Rice Crew Coaches Want a Boathouse on the Bayou, So They're Going to Row the Atlantic to Fundraise

David Avilar boats the Bayou
David Avilar boats the Bayou
Courtesy Michael Matson

It's the day after Christmas, and David Alviar and Michael Matson are pissed.

Matson and Alviar are coaches for the Rice University crew team. They've come on Dec. 26 to a part of Buffalo Bayou on Houston's East Side to check on the team's boats, and upon opening their storage unit Alviar finds trouble. Graffiti is zigzagged along the white exterior of one boat. Spray painters -- Alviar would probably prefer the term vandals -- have also tagged the exterior of another shipping container.

Alviar and Matson moved the team's practice spot to Buffalo Bayou in September. The duo says it's a lot more convenient than the team's old practice location, the Bay Area Rowing Club in Clear Lake. The drive from campus is shorter, which is crucial for a team that practices early in the morning. The Bayou's water height is more predictable, too.

But the Bayou also isn't as safe as Clear Lake. The team's shipping containers that house the boats are in an unlit area downhill from the street. This is the second time the boats have been vandalized. Rice covered the cost of vandalizing last time, Alviar says, but he's worried what the university will tell the club team to move back to Clear Lake if the problem persists.

"I don't want this to be the stroke that forces them to move the team back," Alviar says.

Michael Matson
Michael Matson
Photo courtesy of L. Frederick Hinojosa

Matson and Alviar have a plan, though. They intend to participate in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge -- a 3,000-mile rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean -- in hopes of attracting donations for a boathouse along the Bayou, one that'll be secure and serve as a positive symbol of permanence for a rebuilding program.

The two men hope to raise over $400,000. The money would be used to cover building expenses for the boathouse and costs associated with the race, and to establish an endowment to ensure Rice Crew would be able to maintain the boathouse.

Matson says they've already raised approximately $8,000.

"At the end of the day, no matter how you look at it, we're panhandling," Matson says. "This was just kind of our way to get in front of the right people to do so."

Matson and Alviar entered the race in the spring of 2014, before the team had even moved its practice spot to the Bayou. At the time, they were just looking to raise money for Rice Crew.

The same day Matson proposed the idea of entering the rice, Alviar said yes.

"We're pretty simple when it comes to that," Alviar says. "When we say yes, we mean yes."

The race is held every other year. There are 40 boats registered for the race, though not all of them will end up competing -- with some failing to raise enough funds. Participants will head west from La Gomera on Dec. 15, 2015. Approximately 40 days and 3,000 miles later, those who finish will end up in Antigua.

Matson believes he and Alviar are the first Texans to participate in the challenge.

The boat they'll use is 26 feet long. They'll carry all of their own food and equipment, including a device to desalinate ocean water.

David Avilar
David Avilar
Photo courtesy of David Avilar

They're still trying to figure out how they'll break up their rowing shifts. Matson thinks they should row together for at least a small portion of the day. But both men say the biggest challenges will be mental ones.

"Is the silence and the quietness gonna kill you eventually?" Alviar asks.

The trip will be the longest Matson and his wife have been apart. And Alviar says his mom "thinks I'm going to die every 30 seconds, just in general, so she's terrified of this too."

But this is important to them. They feel strong ties to rowing.

They both began rowing in college -- Matson at the U.S. Naval Academy, Alviar at UT-Austin. Alviar says rowing was the "most definitive" part of his college experience, and that it was the "grit" he developed in rowing, not his GPA, that Teach For America administrators were most interested in when they hired him upon graduation.

The men think that if they can get their boathouse, it'll help not just Rice crew and the Texas Dragon Boat Association, which will also get to store its boats in the structure, but all of Houston. Right now, where the team practices is the only place for a rowing boat launch within the city limits. Matson calls the move to the Bayou a "proof of concept, really ... to prove whether or not this waterway was up for rowing."

"We're really excited about bringing rowing to the limelight," Matson says.

Ask Alviar about the race and he'll casually say "the biggest dangers are horrible, horrible sunburn and dehydration," and that he's "sure it's going to be a horrible, rough, rough ride."

But they're already used to challenges.

"Dealing with this, it's new frontiers every time," Alviar says of the move to the Bayou.

"It's like the ocean."

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