A BU Today reporter tries to master the mysteries of sculling
This weekend marks one of Boston’s largest and most popular athletic traditions: the Head of the Charles regatta. Crews the world over will try and best each other over the three-mile course. The race’s starting line is located at BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse. That’s also where BU Today reporter Caleb Daniloff tried his hand at sculling this past summer through BU’s community rowing program, with decidedly mixed results.This week, we’ve been revisiting Caleb’s journey. Today is the last installment. Read the whole series here.
It was Father’s Day and I was standing on the River Street Bridge between Cambridge and Boston, my gaze cast upriver. In the distance, the gray water beyond the Western Avenue Bridge looked like it was dotted with waterbugs. As the insects drew closer and grew larger, their wings transformed into oars and their shells into men rowing. I spotted my father in a shiny blue-and-white striped singlet that made him look like he’d busted out of a French prison. Pa was rowing in the master’s division of the Cromwell Cup, a 1000-meter sprint staged by the Riverside Boat Club, around the bend from BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse, where I was learning to scull through FitRec’s summer rowing program. I wolf-whistled and snapped pictures as he vanished under the bridge. I dashed to the other side, where he popped out in third place—alas, out of three. I snapped a few more shots.
Pa always presses me to take pictures when he’s racing. “Do you have a video camera?” he often asks. Lately, he’s been rowing in one regatta after another—the Crusher Casey, the Head of the Charles, the Green Mountain Head. At 75 years old, he takes to the water at least four mornings a week and seems to row farther each time. Nine miles at last count. My mother says he’s fleeing that hooded sculler behind him, the one in black robes with scythes for oars. But since taking up sculling myself, I realize it’s not about cheating death. Nor about vanity. He wants those pictures to study his technique, how his oars enter the water, the position of his hands, searching for ways to get better, faster. Rowing is as much about the pursuit of perfection as it is about fitness and health, about capturing sunlight in a jar.
As I clicked through some of the images for him back at his boathouse, I remembered something my beginning sculling instructor, Nick Wright, said.
“One of the great things about rowing is you can come in off the street and learn it. You’re doing the same basic stroke as you’ll be doing when you’re 80 or 90 years old. To paraphrase a famous sculler, Brad Lewis, ‘The beginner is chasing the same perfect stroke as the Olympic rower.’”
And just as my fellow sculling students and I were getting the hang of the sequence that makes up that stroke—the catch (blades enter the water), the drive (the boat is moved), the finish (blades are removed from water), and the recovery (oars are brought back for the next stroke)—Nick took it to the next level.
Rowing with others.
It was a steamy morning on the dock when Nick told us we’d be taking out a quad. I thought I heard a few hard gulps. A tubby version, right? I wanted to ask. No such luck. The real deal, a bona fide 42-foot-long, 120-pound shell, with four sets of outriggers and four sliding seats. I could feel each individual drop of sweat racing down my back. Nick wanted us to taste teamwork. “Rowing is really the ultimate team sport,” he said. “Because you have to be in sync.”
Our first bit of group bonding was getting the monster out of the boathouse. In the dark cool of the first bay, carrying the shell—practically the length of a shipping container—required the four of us. The gunwales dug into our shoulders as we eased it off the sliding rack. We were joined that morning by a tall Harvard student from Switzerland named Michele. He must have stood 6’4”. In fact, he was so tall that when we stepped away from the cradle, the boat was no longer resting on my shoulder. At 5’8”, I had to stand on my tiptoes just to touch the gunwale and not look like Tom Sawyer walking free and easy beneath the shell.
When we got down to the water, Nick instructed us to lift the behemoth overhead, then roll the shell down to our waists with the “guts” facing up. “Then place the boat gently in the water.” Once we locked in our oars, we stepped in one at a time and Velcroed our feet into soft silver shoes. I already pictured the four of us hanging upside down in the water like bats, the sun beating on the overturned hull. Nick bravely took the coxswain seat. The other Nick—a real-estate agent and mixed martial artist—sat in the stern. Kathy, a biosafety officer from Harvard, settled in the bow. Coach Nick told me to take the second seat. Michele sat in front of me in the third seat. All I could see was a giant wall of back. It was like staring at a skyscraper.
We made our way upriver. Nick had us start out two rowers at a time, with the remaining oars resting on the water, balancing the boat. Ragged clouds began scabbing over the sun, and the light dimmed like a pulled shade. Plying through the dusky arches of the BU Bridge felt ominous, the water eerily flat and our presence echoing off the chipped, graffiti-covered walls.
As we plowed past the Riverside Boat Club, Nick added a third rower: me. I was too aware of Kathy behind me. Not wanting to bump into her, I didn’t slide all the way back, which shortened my stroke. At the same time, I was keeping an eye on Michele’s oarlock, trying to turn my oar when he did. But he had the wing span of a pterodactyl, and several times our blades got tangled. My nerves frayed. I got confused, couldn’t tell my left from my right, my up from my down. I felt like both Laurel and Hardy. Was I paying the price for all those years of drinking? For not paying attention in class? Would I be useless during the Apocalypse? “Weigh ’nuff,” Nick shouted, as if he knew what was reeling through my mind. We stopped rowing.
Nick then commanded us to go all four rowers, which meant no blades were balancing the boat. It was about momentum now. At first we looked a little wobbly, like a wounded dragonfly. But rowing with someone in front and back sparked a single-minded focus on technique. A handful of strokes saw us all moving together, gracefully and powerfully, our four bodies working as one. This must be what it feels like to be a giant. Until I caught a crab and knocked against Kathy’s oars.
Back in the boathouse, Nick gave us one of his trademark assessments.
“That wasn’t exceedingly bad.”
By week five, I’d finally made it to the next level: the single, or as I prefer to tell people, the racing shell. Well, I didn’t exactly graduate. It was more like when Nick asked if anyone wanted to try a single and I raised my hand, he didn’t object. Still, settling into the narrow red vessel was like getting the car keys for the first time. The boat felt as light as balsa wood: 26 feet, 33 pounds, 13 inches across. I have a 34-inch waist, which means an approximately 17-inch backside. It was hard to wrap my mind around the physics. Would part of me be over the sides? Maybe I should have stuck with a tubby.
Nick told me to be mindful of keeping my oar handles together and advised me on the best way to set the boat when not rowing. As he pushed me off the dock by my oar, he told me to row arms only, leave my legs out of it for now. I’m sure he was afraid I’d bust that thing into kindling.
When I crossed up by the BU Bridge, I brought my quads into the equation. The shell was tippy for sure. Lighter and sleeker, it was more sensitive to the wind and water currents. I watched my technique even more carefully than in the quad. I rowed to the Mass Ave bridge and back, mostly with clean strokes. It felt like riding an arrow.
But when I really got going, I hardly sensed the boat beneath me. It became an extension of my body and I flew, rowing across sky on a turbo-charged feather. I could get used to this. Maybe these were the moments of perfection my dad was chasing—more like quarter moments in my case, but they added up. Canoeing or kayaking this river would never be the same.
I arrived in the basin on my second pass. The dappled water shone as if painted in oils, a slight haze settling beneath the bridge. I pointed the scull toward the Cambridge side and began making my way back toward the BU Bridge. I squared my blades and pushed off with my feet. Maybe I glanced away a moment too long, maybe my hands separated, maybe it was a cross breeze, but the next thing I knew, the shell was rising up like it was being nosed from below by some sea creature. And before my eyes could widen in horror, I was spit into the drink like a watermelon seed. When I surfaced, I found the shell on its side, one oar pointed up as if it had a question. Amazingly, my glasses stayed on. I was treading water, smack in the middle of the widest part of the river, socks heavy on my feet. Luckily, no boats were headed my way. Within moments, Nick showed up in the launch.
I righted the shell, grabbed both oar handles with one hand and used the other hand to try and hoist myself in. I almost made it but was bucked off. Second time was the charm. Nick even thumbs-upped my form. He didn’t have a pump on the launch, so he tossed me an empty Gatorade bottle and I began bailing out water.
Ten minutes later, I was back in the loop. And rowing quite well, even with some of the Charles still sloshing around the footholds. It was actually refreshing, and not just because it was so hot. With that fear gone, I was looser, in sync with the water, with my limbs. Fear had been holding me back. What was the big deal anyway? The fear of getting wet? Of looking foolish? I felt liberated, unstoppable, a soaked fool on the wind.
After docking, I wiped down the shell and headed for the showers. When I told BU’s assistant men’s crew coach Dave Padgett that I’d flipped, he said, “Congratulations, you’re a sculler.”
Indeed. As I strode into the office that morning, still wearing a faint scent of Eau de Charles, I had new swagger, a pair of river legs holding me up. I am Sculler, hear me row! Well, OK, smell me row. In any case, I could still feel the current in my limbs, the sun’s morning warmth in my eyes, the silencing of man-made distractions in my ears. I couldn’t wait to strap back in and grab those oars. Maybe I could get my wife to snap a few pictures.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally ran July 22, 2010.4 Comments