Tuesday, August 29, 2006
By Kay Slaughter
We row through choppy water. Oars dip and rise with the waves. Water rocks the boat. Port to Starboard. Starboard to Port.
Eight women are rowing as hard as we can for about an hour an a half on a circular course around Wye Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, just off the Chesapeake Bay. At 12.4 miles, this regatta is a marathon compared to the sprints of rowing races. So we must focus especially on smooth, fluid technique, keeping the boat set straight, not listing to either side, dropping our eight oars into the water simultaneously and pushing off with our legs to move the boat efficiently.
When everything is in sync, I feel like part of a well-oiled machine. The boat seems to glide through the water as effortlessly as a swan. Eight years ago, I took up the sport because I loved the water, and crew looked beautiful —like a Thomas Eakins painting of a pair of rowers at rest. When I began my first sweep rowing class, I quickly learned how much work it actually takes. But I also discovered there is nothing like stroking a single oar in unison with seven other people.
Almost all the women in the boat today have spent as much time—or more—than I, training with a rowing club in our hometown of Charlottesville. But today’s Wye Island Regatta is the first time we have rowed together as a crew.
We range in age from 28 to 62…I’m the oldest. Although we’re a master’s boat (mostly older rowers), today we’re competing in the open division against all age categories. In the Wye Island Regatta’s format, each boat starts the race at a different time, with officials keeping account of the individual boat’s time. Although we’re racing the clock, we also hope to pass boats and not allow others to pass us. We want to win.
It’s a windy morning, and, from the start, waves rocking against our boat slow our progress, making synchronized rowing very difficult. Water splashes onto us and into the boat, sloshing in the hollow floor beneath the deck. Still, we press on.
In choppy water, I try to keep my stroke shallow. When working hard against the waves, it’s tempting to dig deep to force the boat forward. Yet the opposite is true: dip just below the surface, and the water will carry the boat.
The wind shifts, and we row through a stretch of calmer water. Here we “set” the boat so that it leans neither to port or starboard. We begin to find our rhythm. With oars clunking steadily in the oarlocks as we “feather” the blades parallel over the water, then square them to drop into the water. Pushing off with our legs and pulling the oar toward our chests. Eight women—rowing in one hard, singular pull.
Our movement is orchestrated by the coxswain, Audrey. Her tasks are to steer the boat and spur us to row well. She coaxes in a whisper, goads in yells, and for most of the trip, hers is the only voice echoing across the water.
Our rowing rate is 20 strokes a minute. We bring it up to 22 and then 24 strokes, and soon we sail past another boat of women rowers.
A few minutes later, however, we see another boat closing on us.
“Make ‘em work for it,” Audrey says.
The boat gains on us. Audrey is shouting. We’re rowing hard but they slip past .
“Did you hear the joke about the carrot that got run over by a truck?” Seat 3 rower, Roxy, calls out inbetween breaths.
“A wake coming toward us on starboard,” warns Audrey. “Just relax with it.”
“His other friend, also a carrot, went with him to the hospital,” Roxy continues in counterpoint to the cox’s call.
“Here it comes. Stay relaxed. Ride it out.”
“The doctor comes out and says I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”
“There, you’re through the rough stuff,” Audrey says in a reassuring voice.
“The good news is he’ll survive.”
“Put all your power in the first six inches of that stroke,” Audrey reminds us.
“The bad news is that he’ll be a vegetable.”
I exhale a chuckle. Meanwhile Audrey announces that we have less than four miles to go. We’re beyond the choppy waves now, heading toward home.
“Give it your all! The last 2000 meters! This is what you’ve been practicing for. All those early mornings at 5:30….This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
I drive harder—pushing off with legs and pulling the oar. Every fiber in my body burns. We’re into the final 1000 meters. We’re going all out: 28-30 strokes a minute. But with the wind, the waves, and the competition, we need to find something extra now. Moving beyond the pain, we hit the highest stroke ratings we can muster, and finally, we row past the finish buoys in just under 100 minutes.
We paddle slowly and gently for a few minutes to catch our breaths, then it’s oars down. I guzzle from my water bottle, the first drink since we started paddling almost two hours ago. Exhausted and dazed, we haul our boat onto shore.
When the final standings are announced, we’re disappointed but not surprised. In the past, we won this race but not today. Back home, I’ve got a Wye Island medal – a cloisonné blue heron on a disk -- tucked in a drawer beside my Third Grade bowling pin.
Moments later, someone brings out banana bread to share, and pretty soon the disappointment is replaced by hunger and thoughts of the seafood dinner on the way home.
I notice now that I’ve peeled off two layers of skin on the second fingers of both hands. Losing also hurts. But like the skin, I’ll slough that off as well. I try not to think about the next training session or the next regatta. Instead, I savor this island of people and boats, my teammates’ laughter, the wide expanse of water, and the sweet soft, comfort of the banana bread. I indulge in the sensations of the present moment.
Rowing does that to you.
When she’s not rowing with the Rivanna Rowing Club (www.rivannarowing.org), Kay Slaughter is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va. Kay wrote this article about the 2003 Wye Island Regatta but notes that the Rivanna 8 won its race in 2004.