row2k Features
Lake Merritt Diary
August 25, 2000
Rob Colburn

Lake Merritt Diary

This year's Masters Nationals Regatta on Lake Merritt drew more than 1,100 competitors, for four days of racing, and the US Women's Olympic Eight put on exhibition rows on the Saturday and Sunday of finals. As a fund-raiser, they split the bow four and the stern four into different eights, and auctioned the four remaining seats in each boat to rowers eager to have chance to row a 500 meter practice race with Olympians. The seats in those eights probably cost more than the seats on the flights which got many of us here, but the experience was priceless, as one of the lucky bidders described to her teammates.

Speaking of airlines, the air traffic control radars at San Francisco Airport went down on the day prior to the regatta -- Arrival Day for many of us. Or, as an FAA mouthpiece rationalized it: the radars were not really down; they never lost the image, but the blips didn't have any airspeed, direction, or altitude information next to them, so the controllers had track the planes manually. (Sort of like a dockmaster landing quads?)

Arriving at the course for the first look at Lake Merritt, one is immediately struck by the incredibly precise geometry of the buoy lines. It is the same feeling you get looking down an active runway at night. (Scripps Institute of Oceanography donated miles of used Kevlar line for keeping the buoy lines in place.) Lake Merritt Rowing Association volunteers spent hours on the ruler straight course as well as the careful marking of the warm-up areas to keep boats out of the shallows or the bird sanctuary. We can tell from the moment that we arrive that the hosts of this regatta have paid great attention to details, and that it is going to be a well-run event. The amount of volunteer time to make a regatta this size run smoothly must be staggering; I hope they are appreciated. The site is beautiful. The coxswain's meeting is a detailed, no-nonsense affair.

The sculler I am rooming with (see, coxswains and scullers can get along), dreams that she is rowing an inflatable raft in the finals, and has been given only one oar -- kayak style. My 2 seat (the third sharer of the room) still has not arrived by the time we go to bed. I am worried. Just how bad was the radar problem?

Up early with my teammates for qualifying heats. My 2 seat arrived during the night -- expertly snarfing an extra pillow from practically under my head without my stirring. The hotel includes a good buffet breakfast in the rate. We make good use of it. An entire box of bananas disappears before six a.m. Acute contrast in the dining room between the athletes staying at the hotel, and the mostly overweight business people. The athletes are intense, excited, fit. The business people are tense, worried, and not at all fit.

On the short drive to the course, my crew are discussing -- in detail -- the various insects they have ingested while rowing. We agree that any time that the insect is sufficiently large or active that one can identify it while it is going down one's throat, it is probably too large.

Little seed pods fall from the trees into the boats which have been lying out in slings all night. I am terrified that some of them might get caught in the tracks and causing a jumped slide during the race. We have a rental boat -- SOPHIA -- which is a boat I soon fall in love with. (In an unusual rush of superstition, I buy myself some blue rowing trou with white stripes to match the colors of her hull.) Each morning we wipe the tracks carefully, and I also mop out the dew which has settled in the boat during the night. Judging from the weight of the sodden towel, that probably saves ten pounds right there.

On the subject of vegetation, there seems to be a particular kind of burr indigenous to this part of California, soft but particularly tenacious, and which sticks annoyingly well to spandex, no matter where you sit. I quote the following country music riff composed by my teammate Camille Tropp between heats:

"I get in my scull
whenever life's kind of dull.
I got a burr on my butt.
   So What?

The coxswain's appealin'
But he just ain't feelin'
The burr on my butt
   SO WHAT?" (I'm afraid that's all that's fit to print)

We qualify for the final, two days away, but many of us have other events in the meanwhile. The intensity of the competition is amazing, and the days seem to go by in an adrenaline blur. There are wonderful moments; I'll never forget the roar of the crowd coming to its feet to cheer Kearney Johnston -- at 89 the regatta's oldest competitor -- down the course.

Before we know it, the wake-up call is going off at 5:15, and it is the day of OUR final. One of my teammates works out some pre-race jitters by holding an imaginary conversation with the wakeup call computer until it gives up the unequal struggle and hangs up. "…Yeah? Well I love you TOO!"

We have a grand race, there is swing in the boat; it is the kilometer we came 5100 kilometers for. The best part was hearing one of my rowers say in a whisper afterwards: "This makes me feel like a legitimate rower again."

Masters Nationals is full of great moments.

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