was a rowing enthusiast. Students at the school not only use Noxontown Pond for rowing, but for educational programming, too.
Schoonover is a 1963 graduate of St. Andrew’s School. He served as a coxswain on a St. Andrew’s rowing squad in 1959 and 1960. There is something special about organizing an event that takes place at a venue where he competed as a student.
“It’s very nostalgic,” Schoonover said. He is joined each year by a growing number of the school’s alumni—this year, thirty or forty of them competed in the Diamond State Masters Regatta.
This regatta has matured into a popular regional event even though there have been plenty of challenges through the years.
Smith passed away before the 2000 regatta, leaving Schoonover to take over as the director of the event. The committee that organizes the regatta decided to name the race in Smith’s honor.
At the time of Smith’s passing, the race already doubled in size from where it started in 1991, attracting about 600 rowers to compete in 70 races.
By the 15th anniversary, the event had grown to the point where organizers had to figure out ways to schedule 100 heats for more than 1,000 rowers from 55 rowing organizations. The race day, a Sunday, started at 8:15 a.m. and didn’t end until after 6 p.m.
An even greater challenge than scheduling difficulties arose in 2006, when a pond weed infested Noxontown pond, making it impossible to row until the problem was resolved. When the race returned in 2007, more popular than ever, the organizers began considering a two-day regatta to help reduce how hectic the schedule was on race day. Before the change could be made, a potentially dangerous storm wreaked havoc on one race day.
Transitioning to a two-day event provided some protection in case rain came on one of the days. Schoonover said that organizers decided on a format of sculling on Saturday and sweep rowing on Sunday. Athletes with two oars, one in each hand, are scullers, while athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers. This two-day schedule allowed for a more relaxed atmosphere. The day also includes vendors offering food and drinks and plenty of camaraderie.
“Since we went to a two-day event, it’s much less complicated and much more relaxing,” Schoonover explained. “It’s easier on the people managing the regatta.”
When the regatta debuted in 1991, there were 20 or 25 volunteers who helped out with the event, but now there are more than 100 people who are there to assist on race weekend.
“We like involving people as part of the regatta,” he said, noting that some of the staff at the St. Andrew’s School helps set up for the event.
Rowing enthusiasts like Hans Mueller enthusiastically help out on race day. Originally from Germany, Mueller is a member of the Wilmington Rowing Club and he is in charge of the equipment for the regatta.
Mueller is among the growing number of people who take up rowing at a later age because of the health benefits of the sport.
“I’m a late starter,” he said. “I like being out on the water. Rowing is easy on the joints. When you get older, that’s important. There’s no pounding, like with tennis or running. And it’s a complete workout.”
Mueller said that the event organizers always here from participants about how well this race is organized. He talked about the attributes of the Diamond State Masters Regatta, and how the event is designed to be friendly for both participants and spectators.
“It’s very compact,” Mueller explained. “The boat trailers are close. It’s easy to launch and the crowd has a view of the course. You see the finish line. The atmosphere is great. It’s a good way to spend a weekend.”
“It’s a tradition now,” Mueller said. “It has earned its reputation.”
This year, rowers came from Boston, Pittsburgh, Florida, and as far away as California.
“You have rowers from age 21 to 85 here,” Schoonover said. “We’ve been able to maintain the energy and the interest in the regatta.”