A meditation on water

| 02 May 2018 | 12:50

Becoming the flesh and blood of the boat. That’s the way to win. But I didn’t sign up for Learn to Row just to win. I did it because I had just moved here, and I wanted to be on that beautiful lake. Even just to drift, and rock and bob on top of the quiet of the water, while somebody taught me to row.

At a local coffee shop, a haven of mine from a mother-clinging one-year-old, I saw a poster on the refrigerator. “Learn to Row.” I had noticed the boathouse, seen teams on the water. I was curious. Motherhood had emboldened me to follow the pulse of my interests, doubtless a symptom of the fear of losing my autonomy in so much nurture. I signed up immediately.

Our boat was made up of six women and two men ranging from their twenties to fifties. After spending the first class learning form on rowing machines, the second class we got into the water and attempted to recreate it. Most apparent when we started rowing was our wayward possession of balance. Our boat lurched in spasms that seemed certain to topple us.

“Find your balance!” our coach directed through the speaker system. Finding balance is the hardest part of learning to row, says Dominic Kraetschmer, a coxswain for the East Arm Rowing Club for the last five years. “You have to unlearn how you’re taught to balance,” he said. “You can’t do it with the upper half of your body. I tell the rowers to drop their weight down and sit like a sack of potatoes.” I won’t lie. The thought of turning the boat over in shoes that are locked into the bottom made me a little nervous.

Synchronizing movement that you have just learned with seven other people is not an easy task. It is slow going and clunky. Slamming into the person behind you, losing your moving seat from underneath you, and what is referred to as “catching a crab” (when your oar is slower than the pace of the group and gets forcefully pulled under by the water) are all common occurrences with the amateur rower.

Synchronicity on the boat is much more important than power for new rowers, said Katy Glover, an 18-year member of the club and volunteer coach for Learn to Row. In this sense, for a competitive sport, rowing is surprisingly egoless. There is no moment for you to shine. The only star player is the boat itself, so you must quietly, anonymously, do your part in giving a 200-pound, 60-foot long, carbon fiber carcass its life.

Fluidity requires the choreography of a dancer and the awareness of a hunter. It takes confidence and presence, and they take practice. So once every week, we got into our shell, and we practiced, in the raw of the spring on a lambent lake. We started out self-conscious and nervous to not screw it up, our coach reminding us to enjoy ourselves in the midst of new territory. We stumbled clumsily through the crystal water, trying to learn how to intuit each other. Often it felt like trying to tame an obstinate beast.

“Every team sucks for most of the weeks of the course, until all of a sudden it just clicks,” said Kraetschmer, the coxswain. “Suddenly one day they stop resisting themselves. They get out of their heads and into the motions. People tell themselves they can’t do things but it’s not true. It’s what I love about coxing. The moment of realization that they can.”

We fumbled our way towards synchronicity, learning how it felt, how it sounded: the burn in your legs as you push through the stroke. A quiet ripple as you glide in the pause of your recovery that’s like the pause before you take your next breath. Then the click of the oars ready to take the next stroke. It’s all silent except for a soft swiissshhh, click. Swiisssh, click.

There was a gentle rain the last day of practice before the regatta, where we would race the other Learn to Row boats in the grande finale. We rowed further out into the width of the lake that day to do speed drills. Looking at the houses nestled up in the slope of Sterling Forest, I felt like I was floating in a liquid majesty. That was what I had come for.

The next day at the race, our team, The Monday Buzz, overtook the Filthy Oars less than halfway down the course, and we won.