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Sculling Is Beautiful, Not Easy

BU Today reporter tries to master the mysteries of sculling

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Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, Boston-area residents learn to square and feather at BU’s summer sculling program.

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. Read last week’s installment here.

I stepped gingerly off the wooden dock and into my boat as if into a too-hot bath. It had been raining, and mist was spotting my glasses. Like all newbies, we were starting out in “tubbies,” starter boats that are almost twice as wide as traditional racing singles—shells with training wheels, essentially. When it comes to flipping, our beginning sculler instructor, Nick Wright, assured us that the tubbies were pretty much bulletproof. It was the “pretty much” part that worried me, but “tubby” seemed like a safe, comforting image, so I took him at his word.

“OK, most important rule?” Nick asked, as he helped my fellow student Kathleen, a biosafety officer at Harvard, fasten her oarlock.

A discomfitted silence met the question as we bobbed next to the dock at BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse, one oar resting on the wooden slats. Over the past two sessions, we’d gone over a variety of dos and don’ts. I scrolled through the possibilities as I strapped in my shoeless feet. It felt funny to be headed out on the water in just socks—too casual, like I was tempting fate. Graciously, Nick let us off the hook: “Do not. Let go. Of your oars.”

I grabbed my loose oar before he could look my way. Despite our jitters and apparent struggle with some critical concepts, Nick seemed confident we were ready to shove off. Pushing each boat by the dockside oar, he saw us out of the nest. After drifting a few feet, I dug my blades into the ripples and flung myself towards the CSX railroad bridge, the span covered in graffiti like a tattooed forearm. Rumor has it that every October before the Head of the Charles regatta, freshman rowers tag the bridge with some catch phrase. This year it was “Get Some.” I slid forward on the seat as my blades skittered back over the river and caught the water behind me. I pulled my oars and pushed with my legs at the same time, rather than legs first, then arms, like Nick had shown us on the ergs. It may not have been pretty, but I was moving.

As a flurry of singles streaked by across the water, I felt 15 years old again. All that was missing was a “Student Driver” placard and an irritable guy next to me who smelled like too much coffee and had his foot on the passenger-side brake. I feathered the blades, pushed my arms forward, then dropped the oars in the water and pulled hard. It wasn’t right. There was too much muscling, with arms breaking too early and oars in too deep. I remembered the image invoked by the coaches at last summer’s Craftsbury sculling clinic: “Oarsmen have the thighs of gods and the hands of girls at tea parties.” On my next few strokes, I let my legs lead and followed with my arms, trying to keep them straighter and looser before drawing the handles in toward my belly. The change was immediate. Shifting the power to my quads, I felt like I’d launched myself from a slingshot. I was one thick-thighed girl in a party dress.

A couple of horns and beeps from vehicles backing up drifted down from the BU Bridge project above, penetrating the sound of the water slapping against the hull and the thunk of the oars turning in the oarlocks as I squared the blades behind me. A raft of ducks paddled by, several stopping to bob under, webbed feet in the air. On the bike path, runners and bikers streaked beneath a shady canopy of trees. Out on my boat, hemmed in by the BU Bridge and the foliage of the Esplanade, I felt cocooned, as if the river was an island and the rest of the world was liquid.

In the 19th century, the Charles, named after England’s Charles I (1625-49), was a tidal river—edged by acres of salt marshes—that receded twice daily to reveal mudflats fouled by the runoff of sewers and slaughterhouses. In 1910, the waterway was dammed (where the Museum of Science now stands), seawalls built, and the water level stabilized. The long-term result: the sailboats, kayaks, dragon boats, yachts, and Duck boats that ply the river today, along with a string of parks, with the Esplanade the crown jewel. Although the river has a dirty reputation—a heavy rain rendering it particularly Petri—millions of dollars has been spent in recent years to clean it up and a one-mile swim competition is held every July to prove the point. I’d have liked to run my hand through the water and wipe my sweaty face, but was terrified of releasing an oar.

I arrived in the basin near the Harvard Bridge. We were looping from the DeWolfe Boathouse to Mass. Ave., about a quarter mile distance. Beyond the span, a flotilla of eight-boats, doubles, and singles were moving upriver like an invading army in the opening sequence of an epic film. And crossing to the other side of the river—some 2,000 feet—felt as daunting as dashing across Interstate 90, but I made it without much embarrassment.

As soon as Nick pulled up in his launch, my initial success with the oars fled and I fumbled with my blades as if I was trying to carve ice with a pair of spoons. Then one oar seemed to get stuck in the water, twisting the boat to a crawl. “You just caught a crab,” Nick said. Another new sculling term. Catching a crab, it turns out, is what happens when your oar slices into the water at an angle, gets caught under the surface, and acts as a brake. A bad crab can catapult you from your boat.

Muscling my blade from what felt like a jar of peanut butter, I squeezed off a couple of strong strokes. Then a couple more. I was still having trouble keeping my oars from jumping the locks. “Use your thumbs,” Nick said. “Just some light pressure against the ends.”

“You know, when you’re not around, I’m perfect,” I said.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” Nick smiled, then motored off to check on Kathleen.

In fact, there were several moments when, instead of crabs, I caught pure river, the blades entering just right, and I really moved that boat—a smooth, greasy glide, stroke after stroke. Nothing but the swish of the water, the turn of the oars, the wind pouring off me like vapor. The sound of it all began burrowing in my mind.

Traffic problems

It was a gorgeous early July morning, the air clean and fresh. I launched strong, working up to 10 strokes at a time. Before I knew it, I was in the basin, the Citgo sign looming over the Beacon Street brownstones. After a spell, I stopped and stared at the sloping green of Beacon Hill and the gold cap of the Statehouse, sunlight drizzled on the water. I tore across the river to the Cambridge side and pointed myself upstream. I wondered if the effect of beauty on athletic performance could be measured. I thought I heard the honking of approaching geese, a buzzing sound in my ear.

“BU sculler!” a compressed voice drifted over on the breeze.

I looked around. Who, me? Twenty feet away loomed a coach on a launch with a megaphone to her face like a mounted policeman.

“BU sculler, please move out of the lane. We have boats returning.”

I’d forgotten about the MIT lane. To access its docks downriver from the DeWolfe Boathouse, MIT rowers have to row against the traffic pattern for a few hundred yards. Several singles and doubles were heading my way. I felt like I was about to get jumped. My heart leapt out of my mouth and swam for shore. No time for flailing now. Legs, back, arms. Drive. Arms, back, legs. Recovery. Nothing like mortal danger to focus your mind.

***

Even at 6:30 a.m., it was muggy. The air in the boathouse hung like a steamed towel, so Nick spared us the erg warm-up and sent us straight out on the water. My palms were still sore from the last workout two days earlier. My blisters had sprouted their own blisters, and I was reminded that I spend too much time at a keyboard. But it was a good session. I woke my legs on the drive and relaxed my arms, fingers looser on the oar handles. I’d gained the upper hand in the keeping-of-the-oars-in-the-oarlocks battle. I didn’t catch a single crab.

Downriver, I spotted Nick on his launch talking with Joe, a Boston College junior who was brushing up on his rowing skills. It looked like Joe had worked up quite a sweat. His entire shirt was drenched, his hair slicked. Unlike me, he had graduated to a racing single, a narrow 27-foot-long boat that weighs a mere 32 pounds. But when I pulled up, I saw Joe bailing water from his boat with the pump Nick keeps on the launch. Bummer. While turning, Joe said, he had leaned into his oar and next thing he knew he was treading water. So glad it wasn’t me.

“There are two types of scullers,” Nick said. “Those who have flipped and those who will.”

I swallowed hard and moved on, asking myself whether I could be satisfied with being just a “tubber.”

Tune in next week as Caleb graduates to the trickier racing shell, but not before he and his classmates try their hand at a quadruple boat.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached cdanilof@bu.edu. Nicolae Ciorogan can be reached at ciorogan@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Sculling Is Beautiful, Not Easy

  • Anonymous on 07.15.2010 at 2:21 pm

    Caleb, thanks for sharing your learning-to-scull experience. That was me about 25 years ago in the Pacific NW, except it was September and often wet, cold and, eventually, dark. I’m delighted to read of your enjoyment. If it weren’t such a pain in the posterior to get to one of the programs by transit from where I live, I’d seriously think about going back to it. Good luck, and good fun!

    • Jennie on 08.06.2012 at 2:27 am

      Anonymous, where in the pacific NW are located? I run the Sammamish Rowing Association in Redmond, WA and we would love to have you come down and join us for a row some time.

  • Anonymous on 07.16.2010 at 9:04 am

    Sign up for sculling

    For those who may have been inspired to give rowing a shot, click here: http://www.bu.edu/fitrec/programs/noncredit/rowing.shtml. The next session starts Monday, July 19.

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