There is something magical, mystical and utterly fantastic about rowing in a set boat with other people who not only know what they’re doing but who also love what they’re doing. There’s something even better about doing that in the early morning or around dusk, when the faeries are out.
An assertive and competent coxswain can also make of break the experience too.
Today, the weather was exquisite. A little cool at 65 when I woke up, heating to 68 by the time I got in my car. The drive to the boat house is 15 minutes at the most and early Saturdays means no traffic whatsoever. When I arrived, it was 71 and the water was as smooth as glass. The sun was just above to tips of the trees. A pair of ducks flew about two feet off the river’s surface, quacking their greeting to us flightless bipedals.
The sky was clear also. No sign of the clouds that are now populating the open blue and the humidity haze burnt off by 9am.
I met with some others, middle-agers like myself. We did our dynamic warm-ups (wow, I’m pretty flexible, but mornings fresh out of the car after slightly fresh out of bed is a different story) and I heard Coach Ron call out for line-ups. “Hey! Hey, line up, ROWERS! Let’s go! Line up!” I did a few more spider-mans (think lunge presses and plank crawls) and then high-kneed myself down to the lower boathouse.
We had a full house today: six eights were ready to roll and we had five rowers, including me, left over. Some novice, some experienced. I didn’t make it to practice Thursday because I wasn’t feeling well (note to self: don’t eat bananas and peanut butter at the same time in a protein smoothie before crew) so Ron put me in the middle as my own person. I was not about to take out a single and I know that’s not what he had planned. Instead, he picked and pulled out rowers from the eights line-ups to assemble an experienced four. He kept me off to the side, in my little zone and called a coach, who coaches up at Loyola (he loves the sport and the water so much he drives an hour each way to get here) and a cox who drove some champion boats last season. He looked at me and he said, “you all are an experienced four plus one. Rock it out. Let’s go.” And we were off, getting our boat walking it down under the precision of our cox and ready to set up. I went with our coach in the launch (a small fishing boat with a 5hp motor) and rode for the first half hour. We rotated out the bow seat rower and I got in the shell.
Getting in a rowing shell from a launch boat in the middle of the water with no dock seems more tenuous than it actually is. It’s no big deal. The person in the shell gets out first and person in the launch gets in the shell next. Does it take a modicum of prioperception (body awareness, strength and balance)? Hell yes. But it’s not that hard. I’ve seen novice rowers who describe themselves as couch potatoes turned boat potatoes do it with nigh imperceivable flaws. I got in and we did a couple warm-ups and we were off.
Have I mentioned that our cox today was great? She wasn’t my usual cox, who is also great (she’s on a trip right now), but she’s got a little more experience and she’s perfectly confident. With peers, she probably has no problem telling a bunch of high schoolers what to do. With a shell full of adults whom she doesn’t know, she still had no problem telling us what to do and that’s a CRITICAL quality. We’re like sheep, she’s the shepherd and gets to go for a ride.
We all knew what we were doing. We had a good set (balance) in the boat and our coach liked what he saw throughout the rotations of going by pairs, adding in, dropping out, and all that good stuff that helps determine the success of an outing in the boat. I was so happy with this line-up. We had two women in the end seats (stroke and bow) and two fit men in the middle seats also known as the “power plant” or the “engine room” (which is where more of the power comes from in a shell). Coach decided to put us through our paces and I honestly cheered inside. I was so ready. I didn’t care where I was sitting, this boat was so hot, we were just in the zone. He called for four sets of power twenties (solid catches, full power press, twenty strokes, on the feather, quick hands away, slow roll ups and repeat) followed by paddles at ten.
Now, unless you’re racing, there’s no point to starting hard so we worked up to full pressure in five strokes and I gotta tell ya, This Boat Was Set. So it went like this (these are all cox calls):
“Rowers, sit ready at recovery.” (Arms tucked into chest, back at the 1 o’clock angle, abs are in tight, thighs engaged and legs are straight and blades are squared and buried in the water at about a 70˚ angle from the hull (sides) of the shell … sometimes we just sit at recovery for a minute to build strength.)
“And row.” (Arms straighten, hands dip down to raise blade, inside hand feathers the blade which means to turn the blade so it’s parallel to the water, shoulders move the body over the hips, legs bend at the knees, as you roll up to the “catch” on your seat that’s on a roller slide, your inner hand turns the blade, which is now behind you, back to square, shins go vertical, hands raise, blade goes into the water and you push off with your thighs and fanny muscles with everything you’ve got.)
“Four more to build.” (You’re repeating everything you just did four more times but increasing pressure with your legs each time and quicker hands away at the “recovery.”)
“Three. Increase PRESSURE.”
“Two. We’re at seventy percent, prepare to GIVE ME MORE.”
“One, BUILD! PRESSSS! THROOOUGH THE HEELS. LET’S GO.”
“On this one, get ready to CATCH and SEND.” At this point, dear reader you’re thinking, “I might not have anything left in the tank” but you do. You do have more left in the tank. It all comes from the feeling of working together, sending that 150# fiberglass, aluminum-rigged, empty shell of a boat through the water with four other of your best friends at that moment. That knowledge that you know you’re doing your best, you’re pushing and pulling your hardest because they are too is what keeps you going. If you let them down, well … you wouldn’t. Because they’re not letting you down.
Suddenly you’re at your last five when she calls a focus on the power “on this one” and you push even harder. You just do. She said so. That 4’11” 95# high school senior just told you to do it and you do. Her voice commands it, she digs deep into her vocal banks and finds her own grit, her own coarse tone to get you to Get That Shit Done Now. It’s not an Order or a Request. It’s a simple fact. You want to work for her (or him) because she will get you there.
“And paddle for ten.” Ahh…
We just sailed. Power twenties don’t really catch up to you in a cardiovascular sense until the end of the second set (your 35th – 40th strokes). No matter, the adrenaline and feeling of success is so compelling and strong you just keep going. Third set… you’re starting to feel it, the burning kicks in and you don’t really think about the fact that you’ve done oh, fifty-five squat thrusts at your maximum ability and twenty squat thrusts at just pfutzing ability (which is probably 25% of your maximum). You’re at fifty-nine and you’re ready for the rest, your upcoming ten at paddle pressure. That rest comes but it doesn’t last long. It never does but you know what’s coming and you prepare mentally because your cox gears you up. She gets you there and you get it done.
After the first set of power twenties we transitioned out another rower. We got a new stroke who was previously bow (I took her spot) and so once we all got used to her strokes and recoveries through some mini-builds we went through it again, another set of 4x20s and it was equally glorious.
When I was in college, when a boat would win a race, they used throw the coxes in the water; it was a matter of tradition. I don’t know, but I hope no one thought it was bullying or hazing or anything like that, but they don’t anymore. I wish we still did. You work your ass off to win a race (you work your ass off if you don’t win a race, let’s not kid anyone here) and the cox gets you there and it’s sort of a tiny celebration.
Today was the closest I’ll come this month to sprints because I’ll be away from rowing while on vacation. On the last day of “learn to row” the coaches have these three or four 500 meter sprints where all the eights line up on the race course and race side by side against each other. It’s all in fun, but it’s really not. No one really wants to suck. They’re a blast but I’ll be on the beach instead. Last year I “caught a crab” (my oar went too deep into the water because I didn’t roll up back to square my blade in time and so my blade was parallel to the surface of the water and because the blade was so deep that meant the handle came back up and smacked me in the jaw. Sometimes crabs are so forceful that rowers get ejected from the boat); I’m just a little bummed, I love to race. My hands will benefit from the break as my blisters will heal. But cutting them some slack will not help when I get back in the shell next month. Rowing is hard on the hands.
And no, we don’t wear gloves. No hand models here. Wimps wear gloves. It’s like shopping at a fancy store: if you have to know how much it costs, you likely can’t afford it.
Everyone has their passion. Some pursue athletic challenges. I run for recreation and fitness, not for competition. I know I’m slow and the pounding isn’t good for me, but I do love it when I go a little faster than I did the time before. Rowing is my drug. So yeah, my hands are torn up; I felt a blister form and then rip off in the second set of power twenties but you don’t think about that, or really feel the pain because you’re flying on water and that’s better than anything.
update: the best part actually of being off the water after a good session like that is the rocking sensation i get when drifting off to sleep. i feel like i’m still in the boat.