The public amenity that Camden County describes as the crown jewel of its parks system is on full display to visitors from throughout North America this weekend.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 13, 2023
For the first time since 1953, crews racing in the largest collegiate rowing competition in the United States will launch their vessels not from the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, but from the Cooper River in Camden County.
The Dad Vail Regatta, named for collegiate athlete and rowing coach Harry Emerson “Dad” Vail, kicked off Friday morning at Cooper River Park.
Through Saturday, 70-plus teams of collegiate rowers from across North America will compete in 21 categories of singles, doubles, and quads championship racing; corporate challenge racing; and, for the first time, adaptive rowing.
The event, which was established to promote interest in and access to the sport of rowing for colleges and universities of all sizes, was relocated from its historic home amid a federally funded dredging project begun last summer by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Although it lacks the landmark shoreline of Philadelphia’s picturesque Boathouse Row, as an aquatic racing venue, the Cooper River is renowned for its 2,000-meter straightaway.
Dad Vail Regatta President James Hanna said Cooper River is considered “quite a fair race course” for its visibility, length of straightaway, and the relative stillness of the water.
It offers rowers a clear view of Olympic-caliber distances as they race from the area of the Route 130 bridge down toward Cuthbert Boulevard.
“Philadelphia has not only a current, but a turn in the Schuylkill River,” Hanna said, which can pose a challenge to visiting teams.
“The home-court crews all know the river and how to take that turn, and they can avoid adding seconds to their time,” he said.
In all, Hanna said his organization “could not be more pleased” with the turnout at Friday’s opening.
“We’ve got a good level of competition here,” he said.
Relocating a premier regional event from Philadelphia to South Jersey for the first time is no insignificant feat, and the Camden County government has loudly touted the local impact of the crowd the regatta brings.
As renowned as the Dad Vail is, it’s one of nearly a dozen major events planned on the Cooper River waterway this year. Yet its arrival in South Jersey is a firm reminder of the capacity built by the investments Camden County has made in Cooper River Park, the crown jewel in its parks system.
Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash said as many as 30,000 visitors could descend upon Cooper River Park over the course of the two-day event, which he described as “an enormous economic engine” and “a huge positive for our community.”
Nash said he was “exuberant” to welcome the competition to South Jersey, and listed off the major initiatives — the $10-million Cooper River dredging project, construction of the Camden County Boathouse, rehabilitation of the county-owned restaurant on North Park Drive, planned improvements as part of a massive capital investment in the county parks system — that laid the groundwork for hosting an event of its scale.
“We’ve worked so hard to make improvements to the park under difficult circumstances and tight budgets,” the commissioner said,
“You put it all together to result in the Dad Vail using this as their home — for at least this year, while the Schuylkill is being dredged,” he said.
Just as impressive as the attendance figures the event draws is the fact that it’s powered entirely by unpaid volunteers. Longtime supporters are logged in the closing pages of the event program, which offers a final toast to “gold jacket” volunteers who have passed on.
Traditions like those are part of the charm of an event like the Dad Vail, said Collingswood Commissioner Rob Lewandowski, whose community is one of four that borders the park where the regatta is being held.
The chef-driven restaurants in his dining-centric borough certainly stand to benefit from the additional foot traffic of the weekend, but Lewandowski said he’s happier to showcase the community in which they’re situated.
“It speaks to the great work of the county that we’re capable of handling this type of event,” he said.
“It’s great to have it for all the economic benefits, but the energy that this event brings to the area, that’s special.”
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