With coach David Patterson at the helm, the Fairfield University Women’s Rowing Team takes on the oldest collegiate competitive sport with determination and heart.

With coach David Patterson at the helm, the Fairfield University Women’s Rowing Team takes on the oldest collegiate competitive sport with determination and heart.

It’s still dark at a quarter to six in the morning, but the boat house on the Norwalk River is already bustling. Scores of needle-like boats — called racing shells — are nestled on high racks. The rowers standing amid the boats are pulling on warm layers, taping blistered hands, tying back pony-tails, and fastening hats.

The team of 37 women separates into groups of four and eight, and in a flash of choreography, each crew carries its boat down to the water.

Once they push off the dock, the rowers stow their footwear and water bottles underneath their seats and fasten their feet into stationary rowing shoes.

The morning pushes ahead with the team’s blades slicing through the current — the sky brightening a bit into a gauzy blue.

By about 6:15 a.m., the boats have pushed out further yet, as the rowers steadily pull on their oars, rowing with their backs to the open water before them, relying on the woman in the coxswain seat to steer. The wind picks up as they edge toward Long Island Sound. A black Labrador named Swain — for coxswain — looks on patiently from a coach’s launch boat that motors alongside the team.

Head Coach David Patterson lifts a mega phone and cheers the rowers on “You don’t need to rush! You need strength and composure. Live for the stroke. Love the stroke!”

The tide has come in by about 7 a.m. as the women row timed pieces — what sprints are to runners — and icy water splashes up into their boats. The team’s red jerseys are like flares against the still-lightening horizon.

“We can’t wait for nice weather,” Patterson said about the year-round rowing season and the challenges they face as a sport. “It’s really early, really dark. We row six days a week. They work so hard.”

It’s Patterson and his staff’s responsibility to build the fastest varsity eight boat — the blue-ribbon event in collegiate and Olympic rowing — for racing competitions, with the ultimate quest of winning the MAAC conference championship. So, during the practice, Patterson’s stopwatch is on and he is watching — rowers on any boat could have their position swapped at any time.

Originally from London and now in his eleventh season at the helm of the Fairfield program, Patterson has a unique approach for bringing a skill-set and finesse to the rowing of his athletes, especially in novice boats.

“Just be nice,” he said during an interview in his campus where shelves groan under the weight of grease spray cans and colorful aquatic tape. “You’ve got to make them feel good about it. They have to emerge as one team, so everyone’s got to be having some fun.”

For nearly two decades, Fairfield University rowing has enjoyed success both at the club and varsity levels. Through hard work and dedication from student athletes, alumni, and the University, the men’s and women’s rowing programs have flourished against some of the region’s and nation’s top competition.

Officially a varsity team since 1996, the women’s program has proven over recent years – and with a strong start this season – that it’s ready to stake its claim not only in New England, but in Northeast rowing circles.

The division I team competes against other universities in the MAAC conference like Manhattan, Canisius and Marist College, but will also race in larger regattas regionally and nationally.

One of the oldest competitive collegiate sports on the books, rowing still stands as one of the only sports where you can arrive on campus with no previous experience and if you’ve got a healthy sense of curiosity — and a willingness to test your mettle — you’ll be welcomed onto the team as “a walk-on.” If you work incredibly hard, it’s not impossible that you could end up rowing on a national stage or at the Olympics. Fairfield’s own Hall-of-Famer Chris Duffy ’93 came out of the men’s club program and represented the U.S. at the World Championship in 1998 and 1999.

Kerry Clarke ’18, is a starboard, or left-side, seven-seat rower who helps set the pace of the boat and is one of three captains on the team this year. After the rigorous morning practice out on the water, she commented that rowing crew has been one of the best — and most difficult — things she has done in her college career.

“Rowing is the ultimate team sport because if you’re not all doing the same thing at the same time, the boat isn’t going to go anywhere. Working together as a cohesive unit — that’s how you win races,” Clarke said, palming some sweat from her forehead.

A “walk-on” during her first year at Fairfield, the West Friendship, Md. native said she has found a family in the rowing team and is proud to row for Coach Patterson.

“We’re lucky to have a coach with so much experience,” she said. “It’s a special sport, it really is. It’s unlike anything else.” And with that, Clarke was off on a bus with the rest of her teammates for a day of classes on campus, and a second workout on an erg machine later in the day.

Coach Patterson is a stickler for the team’s technique. It’s essential that the rowers maintain poise and coordination regardless of how exhausted they are by the exertion.

“It’s brutal. Sort of the big joke in rowing is the old saying: ‘You have to take yourself to a level in a racing competition that’s just on the verge of a heart attack. And then you have to do the second half of the race’,” Patterson said with a laugh. “You know, that’s the physical challenge they’re going through. Yet, they also need to have the poise and balance of a dancer because these boats wobble.”

With more than 20 years of rowing and coaching experience, Patterson, a stroke seat rower in his own right, has a healthy number of winning medals and ribbons that dangle from a rod on his office wall. He also has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Edinburgh along with a master’s in exercise and sports studies from Smith College. He says the fastest varsity eight boats are, ultimately, with athletes who are also mentally prepared and have a strong will to win.

When asked how and where his passion for rowing started he said: “Oh, me? I was a freshman walk-on.”