Two Passions on a Single: Charlie, the Rowing Chestnut
Written By: Florian Carle
I have some rather niche passions.
The first one might not seem so niche to you, since you are currently reading “The Launch” a rowing blog made by a rowing gear company, but for many, it seems quite odd to have a wake up before 5 am to go sit on a tippy boat, narrower than your butt, to move backwards on a river…
My second passion is the Castanea dentata tree (I told you it was rather niche…), the American Chestnut tree! Well, my passion for this tree started in France, my home country where chestnuts and chestnut desserts are as ubiquitous in the Fall as pumpkin-spice is in the US. It was a shock when I moved to the US and chestnuts were nowhere to be found. I later learned that a blight accidently brought from oversea to the Bronx botanical garden in 1904 decimated the entire American Chestnut tree population in 50 years.
The American chestnut was a dominant tree in the east coast forests. Numbering nearly four billion, the tree was among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing in these forests, ranging from Maine to Mississippi. Today, the American Chestnut is functionally extinct, with the blight killing the tree but leaving the root system intact, just for the tree to try to grow again, to be killed again as soon as it’s out of the ground. A living-dead tree! (or is it dead-living tree?)
A group of scientists and volunteers formed The American Chestnut Foundation in 1983, to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree via scientific research and breeding, and to restore the tree to its native Appalachian forests. I met TACF volunteers at a state fair in Connecticut and immediately got involved, first volunteering by planting chestnuts in TACF orchards, and quickly joined the board of director of the CT chapter, becoming their science and outreach coordinator.
During Summer 2023, our Connecticut chapter had a brainstorming session about ways to celebrate the 40th anniversary of TACF. Each chapter in the native range of the American Chestnut trees were planning activities and events, and it hit me. I will be spending every single of my weekends in October racing at regattas in the northeast, along the same native range! This was an obvious sign, my two passions needed to somehow merge for this celebration! What if my boat, which would be traveling from Boston to Philadelphia, sport the colour of Charlie Chestnut, the mascot of TACF educational youth program? After all, not unlike American chestnut trees, my rowing shell is tall, straight, and rot-resistant! (Well, mostly…)
With the help of Kathy McGuire, my designer-extraordinaire teammate at Great River Rowing, we started thinking about a design. Initially playing with ideas of tree branches with leaves and burs organically wrapping around the boat, we had to be clever with our application. During the Fall season, I trained six times a week. The vinyl needed to be able to survive the intense use of the boat, brackish water splashes from the Housatonic River during practice (personal note to my coach: this was only a precaution measure, I do not backsplash and I am ready to perjure myself about it), full washes with soap post-practice, winds on the highway during transport, and on top of that, be removable for the end of the season!
We landed on a graphical pattern, with an alternating series of light and dark green American Chestnut tree leaves running the long of Filippi’s signature blue line turned brown for the occasion. The stern deck sported the 40th anniversary logo, and Charlie Chestnut stood proudly on the bow deck, as the cutest ship figurehead ever created. For the final touch, the boat was temporally renamed Charlie Chestnut. Nightly, my coach Valérie Leinfelder would email the entire Great River Rowing team with Charlie Chestnut listed as one of the boats in the flotilla for the next day’s outing. Talk about some public outreach! One of my teammates even gifted me a jar of chestnut honey he noticed for the first time in the store after being introduced to Charlie Chestnut. Fun fact: consuming chestnut honey will drop 10s on your 2k.
It was exhilarating to race and be at regattas with chestnut leaves on the boats! This season, my team and I competed at Head of the Riverfront in Hartford CT, Head of the Charles in Boston MA, and Head of the Schuhcyllchuhylkill PA. I travelled with a lot of goodies from TACF handing over 40th anniversary pins, stickers and Charlie Chestnut temporary tattoos. A lot of people stopped me to share they liked the colours of the boat. A race empire used his megaphone mid-race from his launch to congratulate me on the paint job (and I’m pretty sure he was distracted enough to not see me missing a buoy). One woman said “Oh TACF! I’ve heard of you, y’all did the documentary with Dolly Parton!”. Many other asked about the significance of Charlie Chestnut and gave me opportunities to share the work of TACF to bring back American Chestnut to its native range! And for the spectator too far on the bank of the river to see in detail the boat, my teammate screaming and cheering for Charlie Chestnut from the bridge as I raced underneath continued loudly loud outreach!
For the last three years, I have taken racing very seriously (you can learn more about my rowing background/training in a previous Launch post here). In the past, I had won a handful of bronze medals and ranked 17th at Head of the Charles. For 2023, I set myself the goal to beat my previous times and places on podium. It was a lot of hard work; I ramped up intensity and frequencies of workouts, made sacrifices and cutting down on late-night social activities (I can’t. I have crew.) to be able to train at 5:30 am the next morning. Beyond all my expectations, 2023 has been an incredible success: I won 3 gold medals and ranked 9th at Head of the Charles. While training was an essential key for this success, I think having Charlie Chestnut on my boat mentally forced me to push harder than I would have if he was not here. I believe I owe him my gold medals.
With all that free speed, maybe JL will make an American Chestnut design for their next collection!