Advocates hope to gain headwind for rowing, sailing plans

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 15, 2011 

Members of the Hilton Head Crew Team prepare to stow one of their eight-person racing shells in their cramped storage facility beneath the Old Oyster Factory restaurant on Broad Creek. The group is one that stands to benefit from the construction of a proposed rowing and sailing center on a town-owned plot along Skull Creek.

JAY KARR

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Soaked and shivering -- but smiling -- Christina Gusella lifted herself out of Broad Creek back onto the dock Monday after being thrown in by her teammates.

The group of area high school students was honoring a rowing tradition, where the team's coxswain is thrown in the water following a regatta win. Gusella, 17, steered Hilton Head Island Crew to a third-place finish Saturday in August, Ga., during its last race of the fall season.

Now, she and others hope to steer the community to support plans to build a public rowing and sailing center.

"We want the guys with the big wallets to see how happy you are," Coach Luther Strayer told the young rowers.

A member of both the Carolina Sailing Center and the Palmetto Rowing Club of Hilton Head, Strayer said he's hoping for a big turnout at a community barbecue to be held Saturday -- the launch of a fundraising and outreach campaign for a conceptual plan for the center.

The town spent $3.5 million last fall to buy 5.3 acres along Squire Pope Road beside 2.2 acres it already owns that once was home to a seafood co-op. The site would be the home of the planned $1-$1.5 million rowing and sailing center with access to Skull Creek.

Town Council set aside $150,000 in the current budget for designs. Construction is tentatively slated for 2014, but Strayer and other members of the Carolina Sailing Center and Palmetto Rowing Club hope to see work begin sooner "on a bare bones" center.

Sailing and rowing groups had committed to donate about $1 million toward a $1.5 million center, but a July 2010 proposal calls for private donations of $356,600 for a $1 million facility. Operations and management of the center would be handled by the Island Recreation Association. The town would contribute $67,000 a year toward operating costs, according to a proposal.

"We don't have to build everything at once. We can start with a ramp, a dock and a fenced area to store the boats. We can start slowly and add more as the money comes in," Strayer said. "If we have to wait until we have $1.5 million in hand, it will be a long time."

Sailors and rowers say existing facilities are too small, too crowded or not open to the public.

Hilton Head Island Crew, which uses space under the Old Oyster Factory off Marshland Road, doesn't have enough room or boats for all 53 members. A maximum of 28 can row at a time, forcing the team to split practices to two one-hour sessions, instead of a typical two hours. They also can't row at low tide from their location on Broad Creek.

Gusella, who after eight seasons with the team plans to continue rowing at the University of Alabama, said she's disappointed she won't be here to see the center materialize, but hopes her freshman and sophomore teammates will.

"A new sailing and rowing center will be a great help," she said. "It will be a big step for the town and will help restore the culture of sailing, rowing and water activities important to an island like this."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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