Mike Coulson Dives In to Co-chair the Arkansas Boathouse Club’s Six Bridges Regatta

They say oil and water don’t mix.

But when oil executive Mike Coulson is skimming across the surface of the Arkansas River, cutting through the early-morning fog with only the sound of his oars to keep him company, nothing could be further from the truth.

Coulson, 61, chairman of Coulson Oil Company Inc., is one of the enthusiasts behind the Arkansas Boathouse Club — home of the river’s burgeoning rowing scene — and is honorary director, with his wife Beth, of the Six Bridges Regatta-Head of the Arkansas scheduled for Labor Day weekend.

“It’s a great sport, it really is,” says Coulson, who has focused almost exclusively on rowing for fitness since a bicycle accident and a series of surgeries over a year ago.

Hosted by the Boathouse Club, the regatta is a national, 5K “head” or timed race scheduled for Aug. 30. There are 65 heats for every type of boat and crew, and the Boathouse Club is hoping to draw 400 participants to the Saturday event, sanctioned by the sport’s governing body U.S. Rowing.

It’s a chance to grow the sport Coulson has grown to love, promote Little Rock and North Little Rock and utilize the cities’ shared asset, the Arkansas River.

“The reason for the regatta is to focus on the Arkansas River,” Coulson says. “To demonstrate the sport to a wider audience and ultimately build the club to a sustainable level.”

Once considered an elite and exclusive sport — the original Boathouse Club predated the Country Club of Little Rock and was a social hub with its own debutante ball — rowing has pulled into the Midwest and the South with a vengeance and is anything but a country club event now.

Considered by physicians as one of the best forms of exercise and growing in popularity as a collegiate club sport — as well as an Olympic event — rowing offers a wealth of competitive challenges to the singles racers as well as the six- and eight-person crews.

“It’s a pretty elegant way to have some good exercise,” Coulson says.

River City

Coulson was born in Memphis and moved around quite a bit before his father Ray, who worked for Amoco Oil, left the company and made a permanent move to Little Rock to form his own business in 1969. An early innovator of self-serve fueling and the convenience store, Ray Coulson grew the company into the multi-brand distributor, one of the Southwest’s largest, it is today.

After assuming the chairmanship, Mike Coulson grew used to crossing the river as he journeyed back and forth from his Little Rock home to the North Little Rock company headquarters, and he began to see the river not as a dividing line between the two cities but a link.

“The river has been a dividing thing in cities of the past,” Coulson says. “No so much today. Me crossing the river as part of my daily life, it was never a big deal to me.”

The kinship with the river was reinforced when Coulson, who took up cycling in the late 1990s, bought a road bike in 2003 and began using the Arkansas River Trail to crisscross the river as he cycled to and from work. He began to wonder how best to put the river to work to help promote and improve the cities on either side.

“You’re looking out at that water going ‘Gee, what else can be done?’ ” Coulson says.

By 2005, the answer was being formed. Lynnette Watts, whose daughter Samantha rowed while in college in St. Louis, was in the process of bringing back the Boathouse Club after a chance encounter with yet another rowing enthusiast, international businessman and bon vivant Joel Taylor, while Watts was working out at War Memorial Fitness Center.

Taylor, who died in 2008, was, among many things, a war hero and self-described fitness freak who had just written the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock about promoting rowing on the Arkansas River. He urged Watts to reestablish the Boathouse Club, and her initial, exploratory emails to test the waters brought back 200 responses in two days.

“Little Rock has a really vibrant cycling community and running community so we thought that would be a third activity on the river to add to what is already there,” Watts says.

With help from a number of people, like engineer Anthony Jacuzzi, North Little Rock director of parks and recreation Bob Rhoads, local attorney Rick Ramsay and Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Larry Crane, the group navigated the legal, logistical, material and political waters to form the nonprofit Arkansas Boathouse Club Inc.

The club found a home in the former maritime museum on the North Little Rock bank of the river, Jacuzzi helped with construction of the dock, and all the proper safety, city government and law enforcement and water safety agencies gave their blessing.

Watts recalled bringing in a consultant from U.S. Rowing to advise the group and “to tell us if we were crazy or not.” The consultant took in the seven uninterrupted miles of river, the central location, the hotels, restaurants and trails on both sides of the river and said “You’re sitting on a gold mine.”

Reading a 2006 magazine article about the forming of the club, Coulson called to offer help and came on board.

“We thought ‘That’s pretty cool to resurrect and reestablish an old club that existed before,’” Coulson says. “It was a leading social club of its time.”

Fire And Water

Watts’ research showed the original Boathouse Club, officially known as “The Athletic Association of Little Rock” was formed in 1882 by “four bored young men in the lobby of the Capitol Hotel.” The club’s membership would include many of those responsible for building and developing Little Rock, and the club swiftly became a center not just for rowing, but for social life in the city.

Debutante balls and dances, football games, vaudeville reviews and swimming and diving competitions were held at the first boathouse, located on the Little Rock bank of the river.

The club held its first boat race in October 1882 and in 1883 held the first race to be called a regatta, according to an article in the Arkansas Gazette. Women were not allowed to compete, but the crews named themselves or their boats in honor of the popular debutantes of the day.

Throughout its life the boathouse was plagued by fire. It was destroyed in 1887 and rebuilt and reopened in 1889; it was damaged by fire in 1920 and destroyed again by fire on April 13, 1938.

The second fire took with it numerous trophies, photos and mementos, and the overall loss was estimated at $35,000.

This time there was less of a rush to rebuild. The Great Depression and the onset of WWII, followed by the postwar boom and the alternatives in sports and entertainment that came with it, spelled the original Boathouse Club’s demise in 1945.

In its new incarnation — established in 2005 — the Boathouse Club is all about fitness and competition without the country club trappings. Gone are the debutante balls and song and dance routines and in their place is a passion for the sport of rowing that is now shared by men AND women, who compete in mixed crews as well as individually or on gender-specific crews.

The Boathouse Club travels to events throughout the region — including Chattanooga’s “Head of the Hooch” Regatta on the Tennessee River, one of the nation’s largest rowing events. While the Harvard and Yale crews probably still come to most people’s minds when the sport is mentioned, rowing in the U.S. is clearly not just the exclusive domain of the Ivy League.

“This club has gone over there several times and competed,” Coulson said of the Head of the Hooch. “That’s the Deep South if anything is.”

Oklahoma has become the unlikely seat of U.S. Olympic rowing, with both the Olympic and Paralympic athletes training at the OKC National High Performance Center on the Oklahoma River, under the auspices of the OKC Boathouse Foundation. Coulson noted that oil companies like Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy have thrown their weight behind the Oklahoma boathouses used by the Olympians and local college rowers.

“It’s world class,” Coulson says. “This modern architecture. They’ve got storage for boats, locker rooms, workout rooms, indoor tanks.”

It could be a mild case of oilman gamesmanship, but Coulson, and all the boathouse supporters, are hoping the Six Bridges Regatta can provide some of the vital exposure their sport needs to prosper in Arkansas.

Right now the Boathouse Club thrives on volunteers, but events like the regatta can perhaps someday generate vital institutional support, from businesses, colleges and universities or even high schools. With such support the club could hire permanent personnel to maintain the boathouse, handle the safety boat and purchase the modern craft and equipment needed to stay competitive.

“It’s a sport that, because we have this great asset of a river, it may be awhile before we get there but the foundation is there,” Coulson says.

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