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Members of the Tufts crew teams in their rowing shells on the Malden River. (Photo by Chris Maietta)
Rowing Home

The same cooperation among individuals that propels a rowing shell is the spirit surrounding the Tufts University crew team’s recent relocation to the Malden River.

A partnership between Tufts Rowing, directed by Gary Caldwell, and Combined Properties, a real estate investment and development firm in Malden, has brought forth great progress for Tufts and the city of Malden. For Tufts, which had been rowing on Boston’s Charles River out of rented space inside Harvard University’s boathouse, the new facility has allowed the program to become fully functional. With Tufts on the river, Combined Properties has seen the potential to develop a forgotten waterway into a recreational and environmental resource that could be a boon to the city. The company’s support of the venture includes the free lease of land for Tufts’ current storage facility.

“I don’t know in the rowing world of a parallel to this,” said Caldwell, the head coach since 1990. “A private real estate company has gone out of its way, of its own volition, to help a rowing program come of age. From a standpoint of civic responsibility, we are an example that it’s possible to take a long-neglected and ofttimes abused river and make it useful to the people who live adjacent to it.”

The root of the story dates back 30 years. Rowing in high school had been a watershed experience for Chris Maietta, who competed at Phillips Academy in Andover during the early 1970s. Now the vice president of business development and marketing at Combined Properties, he first discovered the possibility of rowing on the Malden River at a company-sponsored fireworks display that was set up along the river to celebrate Malden’s 350th birthday during the summer of 1999.

“It was really an accident because I had been working here for maybe five or six years and I never paid any attention to the river,” Maietta said. “We always thought of it as kind of a ditch back there. The Malden River area has always been heavily industrialized, with big factories belching out smoke and making industrial products. The river was certainly not thought of as much of a place for recreation.”

During a ride on a motorboat, Maietta noticed the river was flat, calm and reasonably wide. Memories of his love for rowing rushed back to him. The initial idea was to help a local high school start a team so that its students could enjoy the same experience. He made phone calls to rowing programs in the area looking to borrow equipment. Caldwell was the first to call him back.

Within a few days, after exploring the site, Caldwell proposed moving the Tufts program to the river. It was a much-needed move. Caldwell had been looking for an alternative site that would allow the program to expand. The Charles had become crowded with boats, and Tufts was operating under strict time and space constraints in Harvard’s boathouse. In the fall of 1999, Combined Properties provided a warehouse for Tufts to store its equipment and the program began using the river on a trial basis.

The athletes weren’t impressed at first. The Charles, and Harvard’s Newell Boathouse, are international centers of rowing and provide a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. The Malden River had the view, but not much else.
“The Charles lives and breathes rowing,” said Mike Friedburg, a senior from Pittsford, New York, who sits in the stroke seat for the varsity 8. “The aesthetic value was wonderful. I can’t speak for everyone, but to leave that to move to a neglected river wasn’t pleasing.”

Tufts and Combined Properties began working on a lease agreement. In the meantime, Tufts returned to the Charles for the 2000–01 season. Then, in May 2001, Combined Properties made a long-term commitment of land close to the river to Tufts. The program moved there full time for the 2001–02 season and put up its current transitional storage structure.

The benefits for both parties soon emerged. The Tufts program, which consists of approximately 85 members and ten boats, has twice as much space as it had at Harvard, where it had been housed since the fall of 1980. The Malden water is calmer and less populated than the Charles, which means less practice and race time lost to bad weather and more time for coaches to teach rather than worrying about oncoming crews.

The river is quickly becoming a place where other programs want to row. Tufts hosted four races there in spring 2002. This year Trinity College and the Coast Guard Academy are moving their 30-year-old Mason-Downes Cup race from New London, Connecticut, to Malden. With the course passing just 50 feet offshore as it heads down the finishing stretch, it is a great location for spectators. The Tufts men’s varsity 8 is undefeated on the river.

“There’s not a question from a competitive standpoint if you look at how our overall squad performed last year that it was the most successful year we’ve had since probably 1995,” Caldwell said. “A good part of that is because of the quality of the rowing experience, the actual amount of usable water time we had, and the more efficient use of time that we were able to utilize coaching.”

Turning a negative into a positive, Friedburg organized a river cleanup day in April 2002. Sixty-five rowers and two sets of parents collected trash along the riverbank. Tufts is also helping to establish a rowing program at the local Mystic Valley Charter School. All of this activity and goodwill on the river has city leaders smiling, Maietta said.

“Having an institution of Tufts’ caliber here on a daily basis, engaging in this activity which has so much history behind it, has a positive effect that it lends to the city,” he said.

With approval and funding, Tufts will build a permanent boathouse and landscape a large area along the riverbank. Until then, they have their own facility and their own river that allows them to practice and compete when and how they want.
“It gives us more ownership of our rowing experience,” said senior Rebecca Clark, a member of the women’s varsity 8 from Seattle. “All of the bigger programs have their own facility. It’s integral to success. This puts us on the map.”