I know exactly when it started, and why. I was rowing through the narrow channel connecting Nashaquitsa and Menemsha Ponds (those are real names) on a day where I had no business being on the water. The wind was piping over ten knots and running against a flood tide in the channel, setting up a confused, agitated chop. I was rowing my old Pocock Trainer, the one with no skeg but an inch-high manufacturing seam that runs, hull and deck, the length of the boat, providing both marginal directional stability and a dull blade to slice into unsuspecting boat slings. It goes without saying there is no self-bailer. In the shelter of the smaller pond, I had felt the pressure of the wind on my chest as I rowed towards the cut, and it seemed possible, if marginal, for a row. The weather had been bad for days and I was tired of spending my vacation with my nose pressed against a sweating window.
But I had not counted on the strength of the tide in the channel. It was on full wash cycle with no discernable wave pattern; just random, lunging foam that set up a spray. I quickly decided the best course of action was to get through the potato patch before my cockpit completely filled with water, and I started pulling hard, short strokes into the current. I had just cleared the cut when I had two revelations: the cockpit was now full, making the boat so low in the water I could no longer take a real stroke, and there was a full storm building in the larger pond I had just entered. Time to retreat, but how?
Turning the boat around was out of the question. With their full-hull seam, Pococks are slow to turn even in calm conditions at normal waterline. Putting the boat beam-to-current now would be disastrous. Swimming the boat in was a reluctant option. The wind velocity was now in the teens, and I figured my best recourse was to keep the boat upright while steering backwards and hope that the current would deposit me near enough to the beach to walk in. And that's when I started talking to myself. Out loud.
"Come on now," I said, and the words were oddly comforting. "You can do this," I spoke encouragingly. My fingernails raked my legs as I forced the oars through a recovery stroke. "Just steer the boat, let the tide do the work." I was my new best friend. No recriminations, no swearing (which is after all how we normally talk to ourselves); just focused sympathetic support. I tottered and slewed towards shore, chattering like a magpie all the way, fetched the beach, and after portaging the boat across the spit rowed gingerly back the boathouse into a stiff headwind. "Nice work!" I told myself as I approached the boathouse, the cockpit again half full. I realized I had just discovered an important tool for my rowing development, if not my mental health.
In a sense, the most difficult thing about sculling is also the most enjoyable thing: the solitude. For scullers who "graduate" (or escape) from a sweep oar program, the quietude and absence of coaching are disorienting. An eight can be a noisy, smelly place, even when silence in the boat is being enforced. The coach is talking to you, the cox is yelling at you, somebody just poked you in the back, nobody's washed their sweats since Labor Day, and the entire bow four seem to be involved in an act of civil disobedience. Going from that to lithe, tender single, where a dead insect on the seat track can be alarming, requires some adjustment.
Part of that adjustment is that, without a coach around, scullers are not just adept at developing bad habits-they actively perfect them. Where lifting into the catch in a fast eight will eventually land you in a full body cast, a sculler can adapt and compensate around this deficiency with other bad habits-shooting the slide or shortening up, for example. Piled one upon the other in what laughably becomes one's "personal rowing style," these habits result in a stroke that may look like someone reacting to a blow to the stomach while simultaneously reaching forward with both hands for a large, flaming drink. Left to his or her own devices, a sculler can row badly for hours, weeks, years until someone may mention in passing that they are frightening the juniors and really ought to consider a week at Craftsbury (in the same tone, I might add, they would recommend a visit to Betty Ford.)
It takes a full, open voice to break that solitude; just thinking to one's self is not sufficient. Rowers have had interior monologues since the first slave was chained to a galley oar. You will notice, incidentally, that in every movie depicting life in a slave galley that there is never any discussion of technique-it all seems to be about stroke rate. The mean-looking guy with the drum is beating out forty strokes a minute, but where is the other guy with a megaphone yelling at Charlton Heston, "Port side, you're late!" or "I'm looking for a clean release, bow section!" And the slaves, forbidden to speak, really aren't in a position to self-coach.
Happily, today's modern scullers are. Just yesterday I was weaving my customary way through a 1500 meter piece with my mental Dictaphone recording the proceedings, something like "Stern wake hasn't been straight for a long time, has it?.. getting tired, very tired…really should try to trim up…if I put carpet on the stern deck could I take my dog for a row?..wait, I don't have a dog." Suddenly out of nowhere, I heard a voice saying, "Come on now, you can row better than this." The voice was my own, reminding me of the very reason I was out there. "Drop rate by two, lengthen stroke now," I told myself, out loud. "Perfect twenty in three, two, one." And that was it. Sanity had been restored, if only for a little while. The boat straightened out, my focus was back, and the remainder of the row became an event rather than an ordeal. It turns out I could row better than that. It did help that no one was around to hear me, however.
Back at the boathouse, I made a list of alternatives to talking to yourself. They are:
- Talking to the boat (reliably unresponsive)
- Talking to the water (too spiritual for someone wearing stretch fabric)
- Talking to an imaginary friend (creepy, especially in a single)
- Talking about yourself (dangerous and divisive)
- A profound, existential silence in which human beings are reduced to barely sentient automatons while contemplating a capricious supreme being (i.e., a national training camp; not available to Masters)
So if you aren't talking to yourself now, perhaps you should be. There will be plenty of solitude remaining, and every once in a while you could probably use the company.
Richard Griffoul is "a
bicoastal sculler--summers on Martha's Vineyard (with the Nashaquitsa
Rowing Club) and the rest of the time here in California with the
Berkeley Paddling and Rowing Club and Lake Merritt Rowing Club. I can
be tricked into rowing sweeps if someone leads a trail of Guinness pints
down to the dock and then hits me over the head with a megaphone.
Otherwise I prefer a clear view of my own stern wake."