BELFAST, Maine — On a bright, breezy May afternoon, a long, thin rowing boat sped through the dark-green water of Belfast Bay, seagulls dancing in the air around it.
For an hour or so, the team of six rowers and a coxswain concentrated on the waves, the wind and pulling together as a unit to smoothly power the Belle Fast, a 32-foot-long Cornish pilot gig, through the choppy bay. Once back on shore, the rowers put away their life jackets.
“I love being out on the water. I love moving so quietly and seeing the seals and dolphins,” Kelly Sandman, 46, of Belgrade said. “I came into it knowing nothing, and I found it completely invigorating. It just makes me feel really alive, like I am part of the weft and weave of the world.”
She and the others are part of Come Boating!, a volunteer-run organization that is dedicated to providing people access to the water. The group, which is launching its summer season this weekend, has been a Belfast mainstay for more than 20 years. Its fleet of three Cornish pilot gigs are a common sight on the harbor all year round, thanks to rowers who don’t lack for heartiness or enthusiasm.
Those include Susan Cutting, the coxswain — generally shortened to “cox” — on this particular row. The cox is in command of the boat at all times, sitting in the stern facing the rowers while steering the boat. She shouted encouragement and directions, fighting to have her voice audible over the rush of the wind and splash of the water.
Cutting, 55, of Belfast began rowing with the group in 2015, and currently serves as its vice president. She said there’s a lot about the group that she loves, including the Come Boating! community, the dedication to the mission of giving everyone a chance to get on the water and the way that participants gain new skills and strength through rowing.
“When you’re rowing, it’s about being in sync with other people, as well as working out and being on the water,” she said. “It’s a recipe for happiness. It’s a really special experience, and has really built a connection for me with the bay.”
Rowers participate at different levels. There are community rows, exercise rows, power rows and the racing teams, which train hard and compete around the Northeast and beyond.
“Belfast has a reputation in the Northeast for being really hard to beat,” Cutting said. “We have a really strong tradition.”
The Cornish pilot gigs have a tradition, too. They were developed in the early 1800s off the coast of Cornwall in England, and designed to be fast and seaworthy, so they could transport local pilots to incoming sailing vessels. The first pilot gig to reach the ship would win the profitable job of guiding it safely through the shoals, so there was a built-in incentive for the oarsmen to be extra speedy.
Speed is still a uniquely rewarding aspect of rowing, Keith Welch, 80, of Belfast said.
“I like the satisfaction I get from it,” he said. “It’s not fun — because I work really hard — but it’s very satisfying. I like to give it my all.”
And it’s bringing together an array of generations. Abby Lown, 25, of Belfast, who joined the group a year ago, said that the rows have been a highlight for her. She doesn’t own her own boat, and this has been a great way to experience the water.
“I just love being on the water,” she said. “It’s such a joy. I feel so lucky to be able to come out and enjoy it.”
The group’s seasonal kick-off event will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Come Boating! boat shed Saturday, May 28 at the Belfast public landing, with a rain date of Sunday, May 29. People can go for a row with trained coxswains from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m and look for deals in life jackets, paddles, foul weather gear and more at the annual “All Things Nautical” yard sale, which takes place from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
“We’re celebrating the beginning of a new season,” Cutting said.