BU Today

Health & Wellness + Sports

Rowing to Bedlam

BU Today reporter tries to master the mysteries of sculling


Sculling School: BU Today writer Caleb Daniloff (center) makes headway on land. Photos by Vernon Doucette and Kalman Zabarsky

FitRec offers dozens of summer courses, from sailing to yoga to squash, all open to the public. In this series, BU Today reporter Caleb Daniloff tries his hand at sculling on the Charles River, with decidedly mixed results. Tune in each Thursday to see how he’s managing.

Two words still fill me with dread: swim test. Instantly, I’m 10 years old again: weak, vulnerable, shy. But I’m learning to scull this summer through FitRec and that coveted blue card is a requirement for all recreation classes on the Charles.

So on a recent lunch hour, I headed for FitRec, regretting my roast beef crepe au jus (and my Nutella crepe au powdered sugar) as I trudged in bright red beach trunks past svelte undergrads in Lycra suits that looked as if they were spray-painted on. The test involves diving or jumping in the pool, swimming three body lengths underwater, four regular laps, two minutes of treading water, and the ominous dead man’s float for 60 seconds. All in one go, no breaks. I nodded as I watched the lifeguard’s lips move, but the sequence seemed as complicated as an immunity challenge on Survivor. By the third lap, I was fading (I knew butterfly was a mistake!).

During the water tread—which looked more like a slow-motion karate demo—Josh, the instructor, told me he’d never failed anyone, then punctured my bubble by adding that he had, however, processed a number of failures into the computer. Finally, it was face-down-in-the-water time. “You can turn your head to breathe when you need to,” he said. I filled my lungs and started bobbing like a wonton. Within seconds, I felt claustrophobic (“I can’t breathe! Don’t shut the lid! I’m still in here!”). I lifted my face, gulped air, then plunged back in. My lungs felt the size of chickpeas, and I lasted only a few seconds before my life threatened to whip open its overcoat and flash before my eyes. Josh was talking with another lifeguard so I stole a whole bunch of extra breaths. At last, he waved me over. I’d passed.*

* Ed. note: the swim test is not a big deal. The author has issues.

The next day, at the DeWolfe Boathouse on Memorial Drive, I proudly handed my blue card to beginning sculling instructor Nick Wright. “You can hang onto it,” he said. “I just need to see it.” All that for just a glance? I’ll laminate it later. I was joined by four other newbies—Nick, a buff real estate agent and mixed martial artist, who wanted to tackle another sport; Trish, a marketer for ZipCar, whose boss had touted the BU program; Boston College junior Joe, who wanted to brush up on his rowing skills; and Kathleen, a biosafety officer at Harvard, who was curious about the scullers she saw every day on the river. Indeed. Crews and coaches’ launches are a common sight around these parts, but for many landlubbers the impossibly sleek vessels and their focused riders are mysterious and remote. Are you required to have Norwegian ancestry? Have gone to prep school? Be a morning person? Look good in spandex?

My reason for learning to scull was simple: revenge. Last summer, my dad, an avid rower, treated me and my wife, Chris, to a weekend sculling clinic in Craftsbury, Vt. Chris, who admits to an uneven athletic background, picked it right up, the coaches comparing her grace on the water to a dancer’s. Despite all the sports I’d played as a kid (not to mention the four marathons I’d run in the past year) and the handful of crew stories I’d written for BU Today, I had a little more trouble. In fact, I became the bad example, along with a pale Englishman with a Union Jack tattooed on his lower back.

The coaches videotaped our progress, or lack thereof. Both evenings we gathered around a large television to critique our form and technique. I cringed when I came on screen. “See the way his oars pop out of the oarlocks? Keep your thumbs on the ends. He’s also pulling too high. That’s why the blades are going in so deep and he’s having so much trouble. A light touch, people.” My only comfort was that the TV wasn’t high-def. My wife hasn’t yet stopped ribbing me.

Stop whatever the hell you’re doing
The BU community program meets twice a week for six weeks. I went with the 6:30 a.m. sessions. After introductions, Nick, who is the varsity girls coach of Arlington-Belmont Crew, started us on the rowing machines, or ergs (short for ergometer, from the Greek for “work measurer”). On the dry erase board above my machine this quote: “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face”—Mike Tyson. I worried a little. We got ourselves used to the parts of the rowing stroke, practicing the catch (when the blades enter the water) and the release (when they come back out). I learned a new rowing term: “weigh ’nuff,” which means, “stop whatever the hell you’re doing and pay attention.” Nick explained that rowing power comes in large part from the legs, not the arms as you might expect. In fact, his bulging quads, he added, made it hard to find jeans that fit properly. My dad, Chris, and I are supposed to return to Craftsbury in August. I plan on showing up in some seriously ill-fitting Levis.

The sport of rowing first showed up in the United States in the mid-1800s, initially in Detroit, of all places, and then the East Coast, where it took root at schools such as Harvard and Yale. BU has fielded a squad since 1937. Rowers come in two flavors—sweep (two hands on one oar) and scull (one hand on each oar)—and the boats have evolved from wooden shells with fixed seats to lightweight Kevlar and carbon bodies, holding one to eight rowers on sliding seats.

After working up a sweat on the ergs, we headed down to the dock, where a couple of eight-boats were pushing off. The DeWolfe Boathouse is the starting line for one of rowing’s most popular (and largest) regattas, the Head of the Charles, held every October and drawing thousands of competitors from all over the world. A small brass plaque on the deck marks the exact spot. While crew Terriers have performed unevenly in the regatta of late, BU has produced its share of Olympians—14 as a matter of fact, with 4 rowing in the Beijing summer games in 2008. The men’s head coach is two-time Olympic silver medalist Thomas Bohrer.

Nick set up a single shell and showed us how to put the oars (note to self: don’t ever call them paddles!) in the oarlocks, the difference between bow (the front) and stern (the back) and between port (the left side when facing the bow) and starboard (um, the other side). Because there were a handful of basics to cover, Nick said, we wouldn’t get out on the river until the next session. As he spoke, I kept stealing glances at the tea-colored water, the lush green of the Esplanade keeping the rest of the world at bay. It was a beautiful morning, sunlight splashed across the river as if spilled from a jar. I watched a line of geese and goslings paddling in a perfect row, seemingly mimicking an eight-boat. Scullers and rowers were gliding beneath bridges like arrows shot from a bow. I imagined myself slicing through that lake in Craftsbury next month, oars securely in their oarlocks, a video star on the rise. I couldn’t wait to hit the Charles. I snapped back just in time to hear Nick say, “… is the most important thing to remember, OK? See you all next time.”

Tune in next week when Caleb takes to the water and learns another sculling term: “to catch a crab.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Rowing to Bedlam

  • Anonymous on 07.08.2010 at 10:35 am

    As a former rower- this is hilarious! Nice job, good luck.

  • Anonymous on 07.08.2010 at 11:46 am

    Even though I swim twice a week at FitRec and I have always wanted to
    learn how to scull, I haven’t yet mustered enough courage to take the
    swim test. I look forward to your future installments on your sculling
    experience and just maybe you will inspire me to obtain that blue card.

  • Anonymous on 07.13.2010 at 8:35 pm

    Sure wish the boathouse looked like that when I rowed at BU!

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