row2k Features
Whatever It Takes - The Pickup Boats of Summer
June 27, 2001
Rob Colburn

Summer is the season of pick-up boats, of oars strapped to the roof of the car, of borrowed boats, and of rowing with the people you want to row with. What matter it that the regatta is in Philadelphia, and your bow seat is interning in North Carolina? Distance-defying coordination is what the internet was invented for. Where there's a will, there's a way. For all those who race under the Unaffiliated banner, I hope this column tells your saga.

Three days to race day. You have three rowers, a set of oars, a coxswain, and are madly trying to scrounge another starboard. You've sent emails to everyone you have ever rowed with (and several whom you haven't), and have posted messages on all the regatta bulletin boards. Perhaps you have been promised the loan of a boat from a local club, or from your alma mater. You know the boat: it's one which has sat for years on the outside rack; the one which the oak limb blown down by Hurricane Floyd missed by inches while the much newer Empacher next to it was totally destroyed. "It's not the newest," you are told candidly, and the skeg leaks "a bit." Fortunately, your Stroke has a half a tube of aquarium caulk in his basement left over from a previous adventure involving a 4+, a mistimed garage door, and a trip to Boston.

Bring along a spare coxswain (more if you have them). Many clubs are chronically short of transportable coxswains, and you can often trade one for a boat when you get to the regatta site. Best not to let them know ahead of time that you're planning to shuffle them off like one-eyed jacks. They tend to eat more beforehand when they suspect you're only being bringing them along as shellbait; this lessens their exchange value. Sticking a chicken bone out through the bars of their cage (instead of a finger) no longer fools any but the most naïve boat lenders into thinking your coxswains are thinner than they really are.

Borrowed boats often come sans CoxBoxes; be ready for an acoustic performance and some creative stroke ratings. Matching unisuits? Nice if you thought of it in time, otherwise grab tee-shirts of the same color from the local discount store on your way home from work. A square of white plastic and some electrical tape comes in handy for making quick emergency bow numbers. (Over the years, we've saved several of the blank white plastic inserts they give you at Head of the Charles for folding the paper bow numbers over for stiffening -- they are reusable, fit firmly in the bow clip, and can be made quickly into any number you need.)

Transporting the boat -- assuming you have gotten your hands on one -- might be the biggest headache. Oars go fine on the roof of a car or van, but putting anything larger than a 2x up top is risky. There are always people who tell wild tales of transporting fours and quads on top of their boss' minivan, but note that the boats in question almost inevitably belonged to someone else, were heavily insured, or both. It's much better to cadge space on somebody's trailer. If you've chosen your boatmates according to their access to different college equipment, you might find yourself borrowing a boat from one university, and -- with considerable elan -- borrowing the trailer to go under it from another. Crew is a sport which routinely involves transporting large objects across international borders, with points awarded for creativity. "Hello, FedEx? Yes, it's ready to be picked up. All de-rig--I mean, wrapped. Dimensions? Oh, let's see, forty-two feet and 180 pou---"

Click.

Other People's Trailers are full this weekend, however, and the uncomfortable idea begins to dawn that the best -- and perhaps only -- way to get the boat to the regatta site may be to row it there. You lean your head over your coxswain's cubicle during lunch (usually not a good idea), to find half a sprouts and avocado sandwich weighting down one corner of a chart of the Inland Waterway, the Erie Canal, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence downloaded off the Web and marked up in red with cryptic notations. "We'll get in a nice long warmup...If the weather's calm, we'll cut directly across the Bay of Fundy and save some distance…"

Somehow, it comes together by race day. Your original starboard couldn't make it, but there are spare rowers wandering around the waterfront, willing to be recruited. With an untried -- but enthusiastic -- line-up, you shove, and head to the line. "So, what kind of start do we want to use...?"

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