Back on the Water

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With the end of competitive rowing for high schools and colleges around the country comes the first few weeks of “Learn to Row” (LTR) camps for grown-ups. Yesterday was the first day of rowing practice for the Northern Virginia Rowing Club’s (NVRC) LTR camp.

LTR camps are a great opportunity for parents of kids who are on their high school or college rowing teams to learn what their kids experience and to understand the multitude of jargon and terms and sensations that come with one of the most challenging sports in all creation.

I’m not just saying that rowing is hard because I want you to think I’m a badass. I’m a badass if I think I am, which I don’t. But I do know that the fact I’ve chosen a terrifically challenging sport is no accident. I’m a masochist. I’m convinced of it now.

In terms of artistic endeavors to pursue, I pick writing. In terms of occupations, I chose stay-at-home-motherhood, which is great but which sort of sucks from time to time. It doesn’t have to suck though, staying at home, and I think the writing has helped it be less sucky. In terms of athletic pursuits, I pick competitive rowing. If I were a doctor, I think I’d probably pick cancer research or neurosurgery as my discipline. If I were a fashion designer, I’d choose to work with aluminum foil. If I were a chef, I’d want to cook only with butter. Y’feel me?

I rowed a very brief time in college.  I quit because I was 21 and the coach for the women’s boats was a total witch. I’m not being euphemistic when I say “witch”: she was horrible. If she had an oven, she’dve shoved us all in it. If she had an apple, she’dve poisoned it and tricked us all into eating it. If she had a broomstick shed’ve … well, I purport to be a lady and it’s a Sunday. I won’t go there.

I quit rowing for her after the 4th week of practice because she was an awful coach. Instead of encouraging us she berated us. I was a year away from graduation and I really didn’t need that crap.

Rowing is a part of my lineage. My dad was a successful rower and my brothers rowed in college. Coming from Buffalo, NY, you have to make use of the water for the six months it’s not frozen solid, which is when people row, sail, swim, ski-doo and the rest. My mother’s family rowed too. So it’s not a super-long ancestral line (well, maybe it is, God knows what my older ancestors did in Ireland), but it’s sort of what we’ve done. The other water sport the rest of the year was hockey and we didn’t play hockey but we went to a lot of games. Hockey is fierce. I dig it.

I have an “erg” (which is the noise you make when you’re on it, actually) which is also known as an “ergometer” also known as an indoor rowing machine. I use that and I run, I’ve practiced yoga for 13 years and I torture myself in other similar ways with various other fitness devices. SERIOUSLY: If you want to know just about anything about fitness and a bit of nutrition, ask me. I love talking about exercise, health and fitness because I love the fact that our bodies tell us what they want even though some of us don’t want to hear it.

I have been there. I didn’t want to hear it in 2005, but I had to lose the baby weight from Thing 3 if there was any way I was going to keep up with the  kids. I joined a local gym (which is SO not my thing) because a bunch of friends joined it. That lasted about six months until the person who recommended I joined stopped talking to me because I asked her to tell her four-year-old daughter to stop biting my two-year-old son’s arms and hands. Yesh, I’m that person: I put my kids’ safety ahead of my personal relationships. But there was an erg at this gym. I knew how to use one and I used it. I lost about five pounds from using it in the first two months and I know that was real weight loss and probably some muscle building in there too.

So we bought an erg for ourselves that winter after I quit the gym. In about a month, I worked up to  “rowing” 8,550 meters (5 miles) every day five days a week for nine months and I lost 18 pounds. Then I started listening to High Intensity Interval Training MP3s from my e-friend, Stin Hansen at her website and I lost five more pounds and I was done. Not with the fitness, but with the aggressive work to lose the weight. There is only one sport that is as physically demanding as rowing: swimming. I fell in love with the rowing motion, it’s meditative to be on an erg, you can close your eyes and you won’t fall off it. But proper form is critical or you can really mess yourself up.

I joined the LTR program at NVRC last summer for the first time. NVRC teaches “sweep” rowing which is where you have two hands on one oar. The other kind of rowing, “sculling” (which my dad swears I will love) is where one person has each hand on one blade / oar.  After spending years on the erg at home, and along with the “if you will I will” encouragement of my neighbor, aka, “The Wingman” I signed up for LTR. Because of more or less maintaining the exercise for all those years, I’m still physically fit.

That fitness paid off big time when I was made stroke (the person the rest of the boat follows in terms of timing and sway) of a 4-person boat plus coxswain, also known as a “cox.” A cox is usually a smaller-framed person who sits in the stern of the boat facing the bow and tells the rowers what to do. Because a cox can see everything, they also steer the boat and keep it from crashing (although some don’t as seen by the video below which you’ll probably watch twice and to which you’ll likely say, “OH MY GOD…. ” each time).

A cox is a tiny rowing god. The cox of the video you just watched royally blew it. That crew was working SO hard and they looked good!  Did you see the seven seat get ejected from the boat as a result of the force of the impact?  I have rowed that hard; not at that stroke rate (at least 38 strokes a minute which I have done, but not in a race), but that work is NOT easy on anything in the body: the heart, the lungs, the back, chest, arms, legs, fanny… it’s brutal.  That boat was a championship crew in a championship race. That cox destroyed everything for them that day; all they had worked so hard to achieve over the season and it was over instantly. No, I take that back: it wasn’t over instantly. It’s not like a bolt of lightning or a meteor came out of the sky and destroyed their boat. It could have been corrected but it wasn’t. I suspect that some rowers might’ve been severely injured as well. It was a careless mistake; but it was a mistake.

Seeing that again makes my stomach hurt. I can only say that the cox must’ve been texting. I’ve watched it a few times again today and it’s sort of like she doesn’t even notice; there seems to be no “hands in the hair” or “holy shit what did I do?!” posture whatsoever from her. She just sort of looks at the rower in the water… “Oh, there’s seven. I wondered where she was… She didn’t respond to any of my texts…”

Hearing the race marshals yelling, pleading with her to stop, “Ignatius stop rowing!!” was painful whether you row or not. The crew can’t see; the crew rows. Yes, it’s all backwards, but that’s not the only part about rowing that is backwards. “Port” means the left side of the boat, but when you row port, your blade is on your right side of the boat. “Starboard” is the opposite; it’s the right side of the boat but your blade goes in on your left. The bow (or front) of the boat indicates which direction the boat will head, but when you row, your back is always to the bow. And of course this means you face the back, known as the stern. For all boats, all coxswains face the bow; they can be where this cox was in the stern or they can sit in a seat at the bow, which is harder for the crew because we can’t see her and the silent codes she gives to the stroke seat can’t be silent anymore. In a stern-seated-cox boat (facing the rowers), if the posture is correct, the cox can see all the way down to the bow point because the rowers heads should part as our bodies twist to the outer side of the boat on our rowing strokes. I said “should.”

No matter what you row: sweep or scull, you face the way you came. It’s the only sport I know of where you can’t see your finish line!

Ok, refresher: last year, I rowed stroke seat which is a port-side seat (blade on my right) which faced the stern and the cox of our “4+cox” boat. I got to row competitively in two out of our three races. I missed the last race because of a nasty case of bronchitis and it killed a little part of me that I didn’t get to compete; I felt I’d let down the team. I think we could have placed. Our coach took my seat. In the other races, we beat a couple college boats and that was pretty awesome considering our mean age was 32.

Another funny part of rowing is that even though the  stroke seat is the leader, the seat number is the last in that boat; in an “eight” the stroke is the “eighth” seat. In a “four” it’s the “fourth” seat. I suppose it makes sense if you think “leader” as “highest number” but it’s backwards again if you equate the leader with being “number one” which is the bow seat, whom no one follows.

In rowing, every seat is bloody important. The stern pair (eight and seven in an eight or four and three in a four) sets the tempo; the mid-point of a boat (seats six through three in an eight or seat three and two in a four) is also called “the engine room” because it’s the widest part of the boat where the people with the biggest muscles and lower centers of gravity can stabilize the boat and get the job done.  The bow pair (seats two and one (or “bow”) in an eight or three and two in a four) helps steer the boat around turns, etc. The only weak seat in rowing is the one that’s empty (or the one that’s “not pulling its own weight” – there is a science to that phrase which will be explained in a later post).

In rowing, the stroke seat is not the strongest rower. I can tell you that right now. When they made me stroke last fall about six weeks before the races, I injured my back thinking that the stroke seat was supposed to be the strongest; no one said what rowing “stroke seat” really meant. Rowing in the stroke seat is sort of like being a quarterback: they’re not the strongest on the team, they just call the shots. In rowing, the person who rows stroke seat is important because it sets the tone, it can maintain a stroke rating or the tempo and do what the cox says without hesitation; we’re sort of robotic: we have pretty good balance, form and intuitive cadence. The Wingman was part of our “stern pair” which means she sat right behind me in the three seat.

The Wingman did not sign up this year because she’s going to be traveling across country with her fam for a big part of the LTR sessions. When I went down to the boathouse, I didn’t see any other “sophomores,” just a bunch of freshmen and upperclassmen (people who were veterans when I was a freshman). I was the only one.

But I have to say this: I was in a nice position because I was going to be a leader; someone the new people looked at for an example. I was psyched.

Ok, here’s where you, my cherished readers, need to pay attention: The coaches had the experienced rowers group themselves by their weaker seat. Because I rowed stroke seat/port last year, I was going to row starboard this year. Ok. I was a little bummed because that meant my chances of sitting stroke were nil because stroke is traditionally a port-side seat, but I pushed my ego out of the way and remembered this wasn’t a race. This was day one of LTR. They put me and another experienced rower with several years under his belt, whose weaker side is port as my stroke. We were going to be the stern pair for that training session. Cool.

Our cox set us up and we go get oars. We bring them down to the water, hanging them from “oar trees” which are 20-foot high poles with branches on them to hold the oars off the ground. We get our boat, the “Toosie” owned by a local high school and we carry it down. We bring our oars from the trees to the boat and WOAH!  This boat is rigged to starboard! Meaning: I was stroke again! YAY, right? No! I was stroke on a starboard rigging.

I do NOT do well with surprises. I think that’s part of my upbringing; things were pretty chaotic for me as a kid and so I think I have naturally learned to love stability; I don’t to well with unpredictability unless it’s mine. Snark. Someone actually called me a risk-taker about six weeks ago and I fell over laughing.

So I hmm’d and winced a little and accepted my reality. Then I got all giddy because sitting in the stroke (eight) seat meant I was gonna see an old friend: my cox from last year when I was stroke of our racing four! It was pretty cool actually and having everything all woo-woo for a moment there shook out the cobwebs and helped me reset.

Being distracted and re-setting the compass, so to speak, was important to me because I wrote a pretty deep blog post last week on Friday, “real,” where I disclosed some feelings I’d been holding in for a few decades and I was filled with some heaviness / fear of backlash (so far, it has been quiet, which is nice) from posting it the next morning (yesterday) so I was grateful for the distraction.

Sandy Run Regional Park in the Occoquan River reservoir. Some of the finest rowing water in the world. This is where I row. I am one lucky girl.

Being back on the water was indescribably sublime. The weather was gorgeous: no humidity, low 70s, cloudless sky, a pretty good breeze (which is hard for new rowers) and even though the previous evening’s upending rain storms and flash floods rose the river a few inches and the amount of debris was imposing, seeing my cox again and goofing off with her was food for my soul. We usually see a few bald eagles when we’re out there but yesterday it was just a few majestic blue herons flying above, or wading on the banks.

We had a great new-to-NVRC coach yesterday too. She seems positive and has a wonderful sense of humor and she’s smart and clearly capable. One of the things she said a few times that I loved is, “The bad news is: It’s all your fault. The good news is: You can fix it!” and another one: “Each stroke is another shot at redemption or failure – it’s up to you!”

I remember taking a lot of things personally last year as a newbie to NVRC and that says more about me than it does the people who said them. But I realized yesterday that being a helpful leader to the new people means I can help change the way the club is perceived, and that leadership means showing how and lifting up, not barking at and putting down.

I am glad, so glad to be back on the water. I will write more about it this year. I didn’t write about it once last year. I was afraid of being vainglorious; insincere. But this year, I am a rower. And the experiences are poetic.

Thank you.

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

2 responses »

  1. I’ve never done this but it sounds neat. There’s got to be something very zen about working that hard and just gliding through the water, and there’s also got to be something you pick up from the synergy of the entire team. Maybe I’ll try it one of these days. Nice post, Molly.

    • We would love to have you, Eric! we need more male rowers and yes, it’s totally zen. at the end of a great practice, you rock to sleep, as though you’re still in the boat.

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