It’s the time of year when the stretch of the Hillsborough River between Tampa Heights and Davis Islands is sliced by the oars of scullers. It’s also a waterway that now is made even narrower by the Riverwalk construction barges that at times reduce the width of the river by maybe a third.
More boaters, less water space.
The combination of rowers — many of whom come from out of state this month to train for the competitive season which begins in April — construction barges, the usual motor boat traffic and influx of kayakers, canoers and paddle boarders presents a hazardous situation on the river, some say. Rowing organizers say they are addressing the problem, hoping to avoid any disasters.
Alvin H. Felman is an 84-year-old retired doctor who rows four to five days a week and he’s seen it all, he said.
His concern is that most of the scullers aren’t obeying the rules of the river: Keep to starboard, or to the right, just like on a highway.
“I’ve been out on the water four or five times when there have been accidents, near misses and so forth,” he said. “But it’s hard to convince people to be proactive. If somebody gets hurt or killed, it’ll ruin our reputation and people won’t want to come here. They’ll say this is a dangerous place.”
During the past few decades, Tampa, with its balmy spring weather and smooth waterways, has gained a reputation as a Mecca for some 1,500 out-of-state rowers who come here to train.
Rowers typically are let loosed on the river with no instruction as to the dangers, Felman said, though rowing organizers dispute that. Most come here from places where rowing is done in a wide expanse, like a lake or open waterway. A fairly narrow river presents its own set of problems. And if there are construction barges and other boat traffic, the chance of something going wrong increases, Felman said.
Team sculls have coxswains watching where they go, but single rowers aren’t always watching for water hazards, he said.
“The other day I was out there, and a tug boat pushing a barge was coming right for me,” Felman said. “Fortunately, I was able to get out of the way. On Saturdays and Sundays, there is a lot of motor boat traffic on the river as well.
“A lot of people up north row on lakes and they are not aware of the traffic patterns that exist on this river,” he said. “If you’re rowing on the wrong side of the river, it’s just like going the wrong way on the highway.”
Rowers tend to go in straight lines from bridge to bridge, he said, often that takes them into the paths of oncoming traffic, when they should follow the contour and curves of the banks.
“Right now, there is a lot of jay walking — jay rowing — out there,” he said. “It’s not complicated; it’s not rocket science. It’s just like the rules of the road.”
It’s true some rowing teams come from places with no rules or with rules that are different, said Tom Feaster, president of The Stewards Foundation which encourages the sport of rowing in Tampa at the middle school and high school levels and coordinates training time for visiting teams each spring.
That’s why every team that shows up ready to dip their oars into the Hillsborough River gets a tutorial, he said.
“We instruct all of our visiting teams about the rules of the water, to stay on the right-hand side of the river,” Feaster said. “There are rivers in the country, believe it or not, where the traffic patterns are backward.
“We definitely have those discussions with them while they are here,” he said. “We put it formally in the agreements we send to them to execute.”
There are some who stray, but that is the exception, he said.
But, there still are some areas of concern, he said.
“Under the center arches of the bridges, that’s where difficulties occur because there is only so much room,” Feaster said. Scullers are told to stay to the right beneath the bridges, particularly the Cass Street bridge, which has a “funky arch,” and is difficult to get through.
And sometimes sculls going south by the University of Tampa, he said, have to be careful of the boats launching there.
The construction barges, Feaster said, really is not a concern.
“Where the Riverwalk is going to go, at first, I thought that may be an issue, but it really isn’t,” he said. “The Riverwalk hugs the east side of the river a little bit. The barge hasn’t affected the actual water traffic.”
Nobody on the law enforcement side so far, has voiced an overriding concern about safety on the stretch.
“As we get into warmer weather, we will increase our boating patrols,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor.
Police have been monitoring boats on the river and conducting daily patrols, which include safety inspections, she said.
The best advice for boaters is to follow the rules and exercise caution, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Mike DeNyse.
“They should always remain vigilant while on the water,” he said.