Like Father Like Son, the Story of a Rowing Family

Photo by Sarah Ganzhorn / BU News Service

By Sarah Ganzhorn
BU News Service

NEWTON – Dale P. Hurley, Jr., is soaking wet. The wiry five-time U.S. National Team lightweight rower has just returned to the Community Rowing, Inc. boathouse on the banks of the Charles River in Newton, Mass., from a final, rain-drenched run-through of the course he will be racing tomorrow. That race will be part of the 48th annual Head of the Charles Regatta, an event that each year, according to its organizers, attracts over 9,000 athletes from all over the world and 300,000 spectators. Hurley has raced in the Head many times before.

However, this year, for the first time, the 45-year-old will not row in one of the four- or eight-person sweeping boats in which he had so much success with the U.S. team (including a third-place finish in the Lightweight Eight-man event at the 1991 World Championships in Vienna, Austria). Instead, he will crew a 55-pound, 31-foot carbon fiber doubles sculling boat, which, unlike sweeping boats, is set up so that each rower holds two oars, one in each hand. And this year, his rowing partner will not be a fellow National Team athlete; in fact, he will not even be an adult. The other member of this two-person team is Cooper Hurley, Dale Hurley’s 16-year-old son, who has been rowing for only four years.

The younger Hurley is a junior at Phillips Academy Andover, an independent college preparatory school 25 miles north of Boston, where his father teaches mathematics and runs a dormitory. Dale Hurley is also the assistant coach of the rowing team, of which Cooper Hurley is a member.

“It’s just like having a really personal bond with the coach, I guess,” he says, over a quick few slices of cheese pizza at Newton Corner House of Pizza before heading home. Cooper Hurley has rowed with a team since eighth grade, although tomorrow will be his first Head of the Charles Regatta. And unlike many of the athletes participating, he cannot come to the event early and watch other races, because tomorrow he is also scheduled to take the PSAT.

The race in which the Hurleys will be competing is a special event, the Directors’ Challenge Parent/Child Double Sculls. Entry fees from Directors’ Challenge events benefit the Regatta’s permanent endowment. Earlier this year, Dale Hurley bought his sculling boat from another rower and began using it to train a student from Turkey who was attending a program at the school where he teaches in the summer, in Wolfeboro, N.H. Cooper Hurley would sometimes help his father train the boy, and soon they began rowing as a team by themselves. When Cooper turned 16, Dale Hurley bought the Parent/Child entry fee as a birthday gift. Whether they would be able to train hard enough in the few months before the Head, however, was not clear.

“I think I never would have thought that we would have made it this far,” says Dale Hurley. He and Cooper Hurley agree that they have made significant progress together in a relatively short amount of time. When they first began training, says the elder Hurley, “I was afraid we were going to flip the boat over.”

Race day is sunny and unseasonably warm. Spectators mill around in T-shirts and shorts on both sides of the Charles River, drinking bottled water and eating fried dough purchased from food trucks. At the Head of the Charles finish line, near Artesani Park in Allston, Dale Hurley’s wife Beth and their younger son Ian are waiting for the Parent/Child race to begin.

Beth Hurley is a rower herself, or at least she has been in the past; she became interested in the sport while studying at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. With two sons to raise and a job teaching visual art at two elementary schools in Reading, Mass., she is not able to row as often now, but says she would “if I had more time on my hands.” Even 12-year-old Ian Hurley has the rowing bug, according to his mother; last year he participated in a beginners’ program at a community boathouse near their home in Andover, and plans to take up the oars again next spring. Beth Hurley acknowledges that rowing plays a significant role in the Hurleys’s home life, saying that most people who know all four of them “would probably say we are a rowing family.”

Back at the Community Rowing boathouse, Dale Hurley and Cooper Hurley are stretching, drinking water, and trying to figure out how best to fill the final minutes before they must set off down the river to make the start time of their race.

“I’m gonna do some leg shakes,” says the 16-year-old, wandering off down the dock.

“I think he’s nervous,” his father confides.

Nervous or no, neither Hurley appears anything but calm and easygoing as they lower themselves into their boat. Sunglasses on, a blue baseball cap on Cooper Hurley’s head, the pair take a few deep breaths and push off from the dock. With just a few strokes of the oars they are several yards away. A racing boat with eight world-class crew members can move at nearly 14 miles per hour; the Hurleys may not be traveling that quickly, but they are by no means slow.

At the finish line, Ian Hurley’s mother has let him purchase a cowbell to cheer on his brother and father. Once their watches read 4:34 p.m., the start time for the Parent/Child race, he and Beth Hurley begin to scan the nearest curve of the river. They do not expect to see their team immediately, for the Head of the Charles course is 3.2 miles of twists and turns, and in this race against the clock the Hurley boat has been assigned the number 15, which means they must wait for 14 other boats, with intervals of two to three boat lengths between them, to leave the starting line before they may begin.

However, they are in for a surprise – after only five Parent/Child doubles boats have appeared around the bend, the Hurley team comes gliding into view. Beth cheers them on, over the protests of an embarrassed Ian, who nevertheless shakes his cowbell. Father and son strain against their oars, their faces taut with exertion. Within a minute of rounding the bend, they have passed the triangular yellow buoys that mark the finish line.

When all four Hurleys meet up back at the boathouse, there is no wild celebration, but each family member is smiling. A reporter offers them a smartphone to check the race results; out of 26 parent-child teams, the Hurleys have captured fourth place, with a finish time of 19 minutes, 11.35 seconds. They seem more or less pleased, although for Head of the Charles events of 20 to 29 entrants, medals are awarded only to the top three finishers. For one moment the fierce competitor in Dale Hurley shines through.

“Aw, they crushed us,” he says, examining the time of one of the three teams who outrowed him and his son.

Considering their shaky beginnings as a team, however, for Dale Hurley and Cooper Hurley this is an achievement. And so the rowing family loads up their SUV, carefully strapping the sculling boat to the rack on top, and heads for home.

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