row2k Features
May 1, 2000
Alessandra Phillips

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

-- William Butler Yeats

Paul Theroux recently said that the Phoenicians believed every day spent on the water was a day not subtracted from the end of your life. While I have not gone to row at midnight, I know some here who have; and I see more swallows than linnets when I row in the evenings. But there is a surpassing peace to be had on the water, and, once tasted, the awareness of that peace is constant in one's day, no matter what task one might be immersed in.

There is redemption there. Redemption from what, I do not know, but talk to the average rower, and you'll see this inability to explain exactly why it is that they pursue a sport that is difficult to do and even harder to master. It's not just the enjoyment of being in shape, because one could get that without the odd hours, the expensive equipment, blisters, and dependence on the weather. There's an intangible satisfaction that lasts long after the workout is over. On the water, you know your purpose, and when I had to leave rowing in college due to injuries, I felt lost. It was especially apparent every afternoon when I was not at practice for the first time since I was thirteen--I missed those glorious afternoons endemic to early fall in New England, when the light blazes forth in broad bands, setting everything on fire. Everything seems to shimmer and gleam, and the workout is punctuated by the sharp smell of the gasoline from the coach's launch as the boats stop to rest or to spin.

Meals were no longer post-practice debriefing sessions where the row would be analyzed in as much painstaking detail as we would spend dissecting a James Joyce novel in class that evening. Outings with rowing friends changed, because it was harder to gain the context of anecdotes and inside jokes. I knew desire without an object of desire; I went to the Head of the Charles to watch my brother race and felt a visceral pull as I saw boats flashing under bridges, the coxswain calls all the more compelling as they reverberated against water and concrete. I promised myself that I would find a way to get back on the water.

Looking back, I am surprised at how much of my internal sense of identity was tied up with rowing. Post-college, rowing is much more free: you enjoy racing and training without the external pressure of worrying about what your coach thinks of you, or whether you're in the right boat, or whether your rowing roommate and you are going to fight over who should be stroking the boat or why practice was so crappy this morning. Here people row for internal motivations; whether to win races, make a team, or stay in shape, although some still appear to be looking for redemption in the wrong places.

The motivation of racing for a school can mask the true reason people row; the best coxswains seem to have a prescient sense of what motivates their crews besides "for God, for country and [your alma mater here]", and know how to call on it when needed. Once the influence of school spirit is lifted, it's interesting to see why people stick with crew. I've noticed several types of rowers on my sojourn; these seem to be the most visible species, and you'll find examples no matter what an oarsman's skill level.

There are passionate ones who are gruff on the water, short-tempered on the dock, yet when you least expect it, they will stop and share a tip or offer a suggestion, and if you can befriend one or two of them, you'll have resources of knowlege beyond books or tapes. You come to realize that they act this way because they love rowing and its exacting standards; thus they are impatient with sloppiness.

Then there is the lifestyle rower, who never will be the fastest they can be, because they think redemption lies in the latest gear or fad training tool. While they do attain speed this way, there's always a sense when watching them that they're fighting the water, instead of dancing with it. They're missing something, and to compensate they see their equipment as the necessary ingredient that will allow them to find that speed, and thus peace. A variant of this type may buy the latest model shell, then let it collect dust on the racks of the boathouse. I wondered why one would buy such a beautiful craft, then not use it, but this seems to be similar to why people buy Range Rovers--not because it's necessary to navigate the urban jungle, but because it's a status issue.

One thing that's amusing about Boathouse Row is seeing rowers who have declared their retirement tearing downriver, competitive spirit in full view, undimmed by age or lack of desire. Perhaps this need to announce retirement is due to an urge to mark that they feel their speed is slipping. Hopefully they haven't missed entirely the point of enjoying the journey of rowing, whether or not they made their goal. In an arcane sport that's a difficult mistress, maybe they feel they have to end their career with one last sacrifice--giving up the sport entirely--and yet they cannot do it, due to how much they invested, year after year.

Sometimes a break is good to give oneself perspective. My coach is very emphatic about calling for a fresh start whenever the boat feels like it's falling apart. Who among us can't appreciate starting anew after a piece in which the center of gravity feels as if it's dropped below the hull, and frustration mounts with every stroke. It's a terrible feeling when the natural grace of the motion leaves us to lumber as best we can downriver. But when we row well, it's the closest thing to flying I think I will ever experience. And that's my redemption.

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