ESSEX — It is just before 7 on Friday, a humid morning on the shores of Chebacco Lake. The soft and still air is full of birds and mosquitoes as a lone sculler makes his way across the placid water sheet under scurrying clouds in an overcast sky.

At Gordon College's Club Rowing center on the grounds of the former Camp Menorah, a trio of rowers lift their sculls off the tiered racks and walk them down the slope to the docks before settling them into the water. Rowsie, the 3-year-old boathouse dog, happily escorts them.

The rowers usually begin their workouts about 6 a.m. to finish before the demands of work or school take precedence. The off-hours allow the rowers to take advantage of the early morning absence of power boat traffic on the lake. Likewise with the 5 p.m. workouts.

But as the calendar edges deeper into summer, the lake will become a busier place throughout the day. The number of rowers and recreational power craft will rise, naturally raising the potential for conflict or safety issues.

And no one wants that to happen.

"We want everybody to have fun at the lake," said Daniel Fialho, Essex's deputy harbormaster who is slated to become harbormaster on July 1. "But we want everybody to have fun safely, co-mingling on a small body of water."

So far, according to Fialho, there has been scant discord. But he said the town — which  has its hands full policing vessels and activity on the Essex River — wants to re-emphasize the on-the-water guidelines at Chebacco Lake before the summer volume of vessels grows greater.

"There really haven't been any problems," he said. "We're just trying to head off problems before they begin."

Maddie Hopkins, director of rowing and head coach of several teams at Gordon, also said the Wenham school's rowing tenure on the lake has been thankfully uneventful.

"The only real problem we've had was when I got hit by a tuber (someone riding an inner tube) being towed behind a boat," Hopkins said. "The boat didn't have a spotter looking back at the tuber and it just came around a corner and hit my boat."

Concern for safety paramount

Chebacco Lake is the largest of the five bodies of water that comprise the Chebacco Watershed, with shores in Essex and Hamilton. It covers about 209 acres, which seems substantial until you consider the impact of the summer armada of vessels — most of them motorized, some of them not — operating in the same area.

"Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, this lake is dead," Hopkins said. "In the summer, it can get pretty busy. We have more people rowing and there are a lot more other boats."

Gordon's sculling squads have been active on the lake for about five years, leasing the former Jewish day camp for the first four before a generous donor made it possible for Gordon to buy the 7.51-acre site last November.

The affiliated rowing squads — besides the Gordon rowers, the center provides facilities and coaching for under-23, under-19 and under-17 rowing programs — are a year-round presence at the lake. 

Though they seldom host regattas or races because of the small size of the lake, they practice on the water an average of five weekdays per week in the spring and fall. In the summer, Saturday sessions are added.

Despite the lack of incidents, Fialho said the concern for safety remains paramount.

"Everybody needs to be aware of what's happening on the water, be courteous and follow the regulations," Fialho said.

General rules of the lake

For example, he said, state law requires motorized vessels towing water skiers, tubers, or other craft, to have a spotter looking back from the vessel. That is especially important when you consider the scullers face the stern and are blind to events in front of them.

The spotter must be 12 or older. Mirrors do not count as spotters, Fialho said.

Also, because the lake is not designated as a navigable waterway, the rules governing traffic are a tad more lenient.

"We have a suggested traffic pattern on the lake that is counter-clockwise," he said. "So, if five boats are going one way and another boat starts going the other way, it can go south in a hurry."

And then there is the magic number — 150 feet — that represents the space that should exist between any vessel and other vessels, swimming areas and the shoreline. Hopkins said the general rule on the lake is for slower boats to navigate on the outside, closer to the shore, while faster craft hold to the inside.

"The big hazards for us are power boats without spotters or power boats whose bows are so high out of the water that they just can't see us," Hopkins said. "And everybody worries about intoxicated operators. That's the greatest danger." 

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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