On Saturday, May 8, the 1,400 rowers at the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Championship Finals might have been from 30 different Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. schools, but they all shared one thought on the Occoquan River's race course in Lorton.
Curse this darned wind.
"It was just really rough out there on the race course," W.T. Woodson men's first eights coxswain Wade Price said.
Gusting winds from isolated rainstorms moved through the area and wreaked havoc on the race course. The winds were strong enough to break the event's starting grid and forced all races to begin with floating starts.
In addition to the floating starts, the wind gusts were headed down the course, toward the boats’ helms.
"The races were slow because there was just so much wind," Robinson junior Emily Martin said.
The weather woes also forced race officials to postpone the Virginia state title races until May 22. But that didn't keep area schools from turning in strong performances during the event’s preliminary heats.
In W.T. Woodson's crew history, no team has ever qualified for the national competition in Saratoga, N.Y., but the men's first eight secured a trip there with a second place finish in their heat.
"It's a big deal for us," Price said. "We've been around for about 25 years and this is the first boat to go to nationals."
Woodson qualified with a time of 5:19.8, finishing behind St. Albans first-place time of 5:06.9.
As the boat crossed the finish line, the rowers leaned back and let out exhausted breaths. At that moment, rower Bob Ericson knew his team had accomplished something great.
"It's been a big year for Woodson," Ericson said. "This isn't what we expected at the beginning of the season."
Not only is the trip to nationals a major accomplishment for the Woodson boat, but Alfred Hubbard said his team is considered undersized compared to their competitors.
"We're mostly smaller than the other first eights out there," Hubbard said. "We're smaller in weight. Being lighter means you're generally weaker."
Andre Payne said his team entered the race focused on advancing into the men's first eight finals, but the honor is a welcome reward for the team's hard work.
"It's just a great way to finish off a good year," Payne said.
The top six Virginia schools send boats to the nationals competition, and head coach Ashley Frese said the boys had surpassed coaches’ expectations.
"They've been lifting weights before school and they come to the river every day for practice," she said. "They've pushed themselves far past our expectations."
The season isn't over for many of the Woodson rowers. Frese had a list of strong performances that qualified for the finals and petite races on May 22.
"Our men's second eight placed fourth in their heat," she said. "The women's junior four placed second in their heat and our women's first four placed fourth in their heat. Also, our women's first eight placed second in their heat."
Fairfax head crew coach Elana Baldwin was proud of the way her rowers performed at the state finals and equally pleased with how they handled the iffy weather conditions.
"The wind is nothing new around here," she said. "The coxswains haven't said much about it. I don't think it's affected us too much."
In the face of the weather and floating starts, the Fairfax team secured some major victories in the face of strong competition.
"Everything went well," she said. "Our men's first four made it to the finals, and were very excited about that. And the women's first four took second in a tough heat."
Much like other teams, wind was the word at the Robinson camp after the heat races ended.
"I'm excited about our chances [in the finals]," head coach Jon Barrett said. "But this high wind is just killing us. I've been coaching for 14 years and we've never [postponed the races]."
The Robinson girls' first eight finished first in their heat with a time of 6:39.4, and the men's first eight earned a trip to the petite race with a fourth place finish.
Emily Martin, coxswain of the girls' first eight, said her team had a little bit of luck avoiding a floating start.
"We had the [starting grid], but right after our race it broke," she said.
Heading into the state finals, the girls' eight had won four regattas.
Senior rower Cate Oakley said the girls turned in one of their better performances in the preliminaries.
"The race felt really good," she said. "I think we'll have a lot more we can bring in the final."
Robinson rowers said the floating start format might have hurt the team's performances.
"The [coxswains] have been telling me [the floating starts] are making the races a challenge," Barrett said. "When you're up there, you want a perfect start and [officials] are having a hard time making that happen."
The Lake Braddock crew team competed at the event, earning a fourth place finish in the women’s second eights heat, and a third place finish in the men’s second eights heat.
The Bruins’ main boats also found some success at the event. The Braddock girls’ first eights boat took third in their heat and the boys’ first eights crew took fifth in their heat.
The West Springfield crew team entered the meet with high hopes for a strong performance.
"We were expected to have a fighting chance with some of the other crews," coach Matt Petty said. "But weather may have affected how they ran."
The men's first eight finished fifth in their heat with a time of 6:00.5.
"My guys went out and said they had a good race," he said. "But the conditions weren't as good as they hoped for."
Petty, however, didn't want to put all the blame on the weather.
"There's no excuse," he said. "[The weather excuse] is slightly justified, and it may have had a little effect on their race."
Petty's rowers conceded that the windy conditions affected their performances.
"The line-ups were hard to get even," junior Dustin Danis said. "It didn't affect the races too much, but the wind factored in. Our race might have been different without the wind."
The floating starts also created an advantage for some teams.
"It took about 300 meters just to get the boats lined up," junior Hunter Briggs said. "When we did get started, it wasn't always even. It made a difference in the race."
Battling the wind isn't new to the West Springfield men’s first eight. Danis said his teammates faced similar conditions during the season, but because of his team's make-up, rowing through wind is a considerable challenge.
"We're usually able to get through it," he said. "But the wind was just constantly on us. It was like a wall. We're a light crew, so it was pretty hard to get through it."
The South County men's first eight didn't qualify for the finals heat, their third-place time of 5:36.1 did place them in the petite race.
Dotiana Adape, junior coxswain of the men's first eight boat, said her boys pulled out a strong race despite the poor conditions.
"It was a really nice race," Adape said. "We worked well together, we had a nice sprint and even though the wind was hard, we pulled through."
Echoing the complaints of other competitors, Adape bemoaned the torrid conditions and the floating start.
"We would be lined up and then a gust of wind would come and push us over," she said. "We've had similar windy days, but not as bad as this."