BRIGANTINE — The sun was starting to drop toward the Brigantine Bay, producing shimmering rays that stretched from the horizon to the docks of the Ed Rehill Boathouse, home of the Brigantine Rowing Club.
Most of the 10 participants in last Wednesday’s session of the club’s adaptive rowing program were already out of the water, shaking hands with volunteers and program director Tony Phillips.
Off in the distance, 26-year-old Brigantine resident Stephany Piermattei was paddling a kayak with pontoons through the golden ripples while her mother, Debbie, watched with a smile.
“The bay is her happy place,” Debbie said.
Twenty minutes later, Stephany glided to the dock. Phillips and Debbie lifted her out of the kayak and into a wheelchair, then shifted her into the wheelchair she uses for everyday transportation.
Stephany, who was born with cerebral palsy, has been attending the six-week summer program since she was a 10-year-old fourth-grader. Last month, she earned a master’s degree in social work from Stockton University.
“I enjoy just being out on the water,” Stephany said. “I’m into meditation, and being out there is the only place that feels like that. When I’m out there, I can just take it all in and forget about everything else. It feels good when you look behind you and see how far you went.”
Phillips, a 64-year-old Brigantine resident, started the program in 1998 after a 20-year stint coaching a youth program at the boathouse.
A school physical therapist by trade, he saw rowing as a way for some of his students to get some exercise and improve their social skills. The majority of Wednesday’s rowers, who ranged in age from 13 to 26, had neuro-developmental disorders that fall on the autism spectrum.
“We have a variety of boats that we use,” Phillips said. “We place them depending on their skill level and also on their approach to it. They seem to really enjoy themselves, and so do I.”
Each session starts upstairs in the boat house on ergometers, where the rowers perform a 1,000-meter warmup. Volunteers from Absegami, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, Holy Spirit, Mainland Regional and Ocean City high school rowing programs are on hand to offer encouragement and also help the rowers work on technique.
Later, some accompany the rowers in their boats for a few laps around the bay.
“I heard about the program at school, and I really wanted to help,” said Kayla Driscoll, a 15-year-old Holy Spirit rower from Brigantine.
Parents also provide support, and some even get in a workout.
Rich and Lynn Barlow, of Somers Point, joined their 23-year-old son Danny, who has cerebral palsy and is autistic, on ergs before his session on the bay.
“Danny’s been in the program for 12 years,” Rich Barlow said. “Tony is Danny’s occupational therapist at Cape May County Special Services, and he suggested it. Danny loves the water and boats, so this was right up his alley.”
When it was time to hit the water, Danny and Frank Mullin, an 18-year-old Mainland student who is cognitively impaired and is on the autism spectrum, got into a boat with two volunteers.
They rowed out to a buoy without incident but had trouble navigating the westerly wind that had started to blow harder and wound up near a row of bayfront homes about 200 yards away.
But they never stopped smiling.
“He really likes it,” Frank’s mother, Eileen said. “Frank’s sister Kaitlyn rows at MIT, so rowing has always been a big part of our family.”
Rowing has surpassed baseball and basketball as Chris Romanelli’s favorite sport.
The 24-year-old Galloway Township resident, who is on the autism spectrum, was the first one out on the water last week during a solo voyage.
“He absolutely loves it,” Chris’ mother, Teresa Romanelli, said. “It’s the only thing he can do on his own. When he’s in ‘Field of Dreams’ (baseball) and ‘Hoops for All’ (basketball), he has someone to help him. Out there (in the bay), it’s just him.”
As Chris paddled away from the dock, Phillips told him to row to the buoy at the mouth of the bay and back.
It was 50-50 whether he’d make the turn or just keep going a little farther.
“He’s not coming back,” Teresa said with a laugh. “The first time they let him go out on his own, they wound up having to tow him in because he went out so far. He wanted to go to the Borgata (Hotel, Casino & Spa).”