This story is part of "Mornings in Michigan," our series about morning rituals from across our state.
In the sport of crew, morning is the best time of day.
“Very calm. You get your workout in. The sun’s startin’ to rise. The day’s new. It’s wonderful,” Mark Milewski told me as we looked out at the Detroit River and the island of Grosse Ile.
Milewski is the head coach of the boys and girls rowing teams at Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights. We were in Wyandotte at the Wyandotte Boat Club. It was just before sunrise on what would turn into a beautiful early May Saturday. Milewski says skimming along in the river, the world on land can feel very far off, but sometimes it still finds its way to the boat.
“If somebody in one of the houses is cooking bacon, you can smell it for a mile down the river," he said. "I never thought that smell would carry so far, but in the morning, you’re out there by yourself, you can smell it."
Milewski grew up in Wyandotte and started rowing in high school in the 1990s. Today, he’s a teacher at Crestwood and he founded the rowing program there in 2005. Crestwood is one of several schools that call the Wyandotte Boat Club home. The club was founded in 1875.
“This is the lower part of the Detroit River, which really forms the delta into Lake Erie. Where we’re standing right now used to be a chemical factory," said club president Don Ukrainec. "We turned what was a loss of jobs, but a really ugly polluting thing, into a really beautiful attraction along the river.”
The boat club was hosting its 47th annual Wy-Hi Regatta with 12 schools competing. Crestwood has 31 rowers this year. Crew isn’t a sport known for its diversity, but Crestwood’s athletes come from all different backgrounds. That’s what appealed to Hadil Eljammali. She’s 17 years old, Arab-American and rows wearing a hijab.
“It’s just different people coming together for the same cause, same purpose," she said. "If you were to do track or anything, yeah, you have a team, but the races are all kind of like won individually. [On] this team everybody has to work together to win together.”
Rowers hoist their boats over their heads and carry them upside down out of the boathouse. Boats can hold one, two, four or eight rowers. The biggest shells are longer than a trailer on an 18-wheeler and can cost about $40,000, so with dozens of boats coming and going, navigation was almost as important on land as it was on the water.
Coxswains are in charge of directing rowers as they get the boats into and out of the water. During a race, a coxswain sits in the bow or the stern, controls the rudder and barks orders to keep the rowers on line and pace. The rowers’ seats slide back and forth and Milewski says a 1500-meter race takes serious leg power.
“Imagine doing squats with 60 pounds 36 times a minute for seven straight minutes. That’s the equivalent of doing a race,” Milewski said.
Patricia Helton’s son, Mark, is in 11th grade. Her daughter rowed for Crestwood and Helton urged Mark to do the same. In less than three years, he’s lost 75 pounds.
“Just a few weeks ago for practice they ran eight miles. Did I ever think my son would run eight miles? No I never thought any of these kids would run eight miles,” Helton said, laughing.
Bahaa Mohamed is a junior at Crestwood. He says rowing’s made him stronger in more ways than one.
“It helped me build my character mentally also with everything that I did in life, like studying and family and relationships," he said. "It helped so much just giving me that mentality and state of mind of focus. It’s amazing.”
By late morning, some strong winds kicked up and the Wi-Hi Regatta was called off before it was over.
Before the cancellation, people were sitting in folding chairs near the finish line yelling and ringing cow bells to cheer on the rowers. Whether it’s the fans or the camaraderie or the excitement of a close race, Hadil Eljammali and every other rower I spoke to told me teenagers who normally want to sleep in have a little more pep for early morning regattas.
“I wake up earlier to come here than for school," she said with a smile. "Yeah, it’s a struggle getting up for here, but I’d wake up for a race any day before waking up for school. I cannot wake up for school for the life of me.”
Lauren Talley contributed to this story.