Sculler Chris Martin rowing a single racing shell on perfect water, Lake Union, Seattle. I swing around to check my course and see another rower powering his single racing shell towards me. His movements are graceful and deceptively fast as he drives his 26-foot long, 13-inch wide, 34-lb carbon-fiber boat at the speed of a seven-minute mile. He swivels his head forward in a quick movement to check his course, sights me, nods and resumes his meditative state. It is six AM, the sun just rising, dissipating a fog that lingers on the surface of Seattle's Lake Union. A beautiful morning like this, with flat calm water, time, and a welcomed chunk of athletic solitude dictates a long workout - seven miles out to Lake Washington and back to the boathouse.
Sleepless in Seattle: A Rower passing the Lake Union house boat docks. As I approach the houseboat docks I glance at the city high rises glinting in the sun as I turn and bring my boat back up to speed: hands light on the oars, my back reaching from the hips, the oars catch the water, the legs coiled then driving against the foot stretchers as my body rolls with the sliding seat, and my racing shell begins to fly.
A single racing shell with the rower at the finish of the stroke. The angle shows the impossible narrowness of a racing shell (13 inches on the waterline in width, 26 feet in length). "Rowing is the most magnificent sport there is." Says Professor Fritz Hagerman of the Biological Science Department of Ohio University. His fascination with the mechanics of rowing came from a chance request from a New Zealand rowing club asking Hagerman to study the abilities of Olympic level rowers: "These guys where physiological freaks. I was awe-struck by the amount of work they could do." He found the competitive rowers were expending almost twice the number of calories on a 2000-meter course as a runner in a 3000-meter steeplechase "considered one of the toughest events, the rowing event, for running." states Hagerman. Unlike leg-dependent runners, the rower uses almost all of his or her muscles to create a balanced, powerful, sustained workout. "The key is the more muscle mass you use, the more energy you expend."
Aquil Abdullah, the US National Team heavyweight single sculler racing in the World Championships, Lucerne, Switzerland. Am I balanced? Yes, powerful? Not quite. Sustained? We shall see. After a mile I'm warm and steady; it is still windless, still perfect. Even in this urban set of lakes, the city still sleeping, the water imparts a wilderness quality, a sense of adventure not unlike experiencing a pre-dawn ascent in climbing, or the early morning launching of kayaks from a Baja shore. My racing shell sings a repetitive song of oarlocks and sliding seat, the water against the hull, and the sound of the oars on the recovery, blending into a reverie unlike any other. It is a beguiling way to find wilderness in a city. This is where I fell in love with rowing - I am essentially a sea kayaker, have been for years. And despite averaging over a hundred days a year wilderness kayaking, I still needed an in-city sport, my other sport, one that would give me the same sense of being in the "woods". In its own individualistic, quiet way rowing does that for me.
The University of Washington's women's eight in the final 100 meters of the National Championships. But no one knows what I and 50,000 other rowers know. In America's love of sports, rowing is a quiet suitor, an infrequent star in the sports pages; it comes with an assumed Ivy League elitism that lends a sense of exclusivity - which is no longer valid. True, rowing was the first collegiate sport - Harvard still rows against Yale, but its origins are based in the rough and tumble races of the Thames River water taxis called "wherries" rowed by the very salty wherry-men of London. Today the sport has evolved well beyond Thames wherries and collegiate rivalries, From Portland, Maine to Mission Bay, California, high schools are fielding crews, new clubs are forming and building boathouses to rival the traditional clubs established the mid-1800's. There are regattas every weekend from March to November all across North America with hundreds of boats and thousands of rowers. The quiet sport has become a quiet phenomenon.
The victorious University of Washington women's eight celebrate their winning the National Championships by tossing the coxswain. Much of rowing's new found popularity is due to Title IX, the 1972 law mandating women's parity in collegiate sports. Rowing became a particular athletic department choice due to the number of athletes it takes to crew an eight-oared shell. But despite the expediency of meeting the Title IX requirements, the women loved the sport - there are now as many women as men of all ages learning to row. (If not unique, this remains unusual: parity. Rowing is a sport with as many women as men, women in shape, up early in the morning, working out and out rowing many males.) The University of Washington women's crew, annual contenders at the NCAA Women's Collegiate Rowing Championships, emphasizes this as they pass me beneath the University Bridge: four "eights" with three Olympic rowers on board, their diminutive coxswains steering, exhorting, barking commands.
Pocock Rowing Foundation elite rower Ann Schneider entering Lake Washington. I clear the bridge and watch the women pass by. They are "sweep rowers," meaning each rower has one oar, thus eight oars for the eight rowers in the eight, four oars for four rowers in the four, and two for the most difficult to balance - the "pair." The advantage of sweep rowing is that the rower can concentrate his or her strength and technique on one oar. Scullers on the other hand have more oars in the water: an oar (or scull) in each hand. And though they can share in the teamwork of rowing a double or a quad, the advantage of the single is three fold: you are the captain of your own ship, you learn watermanship - you plan the race, you steer the course, you read the weather, and you alone gauge your endurance not the coxswain, and, perhaps best of all, you create your own schedule and row as hard as you like when you like.
Lake Washington Rowing Club's Coach Frank Cunningham still practicing after 55 years on the water. Through Portage Bay and into the 1,000 meter Montlake Cut, essentially a canal 320 feet wide, I bring up my pace - this is the local race course, pin-straight with no obstructions. Ahead is Union Bay and in the distance Lake Washington. The elite rowers are in such good condition they will continue past my turn point and carry on across Seattle's largest lake another three miles before returning to the boathouse. But I know my limits and just kiss the lake before turning for home.
After a forty minute return, uneventful save for a few wakes, (single racing shells with about six inches of freeboard have a "splash board" that protects the rower from small waves but anything over a foot is going to bring water into the cockpit.) I ease off as I approach the boathouse, Angling toward the low platform dock, I turn my inboard oar over and hand free, snag the float. Levering up out of the boat I am insufferably proud to be doing this -it's true - this sport, this impossible boat, the remarkable morning, the full-on workout blend into some sort of big pride. I feel taller, relaxed, not rubbery like after a fifty-mile sprint on a road bike, ready for breakfast, and if work today turns sour - no worries. I got my workout in, got my dose of water and wind and sky.
A four with coxswain meets the dawn, Seattle's Lake Union. Rowing in the U.S. can be found most everywhere. Major cities have both clubs and less-expensive city-sponsored programs with a range of boats. Try to learn sculling first by beginning with the more stable training "wherries" before graduating to the single racing shell, or moving into the sweep boats. The U.S. Rowing Association (www.usrowing.org
) and row2k (www.row2k.com
) both have links to the clubs and rowing programs near you. Note as well there are a number of "learn to row" days at many boathouses throughout the rowing season (for most of the nation that's March - November). These are places where you can spend the morning trying it out and see if you get the same reaction I did. Perhaps rowing will become your other sport, too.
Joel Rogers is an author, photographer, sea kayaker, and a rower rowing out of the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle, Washington.