AYER — On the morning of Friday, June 25, UMass Lowell Professor James Nehring walked six miles to the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Just three days prior, he had spent 10 hours rowing into a gale. His fingers and wrists were swollen from fighting against the intense current. To stay the slightest bit ahead required every bit of strength he had. Despite the immeasurable pain, he had come too far to turn back.
Whether by land or by sea, Nehring was determined to complete the final leg of his 500-mile journey, which had spanned the course of four summers. Each summer he had rowed different legs of the trip which started at Conference House Park on Staten Island in New York Harbor.
“In previous summers I averaged 25 miles a day. For this last leg I only had about 60 to 70 miles to go and I thought ‘well, why be hard on myself? Let’s aim for 15 to 20 miles a day,” Nehring said. “So I went into this thinking it would be relatively easy but mother nature had other plans.”
Beyond testing his physical endurance, Nehring undertook the voyage to raise money for the university’s Mary, Joan and Nancy Scholarship for Courage and Compassion.
The scholarship was created in honor of three important women in Nehring’s life: his mother Mary Nehring, his mother-in-law Joan Sutherland, and close friend Nancy Sizer. Each took care of their partner until the end of his days through a prolonged, terminal illness.
“It was really quite remarkable, emotional labor they undertook and I wanted to honor that for all caregivers everywhere,” Nehring said. “At the same time, I’ve come to greatly respect so many of our students at UMass Lowell, many of whom are first generation college students. Many of them from immigrant families, many students of color, who have to work doubly hard to get themselves into college and see themselves through college.”
Throughout its nine years, the recipients have received about $1,500 each. While the amount may appear small, he has still been able to the difference it was made.
“I get these beautiful letters each year and typically they say ‘this was the amount that made the difference, this was the amount that made it possible for me to finish up my senior year.’”
The physical sacrifices in raising the scholarship money, Nehring said, are nothing compared to the sacrifices his students are often required to make to attend school he said.
“My brief physical challenge is a reminder of the lifelong challenges so many of our first-gen students endure, and surmount, in getting themselves to college and seeing themselves through to graduation,” he wrote in an email to supporters after reaching Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Thirteen years ago, the Ayer resident took on a similar effort, raising money as he biked from Boston to Seattle. Then, he raised $30,000. Today, he’s raised over $70,000.
Despite the voyage’s rough ending, he has maintained his sense of humor.
Standing in his front yard, wrists still in splints, Nehring shows off the boat he affectionately named “Merrily” — a nod to the classic nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
On the waters, it is tradition for the captain of a vessel to repeat the name of the craft three times over the marine radio when coming into port. The reaction he received was about as expected.
“I’d call in and say ‘Harbormaster this is rowing vessel Merrily, Merrily, Merrily’ and more then once I got the reply ‘you’re kidding me right?’”
“Merrily” was built by Nehring in his garage using a kit from Chesapeake Light Craft. She is made out of the African wood okume, with fiberglass inside and out. She weighs about 90 pounds.
He wasn’t always an experienced rower. Not long ago he could be found at the university’s boathouse taking lessons. When that closed because of the pandemic, he utilized Ayer’s Sandy Pond. Like his most dedicated students, he was persistent on learning.
It was just five years ago when he looked out his office window on the fifth floor of O’Leary Library. He saw people sculling on the Merrimack River and decided it was something he wanted to learn how to do.
“After a year of rowing on the Merrimack I thought, gosh maybe I could increase the endowment for the scholarship — the price of college is going up — and just like I did with my bike ride maybe I could do some big epic rowing trip,” Nehring said.
As he rowed along inland waterways and canals, he found places to camp out for the night, carrying his food and belongings.
“All the in-between journey I do by myself.”
Given the physical toll the rowing voyage took on him, he may look to explore a different physical feat next.
“I don’t know if it will be rowing, I’m not so interested in getting in a row boat right away. But I’ve been thinking about [hiking] Camino de [Santiago] in Spain.”
In part because of Nehring’s physical endurance but also many community donations, the amount will now be closer to $3,000. The final fundraising goal is $80,000 and donations will be accepted until Aug. 16.
“Thanks to a very generous, anonymous donor, all donations up to the $80,000 mark are instantly doubled.”