(PHOTO: RowAmerica Rye won the men’s and women’s youth eights and the women’s youth four in 2019, just six years after the founding of the club.)
Two Rye organizations – the private, eight year old RowAmeria Rye and the non-profit 70 year old Wainwright House – are in varying degrees of jeopardy. Finding what looked like a way to work together and provide for the continuation of both entities, they took the idea to the Rye City Council. After encountering resistance from Milton Point neighbors, they also received a lukewarm “no action” vote from council, effectively blocking a path to further discussion with the Planning Board. MyRye.com sat down with both these organizations to tell their stories and we start today with RowAmerica Rye.
It is the voice of an entrepreneur, a father and an enthusiast.
“I’ve been in the business for twenty years as a sort of hobby,” says RowAmerica Rye founder and owner Howard Winkelvoss. The Greenwich resident discovered rowing when his teenage twin boys looked for an alternative to playing squash and found a dilapidated rowing club in Westport.
“We lucked out,” said Winkelvoss when describing Coach James Mangan, a former oarsman with the Garda Siochana Rowing Club in Dublin, Ireland, who coached his boys at the Westport club. His twins, Cameron and Tyler, went on to row at Harvard, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at Oxford.
If the name Winkelvoss is familiar, it is because the twins are best known for their creation of a precursor to Facebook while at Harvard and their subsequent financial settlement with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg – the story told in the movie The Social Network. They used that cash to make a big bet on bitcoin, and now run an early stage investment fund and the Gemini cryptocurrency exchange.
(PHOTO: The Winkelvoss family – son Cameron, wife Carol, son Tyler and Howard – at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)
The senior Winkelvoss is a success story in his own right, having launched Winkelvoss Technologies, a provider for retirement plan financing and forecasting, after years as a professor of actuarial science at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He jokes that out of his 45 year career, the tech company is the sole venture that has been profitable, allowing him to put money into various rowing clubs, including Rye.
Winkelvoss invested millions into the Westport club, now known as the Saugatuck Rowing Club. He invested in the property and building, hiring the best coaches, and adding single and double person boats. It became the best club in the country – “we know how to do it,” said Winkelvoss.
(PHOTO: Rowers out on Milton Harbor.)
Starting in Rye & Finding Success
A friend from Rye, Victoria Sartorius, encouraged him to start a facility here, and he found RowAmerica Rye at its current location at 668 Milton Road adjacent to the Rye City boat basin in 2013. After a “rough start” he found Director of Rowing and Head Coach of Youth Women Marko Serafimovski.
In short order Serafimovski had the boys and girls junior team competing at the Head of the Charles race and in the fall of 2019 both the boys and girls junior team from Row America Rye won the regatta – a first in the history of the competition. “Never been done in the history of the sport… Marko has taken a club from zero to 100 in five years. It is the most remarkable story ever in rowing,” said Winkelvoss.
Looking for a New Location
(PHOTO: RowAmerica Rye’s current location on Milton Road.)
With its program at capacity at 150 kids and two years left on its lease, RowAmerica Rye started to consider various alternatives. The company pays nearly $100 / square foot for rent and the 2,200 square feet is too small for the current program.
As for rumors of the company wanting to expand, Winkelvoss says it is simply not true and also simply not possible. “We are packed out with the number of boats we have out on the water,” Winkelvoss told MyRye.com. “You can’t have any more. We are out of water.”
(PHOTO: Rowers on Milton Harbor by the Marshlands Conservancy.)
Head coach Serafimovski has designed a varsity program with four 8-person boats for girls and four 8-person boats for boys. That’s about seventy kids in the varsity program with another 80 kids in feeder programs. The rowing program follows the school year, and kids coming into the facility are staggered throughout the day. At the height of the day in-season, the program sees 70 kids. Due to carpooling, that equates to about 30 cars dropping off and then picking up.
“My boy’s best friend – the three of them started the Facebook idea. He had a wedding there,” said Winkelvoss, referring to the Wainwright House and talking about Divya Narendra, who was married at Wainwright in 2017. “Rowing off that property – wouldn’t that be a marriage made in heaven.” Winkelvoss started to speak with Wainwright and its board.
(PHOTO: The five acre Wainwright House property sits on Milton Harbor.)
A proposal to replace the Fonrose house, a dilapidated and architecturally insignificant building on the property and replace it with a new building, was developed. The new facility would accommodate a rowing program and allow Wainwright to continue host the weddings and other events that are its financial mainstay. Further, the new building would be soundproof, eliminating the objection to noise from amplified music the neighbors have had over outdoor weddings on the grounds.
Winkelvoss expects the need to invest as much as $3 to $4 million. “I can afford to lose money… It is my philanthropy. I know what my dollars are doing. My return is off the chart,” said Winkelvoss when describing the rowing programs. “I see kids. I see parents. I see families that are absolutely transformed.”
A Misinformation Campaign
What came next says Winkelvoss was a misinformation campaign driven by Wainwright’s immediate neighbor to the west, the Alexander family, and a local neighborhood group, the Milton Point Association.
“The COVID thing makes it very difficult to tell your story. We never got our story out,” Winkelvoss recounted. “We had competition particularly in the way of Robert Alexander who is an outright dirty little bastard. I will not dip to that level – telling lies like he told… If you believe what he put out in writing and in that Milton Point web site I would have signed that anti petition as well.”
Reviewing the fears around noise and traffic, he maintains there is just not a lot of noise. “It is out on the water and there is not much noise. And they say ‘ah the bullhorns’ – we have not used bullhorns for six years,” saying they added two way radios to the boats six years ago. “The noise is a bogus thing.”
He says the traffic concern is also bogus, and in fact would be better at Wainwright versus the current situation adjacent to the boat basin where there is not proper room for drop off. Winkelvoss says Stuyvesant Avenue sees 3,000 cars per day on the street during the summer going back and forth to the three private clubs. During the off season – the school year that rowing follows – the number of cars each day drops to 1,500. A rowing program adds maybe 30 cars at a peak drop off, says Winkelvoss.
On the notion of a commercial operation going onto the Wainwright property, he says this is why the Milton Harbor Foundation, a non-profit, was established to oversee and provide governance to any rowing program on the Wainwright property. The new non-profit could hire or fire RowAmerica Rye or any other program.
And the expanded zoning? Although there is a belief the current zoning would support rowing, RowAmerica Rye and Wainwright received advice to go the extra effort and avoid any suit and consequent delay based on current zoning.
“I lost $500,000 over the last eight years at Rye and it was just barely break even when COVID hit. Now we are sucking wind again. My goal was to get that program to be self sufficient.”
“That council was so definitive and blasé about the whole thing I don’t think there is any hope of turning them around. We are leaving Rye. We are done. I’m done. That’s it. You have to believe it breaks my heart to close down a club that happens to be the best club in the country for juniors. That’s outrageous.”
“What would change my mind? Well, obviously Wainwright would change my mind… of course that is what we had hoped…,” said Winkelvoss, also saying the ability to purchase the current Milton Road location at a fair price along with the city being open to lease parking from the marina lot might also be an option to keep the program in Rye.
“My hope would be to get the club self-sustaining and then I’m out. I’m going to retire. Marco [Serafimovski, the head coach] can have it.”
“I was absolutely flabbergasted by that vote. Maybe if they fully understood it was not a commercial thing. If I could get in front of them in a room I could educate them… but that is a long way with Zoom calls.”