LANGLEY — Year after year, the U.S. Rowing Southeast Regional Championship Regatta is held at Langley Pond. Year after year, it’s the pond itself that draws the group and its rowers from across the region back to Aiken County.
Jim Buckalew, the director of the event and a Charleston, W.Va., native, said that the pond is a draw because of the group effort the county puts into the facility.
“It’s a great place to row,” Buckalew said. “The parks, recreation and tourism group makes us welcome here. They’ve fixed everything; it’s beautiful. The grounds crew does phenomenal work, it’s very neighborly and the folks that have been coming up here for years love to come up here to row.”
The teams are from a variety of clubs across the southeast, including groups from as close as Augusta and as far away as Jacksonville and Tallahassee in Florida or Nashville, Tenn.
Steve DeBever is in his first year coming to Langley Pond with the Jacksonville club but said that his team has been coming for eight or nine years.
“It’s an excellent site to row in. The waters are very calm here, typically. It’s a picturesque, you know, area to go, and the crews that show up here are very competitive,” DeBever said.
“Being a regional event, you have some really good competition, and that’s great for a team.”
DeBever explained that the calm conditions at Langley Pond allow the competitors to focus on their craft instead of wind or choppy water.
“When you have flat water, it allows you to really focus on the power and your technique,” he said. “Usually, when it’s a bit rough, you’re worried about other factors. Here, you can just focus on really specific areas of your stroke and as well as the other teams, knowing where they are and what you have to do to get out front.”
The races, which will continue today, brought between 250 and 300 rowers into the county for a sport that event officials claim is growing, particularly in the Southeast. Sam Dempsey, the chief referee, said that not only are the boats the “fastest human-powered thing there is,” but the sport itself is expanding because of how low-cost it can actually be.
Teams from the high-school level all the way up through the elite competition groups can share a boathouse and facilities.
“It’s a very fast-growing sport,” Dempsey said. “It’s not the upper-crust, New England hoity-toity thing that most people think.”
Co-chief Mike Forster added that Title IX has caused many universities in the South, like Clemson, to add rowing to counterbalance large men’s teams like football. He said a women’s rowing team can add 60 female athletes or more to an athletic department, and that has further fed the sport’s growth.
Bringing in even more people for rowing events at Langley Pond would add to the benefits Assistant County Administrator Brian Sanders already sees from hosting the regional event.
“It’s economic impact, incredible economic impact,” Sanders said. “It exposes Aiken County to a lot of people that would not ever come here probably. They obviously have to have somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat, somewhere to get gas, and we’ve actually had people over the years – this is the 20th year of this regatta here. We’ve had people that were so impressed with Aiken County – would never have probably come here except they came here to row – retired here.”
Because of those short-term and long-term benefits, Sanders said the county has invested into enhancing the experience for rowing events in hopes of hosting 2,000 or more rowers in future regattas.
Through the combination of a “lot of pots of money” that include local option sales tax funds, grants and the cooperation of different entities like the Augusta Rowing Club, the county has been able to not only improve existing facilities but also purchase additional land. Aiken County now owns the current park area, the pond and more than 100 acres of shoreline on the park side of the pond toward Bobby’s Barbeque,
Officials hope to turn the course, which now finishes on the far side of the pond at the dam end, to a more viewer-friendly portion of the pond behind the Jefferson Davis Parkway restaurant.
“What we’d like to do is take that property that we now own, develop it, use that to stage the events and flip the course, and they’ll be right on top of the finish line at that point,” Sanders said.
This year’s regatta will finish today, with races set from 7:30 a.m. to 12:50 p.m.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.