We were going to be in Hamburg, Germany visiting friends this past August and so I thought, I wonder if there's a rowing club in Hamburg. Thanks to Ed Hewitt and www.row2k.com, I found there were several and one had an English version of their webpage. What the heck...
I posted a note on their bulletin board and asked if they allow guests to row. The next day I received a reply from Jochen Leitner, who's about my age and a board member of Der Hamburger und Germania Rudder Club, inviting me to come row with them. What was I thinking? Am I insane? I don't speak German.
Don't worry about not speaking German he wrote.
I called Jochen when we arrived in Hamburg. Sunday morning at 9:30 was the chosen time and after our host in Hamburg confirmed the address, I was committed. It turns out that there are 26 rowing clubs on the Alster, the large lake in Hamburg's center.
Sunday morning arrived with a blustery wind off the North Sea as I met Jochen in front of a their boathouse. Gosh it's pretty rough on that lake, I sorta hope we don't go out in this.
The club is the oldest rowing club on the continent, founded in 1836. The boathouse has three bays and a lot of boats. There is a locker room, showers, a bar and small restaurant with a spectacular deck and terrace overlooking the Alster. It is a male only club, but two of the other fellows' wives would be joining us today for our row.
We went to the boat bay and as they were rolling out this beautiful, sparkling, wooden eight, I noticed something odd. Oh my God! There are riggers on both sides! I can't scull! You idiot, what do you think you're doing! I casually mentioned to Jochen that I hadn't had much experience sculling. "We row with both hands on ONE oar", I said. In truth I'd been out in my sister-in-law's wherry - once. Again, not to worry said Jochen as we launched the boat. I was put in 7-seat with Jochen behind me to translate the coxswain's calls. And off we paddled into the chop of the Alster. Is it right over left? Left leading right? Please God don't let me catch a crab. We went on a slight detour so I could see the Rathaus, the renaissance inspired city hall only to then have to spin the boat in a narrow canal. We then headed into the open water across the Alster. The octuple/octopede is very steady and in spite of my digging deep and flailing, was very set. It is wider and longer than a Vespoli 8. We were rowing at about an 18 to 20spm and we seemed to really be moving. Most of the rowers were older than me and probably in better shape.
Jochen did comment that I was going a bit deep on my starboard. Right! Keep your fingers crossed that this oar handle AND I don't end up in your chest! But we settled into a rhythmic pace and after some time, entered a wide canal at the far end of the lake. Some of the stone walled canals had about a foot clearance on both sides of the extended oars which called for split-second backing, checking and rowing. Alas, I was being taken on a tour of some of the beauty spots of the canals of Hamburg-and scenic they were-gracious houses, trimmed lawns, swans and assorted water craft: kayaks, canoes and other rowers (2's and 4's). Jochen had said we'd stop for a break and we were soon docking at what was a regular for the crew: a canal-side beer garden. I decided that a nonalcoholic spetzi (coke and lemon soda mix) would more reliably get me back across the lake in one piece than a beer, although boy was I tempted. My older mates quaffed more than one beer apiece, however.
The trip back across the lake was more relaxed for me. The wind had lessened some, but now the lake was covered with sailboats and twice we checked it down hard to avoid a boat capsizing in front of us.
We landed and proceeded to dry off the oars and the boat and put it back in its cradle. I bid everyone a "vielen dank" and "auf wiedersen" but was corrected; in Hamburg they say "schuss," sort of a more personal, less formal good-bye to friends. It was a memorable experience - not many Lakers have ever seen an octuple much less rowed in one. The hospitality and generosity extended to me was immense - but they were rowers, not strangers. This is something that I've noticed about rowers the world over.
*(NOTE: Deutscher Ruder Verband, the official German Rowing Association, uses "Vorwärts-ab!" for "ready all, row!" Der Hamburger und Germaina Ruder Club, since it predates the DRV, has its own commands and "in die auslage-fertig-ab" loosely translated means "ready, steady, go!" Their website is www.der-club.de. As of this writing, the English language pages are being revised.)