Navigating the Schuylkill River (Philadelphia, PA)

I got a request last week to do a post on navigating the Schuylkill so that’s what today’s post will be on. I don’t know if I was just overlooking it or what but I couldn’t find a single map anywhere online that showed the 2k course, head race course, bridges, and traffic patterns.

Related: Interview with 2004 M8+ Gold Medalist Pete Cipollone

Here’s a panoramic from Boathouse Row’s Wikipedia that shows all the clubs on Kelly Drive. I edited it to add the names so you know which is which. To view a larger version just right-click and select “view image”, then magnify it when it opens.

To the left you can see the entire rowable part of the river, indicated by the blue brackets at the top and bottom of the picture. Even though the Schuylkill is fairly long, there are only about 3 miles of it that crews can safely row on. (This doesn’t count the part of the river up in Conshohocken where Villanova rows.) To give you an idea of how many meters that is, it’s just under 5k one way, so a little over 9.5k total. Time wise, I think going from top to bottom at a reasonable steady state pressure took us about 15-20 minutes this summer depending on the current. Once you get past the railroad bridge at the top of the river it gets pretty rocky and difficult to navigate so crews tend to not venture up there. The lower part of the river is blocked by the dam and a large net-like barrier that prevents crews from getting too close to it. To access the last four boathouses on the Row you have to go under the cables, making sure to stick close to the docks (while still giving crews room to launch). There’s a small island down by the row that, as you’re coming in to dock, you want to make sure you stay to the left of.

When I was at that Level 1 certification class back in March one of the things they spent a lot of time talking about was safety, for obvious reasons. They specifically spent a good deal of time talking about the things coaches are required to carry in their launch, including a paddle and at least 11 PFDs (personal flotation devices), amongst other things. The reason for this is because in 1984 a coach named Kippy Liddle was out with her crew and her engine stalled after getting caught in the vertical cables down by the dam. She didn’t have a paddle or anything that would allow her to row herself out of harm’s way so she instructed the other person in the launch (a coxswain) to put on the one PFD that was in there and swim to shore. She was able to do so successfully but when Liddle jumped out of the boat to try to swim to shore (after drifting closer and closer to the dam), she was swept over it and killed. She was told by the people coming to rescue her to stay in her launch but she didn’t listen, which contributed to her death. The people in the rescue launch also had their engine stall and ended up going over the dam too, but because they stayed in the launch they weren’t hurt. This is part of Schuylkill River history at this point but the point of this story is to make sure your coach’s launch has life jackets and a paddle and to always stay with your boat (regardless of what body of water you’re on).

This is the lower end of the river down towards Boathouse Row. The black dotted line is meant to represent the cables that prevent you from getting close to the dam. It’s not 100% accurate in terms of placement but it’s relatively close, so you get the point.

The biggest difference between the Schuylkill and most other bodies of water is that it follows a left hand traffic pattern, whereas most places follow a right hand pattern.

When you launch, your bow should be pointing upstream so that when you shove, you can immediately begin rowing to the left side of the river. If you’re coming from the lower boathouses, you should turn to port as soon as you get past the cables. If you’re launching from Undine, Penn AC, College Boat Club, or Vesper you should shove off, take a couple strokes to get away from the dock and then have your starboard rowers in bow 4 row to get you pointed towards the west side of the river. If you look at the map and see where the “30” sign is on the expressway, you should be aiming somewhere below that general area as you’re crossing. Any higher than that and you’ll be cutting off people that are rowing downstream. A good rule of thumb is to just row parallel to the cables and then straighten out once you’re on the other side. As you go upstream, keep an eye out for small boats or slower crews ahead of you. Typically you pass on the left but with left hand traffic patterns you pass on the right, which means you might need to venture towards the middle-ish part of the river, depending on how much room the crews in front of you are taking up. If you’re doing warmups and stuff or are only rowing by pairs or fours, stick close to shore so that crews can easily pass you without getting in the way of crews rowing downstream.

As you come up on the Girard Ave. bridge (indicated on the map above by a green star with a number “1” in it), you’ll want to be aiming for the first arch on the left hand side, as indicated by the blue arrow going upstream. Coming through Girard you should be aiming for the second arch on the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge (which until June I thought only existed in Monopoly), indicated by the #2 green star. Avoid going through the first arch here because it’s a tight squeeze and is fairly shallow. The second arch is wide enough for a couple crews to go under at the same time as long as you’re paying attention.

When you’re returning to Boathouse Row, coming through the railroad bridge you should be going through the second arch from shore, as you can see in the picture where the yellow arrow is. Through Girard you’ll want to come through the middle arch. This will point you directly down that straight stretch of the river. Be sure to not venture too far into the middle so that crews who might be passing on the way upstream can do so safely.

As you continue upstream, the next bridge you’ll encounter is Columbia (green star #3). It’s important – very important – that as you come around the turn, you don’t cut it too soon and/or sharply and end up on the right hand (aka wrong) side of the river. On a normal day this is critical but it becomes even more so during regattas when crews who have just finished racing are coming through the bridge. Once you’re through the bridge, stay on the left side of Peter’s Island. You really can’t mess this up unless you go through the 4th arch from the left and not one of the first three. Again, if you’re planning on stopping or are moving slower than other crews, pull over to right beside the island or right along shore so that the crews who are still moving at a good pace can row through the middle of the river without interruption.  A good “pro tip” if you’re out during really hot days (like we were this summer – hello 100+ degree heat wave) is to stay as close as you can to either shoreline so that you’re in the shade, both while you’re rowing and when you stop.

The center abutment on Columbia is the “marker” for what arches are upstream and downstream, which gives you three arches on either side to travel through. Traveling upstream, the center arch of the left three is the “preferred” arch, although the other two are available if the center one is congested. If there’s been a lot of rain, be careful traveling through the arch closest to shore because you’ll find a lot of logs, tree limbs, etc. sitting along the shoreline that can wreck your boat if you get too close. The amount of rain that we got in a one-week period in June was record breaking for Philly, so we saw a lot of limbs and sometimes whole trees floating down the river. Always be aware of stuff like that when you’re choosing which arches to travel through.

This bridge is a little weird because you’re not necessarily aiming for the center of the arch like you would be on a normal bridge. As you approach it, you should sort of be pointed at the upstream corner of the left hand abutment of the center arch. Read that again slowly and think about it. Upstream corner of the left hand abutment of the center arch. As you get closer to the bridge you can adjust as necessary and make your turn to port to get yourself pointed straight upstream.

The downstream arches are marked by the lane numbers, which you can see in this photo. This shows the bridge as you’re going upstream, so you can see that as soon as you come through the bridge at the end of the race course you have to immediately turn to port. If you continue to row straight you can easily get in the way of crews rowing upstream. The closer you are to the shoreline, the sharper your turn is going to need to be, so you might need to get some help from your rowers to bring you around depending on what the steering is like in your boat.

This photo shows a downstream shot with all the lanes visible, as well as the grandstands and the tower, which is where the finish line is located.

The course isn’t buoyed so it’s important that you get your point on your lane and maintain it to avoid impeding someone else’s race or practice. I think it’s at 300m to go where there is a cable that goes from the shoreline to Peter’s Island that has each lane number hanging down from it. If you line up directly on those coming out of Strawberry Mansion and pass right under them as you come through the last 500m, you’ll be all set.

Moving along, the next bridge you’ll come to as you’re heading upstream is the Strawberry Mansion bridge (green star #5). You can see in the photo the blue arrow indicates the upstream lane and the yellow arrows indicate the downstream lanes, which are on the race course and are indicated by the lane numbers that are along the top of the bridge. As you come out of Peter’s Island it’s important to stay pointed on the western arch in order to avoid venturing into lane 6.

Any time there is not a race happening, lane 6 must be left open as a “neutral zone” between the crews traveling upstream and downstream. This goes for launches as well. There is also a lane 0 that goes through the arch closest to shore as you’re traveling downstream (not shown in the picture) that is used as a travel lane for crews traveling to and from the canoe club and the St. Joe’s boathouse. This is not intended to be a travel lane during regular practices so as you come through the bridge if you’re in lane one, especially if you’re in a blind boat, make sure you’re paying attention and not venturing too close to the docks.

As far as landmarks go, Strawberry Mansion is about 750m into the 2k course and 250m in to the 1500m course. Additionally, in the second map you’ll see four pink arrows with the numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 in them. These indicate the following points along the race course:

Arrow #2: 500m in to the 2k course/starting line of the 1500m course

Arrow #3: 1000m in to the 2k course/500m in to the 1500m course

Arrow #4: 1500m in to the 2k course/1000m in to the 1500m course

Arrow #5: The finish line (note that it doesn’t run completely parallel to the bridge)

The last set of bridges you’ll encounter are the Twin Bridges, which are up in the East Falls area of Philadelphia. Rowing through here is at your own risk but if you do, the same left hand traffic pattern applies. Racing and high stroke rates aren’t allowed because of the rocks and everything that are just past the bridges. The water gets pretty shallow so to be safe, just don’t go up here. It’s not worth the risk of damaging your shell.

Before you get to the bridges is where you’ll spin. As you come down, make sure you’re hugging the shore a bit so that once you start rowing you’re not tripped up by the slight bend in the river right before the starting line of the 2k course, which is indicated by the #1 pink arrow. Once you get to this point you should line up on one of the lane numbers on Strawberry Mansion and aim to stay in that relative area for the duration of your row down the course. Coming through Strawberry Mansion there’s another slight turn to starboard (seen in the second map) that you’ll need to hit in order to stay in line on the course. I’d recommend consciously practicing this when you’re out so that on race day it’s a natural reaction and not something you’re spending too much time thinking about.

The last thing I want to go over is what I briefly talked about at the beginning with regards to the island down by Fairmount. I took a screenshot from Google Maps (zoomed in all the way) of the cables that go across the river, which you can see more clearly if you enlarge the picture. You can see the vertical cables across the majority of the river with the exception of the small channel closest to the docks, which is outlined by the blue line. There are no buoys or anything where that blue line is drawn so even though in theory you could row through the cables coming downstream and venture into that open area, it’s ill advised because of the dam (hence the red circle). Aim to stay where the green checkmarks are between the docks and the imaginary blue line when traveling to and from the lower boathouses.

The Schuylkill is a decent body of water to row on but it gets congested quickly due to the number of crews that row in that area. You’ve really got to be on top of your game in order to have an efficient practice and avoid getting in another crew’s way. I was surprised over the summer how many boats were out so I can only imagine how magnified that is during the school year.

Check out this video that a double took of their row upstream. It shows them launching from Fairmount, rowing under the cables (0:39), and then rowing over to the far shore on the west side. It jumps through to each of the bridges so you can see what they look like and what the travel lanes are. They steer a pretty good course so I’d recommend trying to replicate it as closely as possible when you’re out.

This video (by the same rower) shows the route to take as you’re coming in to dock. He was going to Bachelors, which is the club just on the other side of the cables. By the time you get around the turn, you shouldn’t be rowing by all eight or all four anymore. I’d drop down to fours or pairs if you’re in a four. There’s a lot of traffic in this area and not a lot of room to maneuver. Safety first. Also be aware of the Penn AC dock as you come around the corner. It sticks out farther than the other docks on the Row (as seen in this aerial shot), which means you’ve got to swing a little wide coming around if you’re docking anywhere below Penn AC. If you come around the corner tight it sets you up really well to dock at the Girls’ Club or Undine but will basically mean that you’re going to run yourself up over Penn AC’s.

This video is the same thing except the camera is on the stern instead of the bow, so you can get a bigger picture of what the docking process looks like.

And finally, this video shows both an upstream and downstream row, complete with shots of all of the bridges and the grandstsands at the finish

If I forgot something, feel free to point it out!

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2 thoughts on “Navigating the Schuylkill River (Philadelphia, PA)

  1. Teagan Aguirre says:

    Be aware that if you are docking at undine or girls club, the sides can get very shallow right around the Viking Statue. This is called turtle rock and you can usually see the water rippling on top of it if it is shallow enough.

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