A few months before I found myself in the broads of Clark’s Cove frantically rowing a whaleboat, I was enjoying a crackling backyard fire on a cool evening with a few close friends.

In the course of our meandering conversation, someone — Brooke Baptiste, to be exact — casually mentioned that there are only 63 authentic Azorean whaleboats in the world, and three of them reside in New Bedford.

That’s cool, I thought.

Then she mentioned that two of them are actively rowed each summer in Clark’s Cove and that anyone is welcome to join in for a jaunt out to sea.

Now that would make a cool story, I thought.

So on Tuesday, I found myself gripping the grains of a burly wooden oar as it slipped in and out of the chop. It was true, anyone can experience this little slice of history, topped with a good workout and served alongside breathtaking views of the city.

It’s all thanks to the Azorean Marine Heritage Society.

***

Twenty years ago, Dr. Mary T. Vermette heard about a rebirth in Azorean-style whaleboat construction. She wondered, could a historically accurate whaleboat be built in the United States and used as an educational and cultural tool?

It could. Thanks to the Maine-based Atlantic Challenge Foundation and the Apprenticeship of Rockland, master boat builder Sr. Joao Tavares was hired, along with two American apprentices, to build the first Azorean whaleboat in nearly 50 years.

By September 1997, the Bela Vista was brought to New Bedford and formally launched, fittingly, in the Whaling City. Within two months, the AMHS was formed to promote Azorean culture and heritage by raising awareness and pride in the Azorean-American community.

The AMHS commissioned two more wooden whaleboats, the Faial and the Pico, which emerge each summer at the Community Boating Center to the enjoyment of local rowers and sailors alike.

***

As I approached the dock on Tuesday evening, the first thing that took me aback was the sheer size of the whaleboats. While I’d seen them in books and movies, and even in live demonstrations at Mystic Seaport, when you walk up beside one it’s still impressive.

Forty feet long and made entirely of wood — no fiberglass in sight — there’s ample space for six rowers, a steerer (coxswain) and extra room on the bow for some guy from the local paper shooting video with his tightly gripped cell phone.

Brightly painted, with blue bottoms and pink sides, they’re heavy and sluggish in the water, but powerful and nimble enough to race.

Racing is precisely what will happen this fall, from Sept. 8-10, when New Bedford plays host to the 9th International Azorean Whaleboat Regatta.

First held in 2004, the regatta races every two years, alternating between New Bedford and the Azores. In 2013, the last time the Whaling City hosted, more than 1,000 people lined the waterfront district to take in the racing.

In 2013, the U.S. teams took third place (which is also last) in all four events, but in 2015 in the Azores, the women’s rowing team — the one I rowed with on Tuesday — finished second overall after winning one race and taking second in two others.

“It was amazing,” said Allison Francisco of her 2015 experience, when she was on the sailing team (she’ll row again this year). “It was really just out of this world. Not anything I would have imagined. The highlight of the whole regatta was being out there with 20 other whaleboats sailing the course.

“I would love to see the brand-new Cove Walk filled with people out there and families cheering us on.”

***

On Tuesday, our coxswain aboard the Faial was Danielle DeBurgo, who started rowing six years ago at the behest of her grandmother, Barbara Belanger, who still rows regularly at age 80.

“I was hooked,” DeBurgo recalled. “I love it. I love to race. I love being in the boat. I love being on the water. There’s nothing that beats at 6 a.m. row while watching the sun rise.”

In a whaleboat, the coxswain stands the entire time — choppy waters be damned — and barks out equal parts instruction, motivation and direction. DeBurgo worked tirelessly to make sure all six oars were working in concert, a must in a sport that’s as much timing as strength or strategy.

As we took to the water — which I later found out was borderline choppy enough to cancel — she had her crew of six women — Baptiste, Lara Harrington, Francisco, Alicia Porter, Robyn Branco and Lucy Amaral — row out to the middle of the bay, a brutal fight against a strong current and whistling wind.

As they rowed, she yelped out orders: Row through the chop! Stretch it out! Watch the water! Don’t forget your holds! Give me a little bit more!

After watching the women row against the waves on the way out, then zip back toward the dock with the wind providing a push, I took a spot behind an oar myself.

I was more than a little nervous about holding my own, after watching these fit women grunt their way across the bay like a tennis return. The oars looked heavy and cumbersome. The boat appeared to weigh a metric ton. The waves wanted to send you one way and the wind another.

“It’s a great workout,” said DeBurgo. “It’s completely different than any other boat we row. It's all power.”

But when I got behind the long, straight oar without much of a blade at all, just a little tapered part at the end marked with either one, three or five white-painted stripes, it turned out timing, not brute strength, was my true nemesis.

Finding a rhythm with your fellow rowers is the key to sliding gracefully across the top of the water. And I rarely found the rhythm. Every couple of strokes I’d hit a groove with the rest of the oars, but moments later I’d lose it again and find myself “crabbing,” which is when you drop your oar into the water at the wrong time, causing it to catch and take off on you.

About the time we reached the dock I began to find some comfort in the repetition of the row. For a few fleeting moments I could look around, take in the fading light across Clark’s Cove, listen to childrens' voices chirping from West Beach and watch the seagulls circling overhead.

Then I crabbed again.

***

About four years ago, Francisco, now the AMHS treasurer, happened to see one of the whaleboats out for a sail — the sailing is even more adventurous, and I was told numerous stories of broken masts and waterlogged sailors — and wondered “What the heck is that?”

She did a little research to discover the AMHS, and started sailing with them, then later switched to primarily rowing.

“It got me out there enjoying the summer,” she said. “I’ve gotten so close to the girls that I row with. It’s a great escape. No one brings their phone (one person does for safety reasons), there’s no interruptions or anything. It’s just going out and having a good time and getting some good exercise at the same time.”

That was the sense I got from the women I rowed with. They argued good-naturedly about the music — eventually settling on the Island Music station — and showed up with matching yoga pants and water bottles.

But it’s not just for women. The women’s rows are at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, 6 a.m. on Thursdays and 6:30 a.m. on Sundays. They train about five hours a week. Meanwhile, Open Rows are held every Tuesday at 6 p.m., while co-ed sailing is every Sunday at 11 a.m. and Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.

Rui Machado was on the dock for an open row on Tuesday. He was at an event on the Charles River in Boston about 10 years ago when his wife Graca managed to volunteer him to row in the Portuguese races.

It fit his family history. His father, Aldemiro, who passed away last year, became a whaler at age 14 before shifting to tuna fishing.

“When I started I was one of the youngest,” he said. “Now, I’m one of the oldest.”

He said he enjoys the camaraderie and teamwork of whaleboat rowing.

“Everybody has to work together,” he said. “If you don’t do it right, everyone will be swimming.”

As he told me his story, I chuckled, glad to be standing back on the dock, dry as a Death Valley summer. 

I must have done it right.

Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT