Sixteen-year-old Grace London’s heart pounded with adrenaline - she screamed at her rowing partner Ellen Moore as they hauled hard on their oars to cross the finish line and capture gold in the Canadian Junior Women’s Dory Race Championships in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia last week.
“Row, row, row!” Grace roared at 16-year-old Ellen.
The team, from Murray River, were trailing in second place, about five strokes, or a few metres, from the finish line of a back-and-forth race. Grace and Ellen thought they had lost when suddenly their US competitors, Harley White and Sienna Mercaldi, dipped an oar into the water at an odd angle, perhaps a little too deep.
The US dory cruised full-momentum past the oar, flinging it out of control and under the boat. In rowers’ terms - the US team “caught a crab.” The rowers lost their rhythm and their dory swung off course on a swivel, slowing to a near standstill.
Grace and Ellen knew this was their last chance.
“I just rowed with all I had left,” Ellen said. “Grace and I have been friends since before we were born, our parents are friends, so I’m used to her yelling at me. It didn’t throw me off.”
The Island girls snatched the final opportunity and won the race, a grueling half-mile in open sea water.
“When I heard the gun fire, I knew we had won so I gave Ellen a big pat on the back,” Grace said.
They finished in 9:00:47 seconds. The US team recovered and followed suit crossing the finish line in 9:37:00.
The Murray River team’s success marks Canada’s first junior women’s win in the history of the competition.
Neither Grace or Ellen had planned to be trailblazers in the sport let alone be part of an international race until a few weeks prior to the competition.
But they were both interested in the sport. They enjoyed watching the annual PEI Dory Racing Championships, which are part of the Northumberland Fisheries Festival, each summer and the girls have grown up saturated in the community’s fishing culture.
“Watching the races growing up, it always intrigued me, not only are you rowing a boat for a race, but that’s how they used to make a living - my family has always been into fishing and out on the water,” Grace said. “I like being on boats so it seemed like something to try.”
Grace and Ellen are both athletic. Grace plays U18 AAA hockey with PEI’s Central Storm and Ellen is an avid ball player with the Kings County Clippers.
The girls first settled into a dory in 2019, when they were 14. After a couple of intro runs in one of their community-owned boats, they placed third in the PEI competition against the junior men’s teams.
They wanted to try again in 2020 but the pandemic kept Murray River’s dories in dry dock for the following two seasons. Grace and Ellen didn’t have another opportunity to race or practice until this summer’s Fisheries Festival.
Similar to 2019, they rowed a couple of practice runs before hopping in to race, this time in the senior women’s heat. There were no other junior girls to compete against.
It was a close race. Grace and Ellen placed second to an adult team with formal training under their belts, accessed through Row PEI in Charlottetown.
Ellen and Grace thought that would be the end of their season until Ron Fox with the Canadian Dory Racing Association reached out. A junior women’s team from Gloucester, Massachusetts was looking to compete in an international race and they needed competition.
Grace and Ellen felt they were up for the challenge and with about a week-and-a-half to prep, they got to work.
Dwayne Higginbotham of Murray River has competed in Lunenburg with his brother Wade multiple times and were the top team in the PEI senior men’s race this summer. Foot positioning, angle of the oars and seat strapping among others are all complex components of the sport and Dwayne volunteered to lend the girls a hand.
“I would try to help anyone who wants to try rowing,” Dwayne said, adding it’s great to see younger rowers interested in the sport.
Ellen and Grace tried to practice every day leading up to the Nova Scotia event, but needed to balance summer work schedules and weather conditions.
“It’s not very often there are whitecaps on the Murray River,” Grace said, remembering one of their more tenacious practices. “But we were out there and the waves were crashing over the bow. It was quite the experience.”
The Lunenburg course is distinctly different from the one in Murray River where you either have the tide with or against you depending on your direction. However, in Lunenburg, stronger tides can sweep sideways under the dory, pushing the weighty craft towards shore.
“Dwayne helped us learn to row in time with each other, to avoid rolling the boat too much, and he got us ready to row on one side,” Grace said, thankful she had an experienced guide.
They put their practice to use in the international race when an inshore breeze on race day compounded the force of the tide.
Grace and Ellen appreciated the community atmosphere in Lunenburg where they were paraded about and greeted like family by local rowers. They look forward to racing again and might even try to recruit some of their friends to participate in the PEI races next summer but they’re not sure how eager their peers will be.
Regardless, they plan to stay in touch with their US competitors and hope to attend the international competition in Gloucester next year.
Grace is the daughter of Melanie and Darrell London and Ellen’s parents are Erin and Gerald Moore.
Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic