Harmony, balance, and rhythm.
They're the three things that stay with you your whole life.
Without them civilization is out of whack.
And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life.
That’s what he gets from rowing.
George Yeoman Pocock, Boat Builder & Rowing Coach, (1891 1976)
My first week at UNH I was standing in a gigantic line outside the UNH Field House waiting my turn to register for classes. Parked on the lawn in a set of stretchers was a 4 person racing shell, complete with oars. Members of the Crew Team with their sweatshirts emblazoned with crossed oars and the words 'New Hampshire Crew' were walking up and down the lines talking to prospective rowers. I was curious about it, but I didn't ask and, even though I could see a couple of the Crew people sizing me up, none of them talked to me that day.
When I later went to my first floor meeting there was my RA, also wearing a Crew Team sweatshirt (even though it was really hot). I asked him about it and he got this far-away look in his eyes and started to tell me it was the greatest thing in the world and that I had to try it. I thought the religious zeal was a bit much, but I was more curious about what this was all about, so I showed up for the first meeting of the team.
After swimming competitively for the previous ten years I had assumed that I would swim at UNH, even going so far as to meet with the swim coach to find out about the team during my one visit to UNH prior to enrolling. The idea of switching sports so completely was not even on my radar. Yet, something about how passionate the Crew Team was about their sport made everyone I'd talked to on the swim team pale by comparison.
Later I was standing in line to buy my textbooks and there was another Crew sweatshirt
Taking the Plunge
I joined the team that fall and was immediately pulled into the famously intense crew workouts. I had a few non-rowers warn me about these. "Those people are crazy", I'd heard some of them say. The workouts were apparently legendary on campus. I soon came to find out why.
Rowing is one of the most physically demanding sports there is. The common misconception is that rowing is all about arm strength, but this is not true. The motion of rowing involves the entire body. In a crew shell your feet are tied into the boat and do not move. Your seat, however, is on sliding runners. From a starting position with the rower's legs folded up, the seat all the way forward, the arms extended, and the blade just entering the water. From here the rower must drive with the legs first, then back, and then arms until their body is almost fully straight and the oar is pulled from the water. Now they must fold up again using the stomach, arms, and legs. There is not a single major muscle group that is not intimately involved with this motion.
The Drug Takes Hold
After 10 years in the water I was eager for something new. Rowing a boat seemed like a good alternative and I liked the people I met on the team. What I soon realized is that swimming had been enjoyable to me because it was completely individual; even though I was on a team when I was swimming it was just me in my lane, competing against myself and the guy next to me. Rowing was the opposite. The entire first year is spent learning to row. While the motions seem easy enough to get down the form of them is critical. Even if you get that down, next you have to synchronize the motions of 8 big guys making balancing, but asymmetrical, motions with great force at this speed. The only way to do this is for each rower to refine their rowing motions to the smoothest form possible, repeat those motions exactly the same way each time, then subtly compensate for the differences in weight and motion of the 7 other people in the boat. The only way this is accomplished is if the boat learns to think like a single organism.
Rowing is a Zen exercise in many ways because you must be mindful of everything you are doing, but cultivating a state of mental quiet while you do it. Thinking will lead you to distraction which will lead you to make extraneous motion which will throw off the boat, so the phrase “Get your head in the boat” gets yelled a lot when things get rough. You need to be the boat in order to move the boat.
During the spring of that year there were 4 or 5 strokes yes individual strokes where everything worked in our boat. They never happened more than a couple at a time though because each time they did the boat felt like it rose up out of the water and started to fly. As soon as we attained this sudden speed through unison 3 or 4 guys would automatically yell out “Oh my god, did you feel that!!!” and the boat would slow down immediately. The pursuit of that state can become a drug.
We competed in 3 or 4 races that year, culminating with the final race of the season, The Dad Veil Regatta, which was held on Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, less than 10 miles from where I grew up.