August is the month I like to book my winter vacation, so that I am fully prepared and ready for the long dark days of winter, when the Charles River becomes dangerously cold, the four-oar rule is invoked, we start group erg sessions in our drafty old boathouse, and I develop a near lethal case of cabin fever, exacerbated by seasonal affective disorder. Yes, I am a competitive masters rower at Cambridge Boat Club, and I admit proudly that a winter training trip to warmer climes, organized by our Head Coach Greg Myhr, makes me feel as happy as a kid who just passed his flip test.
Come February 2019, fifteen of us CBC rowers walked through the turnstiles at the High Performance Training Centre on Seville's Guadalquivir River. Any concerns I might have had about icy docks posing a risk of hip fractures for this athletic grandma were quickly dispelled when I saw members of the Dutch National Team launching in unisuits. The weather was perfect, 60 degrees F, with no wind. After more than two months erging back home, we were eager to launch our assigned middle-aged, yellow, single racing shells.
In retrospect, our loaner shells were perfectly fine. But when first I saw the Laura Cartuja, the lightweight, but still too-big-for me boat to which I'd been assigned, I longed for my own boat, a 2006 Van Dusen flyweight with carbon fiber rigger. A long-armed friend helped me deal with those pesky backstays, and within minutes, I was ready to go. Cautiously negotiating my launch from a high dock designed for sweep rowers, I remembered why I had made the trip, and luxuriated in that feeling of being bathed in sunshine.
Delighting in views of orange trees, palm trees, and other rowers, I began counting how many historic and contemporary bridges I could pass before turning back to home base, marked by a vast network of cables forming an iconic right triangle at the base of the bridge closest to the centre's docks. As on the Charles, those bridges became essential landmarks for me, associated with sights to see on both the left and right banks of the river.
If you happen to be out on a Saturday, you may see boats heading up to the starting line for a regional regatta of mostly high school students. The officiants stand on shore with their megaphones. You mean even hear one of them expressing his dismay at the absence of the team from Gibraltar, a frequent participant.
Like rowers on the Charles defining the Boston-Cambridge landscape even more vividly than the boathouses and Harvard's red brick buildings and distinctive towers, rowers on the Guadalquivir enliven a landscape of Spanish architecture from throughout the centuries dotted with contemporary boathouses.
A word about the numerous kayakers I saw on the Guadalquivir. . . unlike those slow-moving kayakers piloting heavy plastic boats on the Charles, largely oblivious to the rules of the river, those I saw in Spain were serious competitive athletes with carbon fiber vessels. They were agile enough and fast enough to avoid us foreigners navigating new territory.
When a few friends and I commented on sore forearms after a few days of rowing, one of our physician rowers said: "That's because we're all used to rowing with skinny blades." I felt I'd been lucky to snag what looked like the shortest pair of oars, but they still felt different from what I used at home.
We stayed at a lovely hotel, almost diagonally across the street from the training center. As a rower who spent a good 26 years launching at 4:45 a.m., my body has rhythms requiring that I eat dinner early, and be in bed by 8 p.m. "Europeans never go to dinner before 8:30 or 9," while oft-quoted, is true only for haute cuisine eateries.
Before leaving for Seville, I chatted with Gregg Stone, father and coach of 2016 Olympic Silver Medal in single sculls Gevvie Stone, who has twice trained in Seville. "There are lots of tapas bars open at 6 pm," he told me. I also learned about eateries open practically all day. As for breakfast, we had dozens of healthy - and tempting but unhealthy - options at our hotel's buffet.
Based on feedback from previous training trips, in 2019 Coach Myhr added an Assistant Coach, Adam Balogh, with his own launch. He also added a strength and flexibility coach, Steve Myrland. Wise move!
After my first morning rowing under all the bridges I could recognize until I reached what looked like an area dedicated to commercial barges, I felt an acute pain in my left elbow, enough to make me fear I might find myself sidelined. Coach Balogh immediately determined that the pitch in the starboard oarlock of the Laura Caratuja was a bit shallow. He quickly remedied the problem with a few wraps of electrical tape, and I was good to go. Coach Myrland led us through daily warmups and stretches before the morning row to ensure we were ready for the day's practice, and help relieve the stress on our bodies from the previous day's rowing.
If there's a message in all of this, it's that masters rowers like me need to recognize that we're not back at CBC where new Empachers, Hudsons, and a few older Graeme Kings comprise the fleet of club boats, and skinny blades are standard. If we want to experience the considerable joys of rowing on the Guadalquivir's flat waters, mixing with international rowers, partaking of the cultural activities and delicious food of Seville, not to mention its good weather, we've got to adapt to what's considered perfectly good equipment outside the USA, and probably outside CBC.
Ask me what I liked best about CBC's training trip to Seville, and I'll mention three things:
- Seville is a sophisticated city of extremely friendly people, and rowing is a big deal to them. I learned that one evening when I happened to dine alone at a trendy tapas restaurant, and the Sevillians at the next table who initiated our conversation were delighted to hear that I'd come to their city to row – with one of the men telling me in Spanish that he was a proud member of Club Deportivo RemoSevilla, whose boathouse I passed each time I went out on the Guadalquivir.
- When I wasn't rowing, I could tour UNESCO World Heritage sites, walk miles in a very walkable city, sip a glass of Sangria or Albarino at a roof top bar, or dine on the most delicious gazpacho, ham Iberico, shrimp tacos, honey roasted ribs, roasted vegetables, or orange-infused chocolate mousse cake I ever tasted.
- There's nothing like traveling with the rowers I know, from facing the challenges of training for the Head of the Charles during a brutal Nor'easter or exchanging hugs at the Regatta with non-resident members I've met on previous training trips. These people feel like family, and we help each other, even if it means delaying our own launch or waiting for each other in the hotel lobby so we can visit the Alcazar together.
I had so much fun that I'm not going to wait until August to start badgering Coach Myhr about nailing down the details for our winter 2020 trip to Seville.
Bonnie Sashin writes the blog Bonnie's On It.