Pickle-spear-shaped boats slice through the river, propelled by riders' pumping thighs and circling arms.
Oars churn. Coaches armed with megaphones berate slow and sloppy strokes. Nearby, nose-diving pelicans crash into the water and dusk turns the sky tangerine.
For years, rowing was the sport of elite prep schools and Ivy League universities. Now, adults and high school students nationwide, and in Hillsborough County, are flocking to the sport.
For many students, rowing has higher purposes: an application that's potentially more attractive to university admissions officers and the possibility of sports scholarships. For adults, the goals are more immediate — an intense, low-impact workout in pleasant surroundings.
In 2004, Florida had about 25 teams of high-school-age rowers. Last year, there were 37 teams, according to the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association.
Demand among adults has jumped so much that the Stewards Foundation, a Tampa rowing organization, expanded its adult classes to include winter sessions. The group has held fall and spring classes since 2006. The group organized an adult team in October that will compete in the Tampa Mayor's Cup Regatta in March, said Denny Antram, Stewards Foundation vice president and coach.
Opal Hudson would sometimes catch a glimpse of crew practice during her commute from Riverview to her appraiser's job in downtown Tampa. Curiosity prompted her to enroll in an adult class last year. Now, she's competing in the upcoming race.
"I just thought it was something interesting, something I would like" said Hudson, 38. "Once I did it, it was just amazing being out there. I became addicted immediately."
Like Hudson, many local rowers said they had an instant attraction to the sport. They liked its physical intensity and team character. They mainly stick to two aquatic haunts for practice — the Palm and Hillsborough rivers. They wear spandex getups to races. But what local rowers don't have in common is how their teams are funded and organized.
Plant and Hillsborough high schools have parent-coordinated rowing clubs. Because it's a club sport, rather than a state-sanctioned sport, the money comes from fundraisers, donations and club dues rather than athletic departments.
Academy of the Holy Names pays for a large portion of its rowing team's costs, including coaches' salaries, but there's also a parent booster club that handles logistics and equipment purchases, athletic director Pete Young said.
The Stewards Foundation high school team, composed of students from area schools without rowing programs, is funded by adult learn-to-row lesson fees and private donations.
Though rowing doesn't require frequent equipment purchases, used boats and oars like the ones the Stewards team buys from time to time cost $8,000 to $10,000, Antram said. Uniforms can range from $65 to $130.
The Stewards teammates come from all parts of Hillsborough, including Blake, Chamberlain and Durant high schools, as well as St. Petersburg. Many rowers had the same reasons for taking up the sport: inquisitiveness and the chance for a free ride to college.
"I've always wanted to do crew ever since I was little," said Phoebe Gunter, 16, who is in Robinson High School's IB Program. She's in her third year of rowing with the Stewards team. "I love it. I definitely want to do it in college."
Anthony Lopez, a 15-year-old freshman at Robinson, enjoys the sport's rigor and plans to stick with it until he graduates. He's also interested in a college rowing scholarship.
"I had a couple of neighbors that did it over at Plant, so I thought it'd be fun to try it out," he said. "It really has a lot of teamwork involved in it. It's one of the most physically demanding things I've ever done."
Rowing is indeed an attractive sport to colleges, said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant and co-author of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.
"(Rowing) is an important sport for selective institutions because it generates a lot of interest on the part of alumni, who tend to be donors," Goodman said.
And universities' moves to comply with federal antidiscrimination laws — namely by offering equal numbers of athletic scholarships to men and women — are particularly favorable to female rowers, said Young, of the Academy of Holy Names.
That might explain some of the growth in rowing teams. USRowing, the sport's governing body, had about 650 member organizations in 1998 and 1,067 in 2008, communications director Brett Johnson said.
When the NCAA started offering women's rowing in 1996-97, there were 74 women's rowing programs, Johnson said. In 2008, there were 140.
For Matt Abel, the Plant High School Rowing Association coach, what drew him in – the racing aspect of the sport – partly explains the allure to athletes and instructors. Many students, he said, are decent athletes in middle school but don't shine at a particular sport. They feel like they can't get ahead if they haven't honed their talent since early childhood.
Rowing, he said, allows them to compete in a sport that can be perfected with effort and practice.
In Abel's case, the racing was the best thing about being on Princeton's varsity rowing squad.
"If people ask me what I majored in, it's really U.S. history," he said, jokingly. "But I'd say rowing."
Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.