There are few places Todd Silver would rather be than rowing on Commencement Bay.
He see eagles and seals as he glides over the water. “There was a whale sighting a few weeks back,” he said, “but I missed that.”
“The idea of being out here alone is just magic,” he said.
Silver, 63, wants to see more people enjoy the water. The retired co-president of Tacoma’s J.L. Darling Corporation has spent the better part of two decades working to make this a reality.
Silver is part of a group that’s been working since 1998 to build a public human-powered craft center on the Thea Foss Waterway. Since the late 1990s he’s also served as director for Sound Rowers and Paddlers’ spring Commencement Bay race.
This year’s race is May 14. It starts from Marine Park and makes a 6-mile triangle around the Puyallup River and Simpson Mill sawdust barge buoys. All human-powered craft are welcome to enter, Silver said.
Silver was in his rowing shell about 100 yards off the Tacoma waterfront recently when we caught up with him to ask a few questions:
Q: What types of craft have the speed advantage in a race like this?
A: A rower, because we get to use our entire body. In rowing, about 60 percent of your propulsion is legs. With the sliding seat you explode with your quads, then your back, and you finish with your arms. A body in a rowing shell will beat that same body in a high-performance kayak. But there is a four-man kayak that will give us all a run for our money.
Q: So who will be slowest?
A: Usually the paddleboards. The winner usually finishes in 42-44 minutes. A stand-up paddleboarder is going to be almost two hours. Those are just not meant for speed.
Q: How common is it for racers to fall in?
A: It’s relatively uncommon. By the time people are doing this, they’ve spent hundreds of hours in their boats. But if it does happen, most have the ability to get back in their boat within 30 seconds and get right back in the race. It’s very rare that they’d need assistance. (But competitors are required to assist, and a chase boat patrols the course.)
Q: How did you get involved in the race?
A: I was hitting up John Woodworth for a donation to the YMCA when I noticed the rowing shells that were down there. One of the organizers, Ted Atkinson, showed me around, and before you knew it he’d sold me one of the boats. He said he’d teach me to row as long as I did at least one Sound Rowers race. So I did. He ran the race for a number of years, and when he moved to Montana (in the late 1990s) I took over.
Q: How often do you race?
A: There are 16 races per year, and some people make every one. I don’t because of my schedule, but it’s fun. It’s competitive but also very communal. We give first-third ribbons in each boat category, so a lot of people end up with ribbons and smiles. It’s a neat deal.
Q: Tell me about your work with Waterway Park.
A: A number of us worked on getting that space purchased for a human-powered craft center. The property is owned (by Metro Parks), and they just put forth a design yesterday (April 27). At some point we hope to have hundreds of people storing kayaks and rowing shells at the head of the Foss.
I’m out here (on the water) alone right now. If I was in Seattle, there is literally a traffic pattern where you row because there are so many rowers and paddlers. In Tacoma, you rarely see that. We want to see more people have access.
Q: Why is the center important?
A: One of the problems with kayaks is if you don’t have a place to store them on the water, you have to load it in your car and drive. It turns a one-hour paddle into a 2 1/2-hour event. … A human-powered craft storage center is going to give people access.
We are one of the few waterfront communities that doesn’t have one. … This is a 24/7/365 rowing venue. It’s not like Boston where you have to put the shells away for the winter. … Truly, this is a “if we build it they will come” thing.
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SOUND ROWERS COMMENCEMENT BAY RACE
When: May 14, 10 a.m.
Where: Marine Park, 3427 Ruston Way, Tacoma.
Registration: 8:30 a.m. on race day or preregister online at soundrowers.org.
Fee: Boats of 1-2: $10 per per person for Sound Rowers members or $20 per person for nonmembers. Boats of 3 or more: $10 per person.
Pre-race meeting: 9:15 a.m.
Who can enter: All human-powered watercraft. Participants should have open-water experience.
Other races: Sound Rowers and Paddlers offers many more races throughout the year, including Budd Inlet on Sept. 17.
More info: soundrowers.org.