row2k Features
A First-Class Piece of Collective Seamanship, 5-Years’ Retrospective - 19 May 2000
May 18, 2005
Rob Colburn

Morning of time trials, Stotesbury Regatta. Boats launching every thirty seconds, with another kilometer of post-race boats lined up downstream waiting to land. There are upwards of one hundred boats on the water, as a dark squall line -- moving fast -- comes out of the east.

"All boats hold, do NOT shove!"

The first gusts have already hit as the crews who had been about to launch hoist their shells out again so the dockmasters can clear space to get the waiting boats off the water. Those crews standing on the ramp are waved off and sent back to their trailers under a fast-darkening sky. Rowers go aloft on trailer arms, reminiscent of a square-rigger off Cape Horn, strapping down shells. It becomes a race to land the boats that have already raced, as well as recall from the other direction the boats that have already launched.

From the launch dock, upstream to the marshalling area, is an extended mat of boats, now attempting to turn amongst each other. The gusts are gathering force (it will eventually peak at more than thirty miles per hour), and the wind-darkened water begins to pile up waves, angry and short. The kind of chop which can slap over the gunwales and fill the hull. The gusts begin to whine through the girders of the bridge, and the roughening water -- the first whitecaps are already forming -- is not making maneuvering any easier.

Unless the boats can keep clear of each other, a terrible progression will begin. All it would take to begin it is for one or two boats -- overpowered by the wind -- to drift down into others, interfering with their oars and depriving them of their maneuverability in turn, until no power on earth can keep the whole helpless mass from blowing onto the rocks of the lee shore.

A curtain of grey rain sweeps in horizontally, and blots all but the nearest boats from our sight. The wooden docks turn slick under the sluicing water. A rower from a crew carrying an eight up the ramp slips and nearly goes feet-first into the river; a coach catches him just in time and hauls him back by his sweatshirt. On shore it's just as bad; a rower retrieving oars goes down in the mud, his blades rattling down on top of him.

Focus on each boat at a time. There is a line of coaches, dockmasters -- any spare person -- catching boats as they come in, hoisting rowers out of them, gathering oars, anything to speed the process. A handful of fours have taken shelter under the bridge, holding position in the lee of one of the abutments. No easy task in these gusts, but at least they are out of the worst of it.

As each boat lands, the next is waiting close behind. An eight with unpainted blades holds position with consummate skill as waves break across its foredeck, balancing its bow just inches behind the shell ahead of it, by dragging five and seven oars and rowing with number two. (Atlantic City possibly; with unpainted blades and their uniforms covered by hastily donned sweatshirts, now anonymously dark with rain, it is hard to tell.) Whoever you are, you know how to handle a boat.

How much water is tipping out of the boats as they're hauled out? So far, it doesn't look as if they're coming in with enough to make swamping an immediate consideration, but how much longer before the rain makes this a serious worry?

And still they come. The line stretches out beyond the curtain of the rain. Finally, the last of the eights, with marshal's' boats escorting it in, pierces the grey and approaches the dock. Tentatively, for -- having been out in the rain the longest, they have taken the most water aboard and are heavy by about a quarter of a ton -- the crew brings it in under stern pair while using bow oar for extra steerage. The fours, having been watching for the openings at the dock, sprint from their shelter.

"That's the last," we hear from a marshal's launch. It has been a first-class piece of collective seamanship by rowers, coxswains, dockmasters, and coaches.

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