Ukrainian youth refugees paddle for open water at Inlet Rowing Club

The Inlet Rowing Club hosts a learn-to-row session for Ukrainian youth refugees that have settled in the Tri-Cities. The kids spend time learning the mechanics of a rowing stroke and safety on dry land before hopping in an eight for their first time out on the open water in Port Moody, B.C. on March 14, 2023. photos Marissa Tiel

It’s October 2021 and Max Yakovenko rows on the Dnipro River in Ukraine for the last time.

The Ukrainian teen is sculling — his coach’s preference for developing athletes.

In four months, Russia will invade. Yakovenko and his mother will head to Poland and then to Canada.


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But on that day, before the weather turns cold and sends him indoors for the season, Yakovenko pushes off and rows up the river that splits Zaporizhzhia in two. It’s his fifteenth birthday.

It would be his last time on the water in the country.

He spends his Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in Port Moody with the Inlet Rowing Club. It’s been one-and-a-half years since he was last on the water.

From left, Vovan Kirpichov and Max Yakovenko listen to coach Emelia Colman-Shepherd as she offers instructions during an on-water session in Port Moody.

Low tide and a long way to go

On a sunny Tuesday in mid-March, a gaggle of teens dressed in sweats and sneakers roll an enormous watercraft through the Inlet Park boat staging area and come to a stop at the top of the pedestrian ramp.

The crew keeps their hands raised as the boat levels out on the way to the dock at low tide.

Now 16 years old, Yakovenko is getting back to the water.

This isn’t a regular beginner class for the Inlet Rowing Club. They’ve recruited eight Ukrainian youth who’ve settled in the Tri-Cities to try the sport out.

It’s their second time moving the heavy boat, which seats eight, plus a coxswain, who directs the crew.

Low tide leaves the ramp at a steep angle. As the group descends, only the tallest at the front and back hold up the boat while the rest leave their hands raised, ready to catch it as it levels out.

By the time they get the boat launched, the tide has sunk even lower, making the journey to open water a minefield of shallow mudflats.

It’s the group’s first time on the water. The boat wobbles from side to side as the young participants take turns rowing the boat into deeper water. They don’t get far.

The eight teens all have a job to get the boat to move freely, unencumbered by friction, or tilt. But some keep having their oars catch and scoop water — what experienced rowers would call catching a crab. Others struggle to keep the boat balanced.

A slight breeze pushes the boat off-course and coach Emelia Colman-Shepherd works hard to get it back on track.

This isn’t her first rodeo. Colman-Shepherd has been coaching for years. She competed at a high level before that. This is the second group of Ukrainian youth she’s coached.

The program

Last fall, the Inlet Rowing Club began offering a beginner’s rowing program just for Ukrainian youth who are new to Canada.

The program came to fruition when former president Emily Seto was approached by a local group supporting Ukrainian newcomers to the community.

The group asked if a young man who had rowed in the Ukraine could join the club. He ended up not being able to join due to other commitments but that conversation planted a seed for a larger program.

What if they offered a learn-to-row session for a whole group of Ukrainian youth? They partnered with Maple Hope Foundation to get the program going. Inlet would manage all the details to run the program, and Maple Hope would recruit youth to participate.

The kids would have eight sessions to be introduced to the sport and spend time with other young people who might have had similar experiences getting to Canada.

“We just wanted to give them a place that was safe, that was fun,” says club vice-president Seto, “and that they could learn and meet other individuals that are in the same situation.”

The program was successful. Two participants even joined the club’s regular competitive junior program. The program’s second iteration began in March.

The crew practices their timing while pulling together on the ergs outside the Inlet Rowing Club boathouse.

On the first day, a dozen kids showed up. They went over the basics on dry land, introducing the stroke mechanics before taking the boat and oars to the docks for a dry run in session number two. It was clear to the coaches that many of the kids had prior rowing machine experience. But as soon as they hit the water, things fell apart.

Hard row ahead

Rowing is tough. There’s no two ways about it. And for a beginner, the journey can be clunky at best. The sport also comes with its own lexicon. Port, starboard, bow and stern; then there’s the angles of the oar: feathered and square; not to mention terms like catching a crab, holding the boat and letting it run.

Coach Emelia Colman-Shepherd adjusts an athlete’s oar during an on-water training session.

“Rowing has quite a few unique terms that aren’t part of normal English,” says coach Peter Inden. “So it can be a difficulty even for English speakers to pick up some of those terms.”

Out on the water, Colman-Shepherd is struggling to get the boat into position. Whatever techniques were learned on dry land were forgotten when they pushed off the dock.

Blades sink in the water at odd angles, the boat tips awkwardly side to side, rarely balanced.

Near the end of the session, the teens seem to have a better handle on the stroke. And they’re able to circle back to the dock with Colman-Shepherd demonstrating oar angles.

Square. She holds the spare paddle in the coach boat straight up and down. Feather. She rotates it so it floats flat on the surface of the water.

Sitting in stroke seat, Yakovenko knows what a balanced boat feels like, the sensation of rowers moving in tandem, a sort of magic when everything just clicks and you can glide over the water.

“My mom thinks they are very patient,” Yakovenko says of coaches Inden and Colman-Shepherd, translating for Svitlana. “They are trying to listen to all the teammates because some of them have never heard about this kind of rowing.”

When some people hear rowing, they think of kayaking, or canoeing, he explains. But this is a different sport altogether.

In an eight, teamwork is integral. Each rower controls an oar on one side of the boat. They’re either port or starboard, meaning they have to rely on their teammates to keep the boat balanced. If one side is higher than the other, the boat struggles to move smoothly through the water. Then, there’s the timing.

Last Tuesday, with wind kicking up whitecaps in the bay, coach Colman-Shepherd decides to host dry land practice. The conditions would not be kind to beginners. She and Inden set up two ergs on rollers one in front of the other inside the boat bay.

Roman Nuamenko gets tips from coach Emelia Colman-Shepherd to improve his technique on the sliders.

On the water, the teens struggled with timing. This exercise is designed to encourage moving in tandem.

Yakovenko and Vovan Kirpichov try the set-up first. But instead of Yakovenko setting the pace, Kirpichov sits in front. At first, his movements are erratic as Yakovenko tries to keep an even pace.

“You have to do the same thing over and over again, at the same pace,” Colman-Shepherd explains.

Rowing isn’t easy when it’s unpredictable. And as they move through the exercise in pairs, the timing improves. Over the next two hours of practice, they focus on following the designated stroke person.

Yakovenko was eager to start rowing again. He spent time in Poland before arriving in Canada but didn’t think about the sport there. He was focused on their next destination. It was his first time abroad.

When he did arrive, he wasn’t interested in doing much other than spending time on the couch. His thoughts were occupied with home.

“When I came here, I was too lazy. I was thinking like I’d rather be on the couch because there’s lots of things happening in my life. I just came to a new country and everything.”

Yakovenko has told his father about the new club, with a boathouse just steps from salt water.

Coach Peter Inden sets up an erg for Dariia Moghadsi before they do a 300m race at the end of the session.

His father shares the sport with him, even though they’re worlds apart. His father would often join his coach on the motorboat that accompanied Yakovenko along the Dnipro during training.

His father hasn’t been able to see the new place his son is rowing. He’s still in Ukraine, 30 kilometres from the front. They speak every night, but he’s not sure when they’ll see him again.

Since starting to row again, Svitlana, Yakovenko’s mom, has noticed her son’s mood has improved immensely.

“All my thoughts were put into the war in Ukraine, my immigration, different kinds of stuff,” he translates. “It’s a good thing to move my focus on something else, which I really like.”

Yakovenko is enjoying being out on the water again, participating in a sport he loves. And he’s learning new things. Sweeping is unfamiliar; he’d only ever sculled before.

The teen is thoughtful. He acknowledges his former coach in the same breath he praises his new coaches. He’s been in the sport since he was nine and has no plans to quit — perhaps using the sport to attend UBC in two years.

He’s not the only one in the group familiar with the sport. Sisters Polina, 16, and Kristina Moshenets, 12, say their father used to row, part of why they signed up for the program.

The youngest rower in the group, Dariia Moghadsi, 11, speaks with teammate Kristina Moshenets while waiting to push off the dock.

With the second intake nearing its end, the coaches are continuously learning how to make the program better. They know that the ideal participants are those who live in the Tri-Cities — it’s simply too difficult to arrive on time for after-school practice otherwise.

They also know that symbols we take for granted like ampersands and plus signs don’t translate well into the Ukrainian alphabet. Not only are the Ukrainian youth learning to speak English, they’re learning how to write it as well.

“I tend to speak a little bit fast sometimes when I get excited about rowing, and just having to focus on slowing it down a little bit, so that I know that they understand me. And speaking a little louder, and then enunciating words, so it’s not a big mess,” says Inden. “That’s been different. And trying to avoid using slang words as well.”

The first intake had less English knowledge than the current group. Coach Colman- Shepherd got creative, keeping Google Translate on standby and taking Ukrainian on Duolingo in her spare time. There’s lots of demonstrating. Visual learners would be right at home.

Near the end of practice, the coaches have everyone do a 300-metre race on the ergs outside.

Yakovenko is the first to finish, followed closely by Kirpichov.

The crew is yet to have their on-water breakthrough, but after this dryland session, progress has been made.

Colman-Shepherd tells the group how proud she is.

“Let’s all hope for less wind,” she says, of the next session. “Let’s cross our fingers.”

There’s just three sessions left. And there’s still hope to get out on the water to experience the feeling of gliding over the water, in tandem with your team, everyone working together.

Inden says the first few sessions are normally slow, while they go over everything on dry land.

“Once we actually get onto the water, it’s usually a bit more freeing and I find people like to actually start moving after that and to feel the boat actually moving,” he says. “It’s a nice time for people to finally get that reward for the first couple days of being stuck in one place.”

After they clean and put away the equipment, the coaches invite Yakovenko and the others to continue with the junior program. Part of the coaches’ own goals for the kids is to equip them with the knowledge and skills to keep up with the sport, if they so choose.

He’s excited about the prospect.

As the most experienced rower in the group, Max Yakovenko leads the crew as the stroke seat, setting the pace for the rest of the boat.

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