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July 15, 1999
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A Baptizing Experience

by Christopher McElroy

It was my second or third year as a coach of a high school boys rowing team and I was working with a group of novices when I had quite an eventful first day of on-the-water practice. This was to be their first day on the Schulykill after a long, laborious and perhaps monotonous winter of erging, running, weight circuits and stairs. We arrived at the boathouse and you could see the excitement in their eyes, as they were finally able to realize the fruits of their labor. This is to be their baptism to the sport of rowing.

As I had done in the past, much time is spent going over the basics. You spend an exorbitant amount of time teaching these eager guys how to carry the boat. Time is spent relaying the proper etiquette of stepping in, tying in, holding the oar, setting the boat while they are not rowing, etc. You refresh their memory about terms from the rowing lexicon; port, starboard, bow and stern. As the tutorial of some 50+ oarsmen continues I begin to notice them notice crews rowing by the dock. These guys are ready to piece Penn and I am trying to make sure they understand rowing terminology and procedures which not only provides for a pleasant rowing experience but is also intended to provide a safe environment.

Right from the onset I wanted these guys to appreciate and respect not only the equipment, which is expensive, but the water as well, which is not only cold but fast as the winter thaw provides a swift current which leads to the Fairmount dam. Making many successful outings, one eight at a time, I finally get down to the last group of 9 guys to make a "go of it." It is the last shift to make this brief but much anticipated venture. The lesson is going quite well. Many single stroke drills. Many pause drills. A lot of time is spent rowing continuously by pairs. Then by fours, then sixes.

We approach the dock I can see the smiles on these guys' faces. Many hours have been spent at the boathouse on this day. It has been a good day. I race ahead to catch the eight as it approaches the dock to land on its port side. Even the coxswain performed well as docking at Penn A.C. is not the easiest of tasks when the river is high and so tight of a turn must be made rounding the lighthouse, which is positioned at the top of Boathouse Row.

I grabbed the port side blades to pull these guys to the dock. I turn my back to unload the launch. When I turn back again to face the eight, I stood stunned and amazed as I notice that the starboard guys have removed their oars from the locks while they are still sitting in the boat. I did not want to alarm them about their impending misfortune so I quickly moved towards the boat. As I got closer I noticed the port riggers begin to lift off the dock. I reached for the closest rigger I could find to somehow hold the port side riggers down.

The weight of the entire crew and the lateral momentum that had already begun was no match for this coach. Unfortunately, the sleeve of the coat that I had been wearing was somehow tangled in the oarlock or in the angle of the main and back stays. With the boat continuing to turn and pick up speed as it did, I was hurled in to the drink as if I was an object in the basket of a catapult. When I surfaced from the frigid waters, some ten yards away from the dock, there was chaos mixed with embarrassment.

All members of the crew and I were now treading water. The boat had righted itself but was now full to the gunwales of water. All eight oars were now in the water floating every which way. Some of the bystanders on the dock aided in pulling the crew out of the water while I swam to recover the oars. Finally, everyone was out of the water and all crew members and equipment was accounted for, safe and sound. The entire episode took place as anxious parents waited to pick up their sons after their first day of on-the-water practice.

This all took place on my birthday. What a gift.

A Gus Ignas Classic

by Chris O'Brien

I rowed in a "too small/ weak/ no talent/ no reputation" quad at Penn AC the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at the Prep. All four of us in the boat had been at the very bottom of the Prep's depth chart that Spring and were hoping to improve our stock by rowing in a Penn AC summer program eight. Alas, we were dumped into an old Pocock quad that we could barely carry down to the slip, much less row with any precision or power. None of us had ever even held two oars at the same time prior to our first night in the quad.

After about two weeks of flailing around on our own with no coaching, the legendary Gus Ignas decided that he was going to take us under his wing and make top notch scullers out of us. He always started any sentance directed at us as, "Now, men..." before going on to enlighten us with his unique brand of wisdom gathered over years of pounding up and down the Schuylkill and standing behind his bar in East Falls.

The first Saturday after Gus started working with us is one of the few practices that I can distinctly remember from the hundreds that I took part in throughout my career. Since we were always at the bottom of the depth chart (i.e. "run up to the Canoe Club, try to wave me down and I might care enough to come switch you into the last boat"), none of us had ever rowed for more than six miles at a shot. Gus came roaring into the boathouse at around 9 and sent us on our way upriver. We did all kinds of drills and short pieces on the one hour round trip from Boathouse Row and we were shocked to hear "spin it" as we glided past the Viking statute.

So, being dutiful young Catholic schoolboys, we did as we were commanded and started back up river, expecting to go no further than Girard Avenue before the return trip to the boathouse was ordered. That order never came, so we made a second full six mile round trip in this pig of a boat with the sun beating down on us and Gus screaming instructions at us. My hands were blistered raw by this point because the grips on our oars were basically in tatters. There was also no water in the boat with which to even wet my mouth or rinse the blood from my hands. At this point, he had us spin the boat again and slog through another six mile round trip. I swore that I would either kill Gus when I got out of the boat (if I ever did) or I would never get in a boat again.

After three hours in the broiling summer sun and 18 miles in an underpowered, overweight boat, he allowed us to go in to the dock but told us to stay in the boat once we pulled up alongside the slip. At this point, Gus hops out of his launch and starts in with, "Now, men, I am very proud of the way you handled this practice. It was tough and you gutted it out. Before you get out, there is one more lesson that I need to pass along to you today. When you are sitting at the dock like this, never lift your oars up off the dock like this." With that, he demonstrated just how high an oar had to go before the old Pocock quad would tip and then laughed hysterically at us as the boat rolled over and dumped us into the muck of the Schuylkill. There were all kinds of people up on the balcony who were absolutely roaring at us as we righted the boat and climbed on to the dock. Then, to top it all off, Gus says, "now get your boat out and put it away" as he turned to go home.

To this day, I still am unsure how we managed to get the boat out of the water without doing permanent damage either to it or ourselves, but we did manage to get it out and put away by ourselves. I wasn't really sure what the lesson in all of this was at the time as I wondered what the hidden message was, but in retrospect, I think that Gus actually wanted us to see that you could tip a boat on the dock and could think of no better way than to demonstrate it to us after an 18 mile row.

He was one of the great characters on Boathouse Row and I have related this story to countless people who knew the man very well who just laughed and said, "that's Gus" with no other explanations offered. For some reason, I just couldn't keep my promise to never get back in a boat again either- once you have felt the bottom of the Schuylkill swallow your legs to mid-thigh, there is no where to go in rowing but up.


by Ransom Weaver

So I've just finished a heat of the lightweight double at nationals in 1993 and Jason Dorland and I are rowing nice and easy in the cooldown area. Suddenly its as if a grenade was lobbed into the boat; I'm ripped from my shoes and hurled over the washbox and into the lake. Dorland is pitched out as well, tumbling out feet over head onto my rigger as the boat flips. I come gasping to the surface, and there above me is a broad expanse of blue lycra, the words "Look out" (!) printed upon it. "Of course I should have looked out!" I say, as the girls from Chattanooga stare down at me.

Our Filippi 2x hit their bow rigger square on the middle riggerstay, demolishing it. Damage to the 2x confined to a little crunching of the tip under the bowball. Dorland got a good gouge to his ass where he hit my pacecoach mount, and we both had sprainy-feeling ankles from being ripped from the shoes.


by Robin Jones

I was a Coast Guard officer for a number of years and thoroughly familiar with hypothermia as a theoretical concept. This past December I got a chilling lesson in the reality of it.

I was rowing an old VanDusen single in the middle of the Schuylkill in what was probably 35-degree water, wearing shorts, a tee and two sweatshirts. In the middle of a series of full power strokes the aged plastic in one of the old pattern oarlocks gave way. The boat flipped, immersing me totally. Hypothermia charts say that it a person will slip into unconsciousness in less than 15 minutes in 35-degree water; the danger point comes much faster than that.

I kicked out of the shoes, surfaced and hauled myself up as far as I could on the overturned hull. The cold began to penetrate immediately; I could feel my strength and sense of feeling failing rapidly and I had been in the water less than a minute. My coach was about 50 yards away with another boat. She was along side in less than another minute but after even that short exposure to the cold water it was a real effort to haul myself into the launch. I stripped off my wet shirts (he cold air actually felt warmer against my skin than the wet fabric) and donned a couple of spare jackets that were carried in the launch against just such an emergency. Even after drying off and getting into fresh clothes at the boathouse it was a good hour before I could honestly say that I had fully recovered from that dunking.

Another Coach Takes A Swim

by Sterling Odom

I was a couple of weeks into my big adventure, having just left a perfectly good profession in a great city to try my hand at coaching a varsity women's crew. I got to the boathouse that chilly Saturday morning a few minutes ahead of my athletes to get everything ready for practice. I was still getting used to working out of one of the largest boathouses in the country, with sign-out sheets, mandatory lighting, launching and landing hierarchies and complicated traffic patterns.

That morning I was looking forward to a very intense and productive technical session. We were only a week from our first real test, a hometown head race. I was hoping to give them a little more length and a lot more run before they raced in front of the alumni and my boss next Saturday.

My athletes started to arrive in pairs and threes, sleepily shuffling along and not saying much. They automatically started carrying the oars and then the launch down to the dock. I followed them down the hill to start working on getting the motor started. Being the new coach in town, I had the bathtub launch with the temperamental motor. I got in, primed the pump and pulled the cord a half-dozen times. I was getting ready to pull the cover off of the motor when one of my athletes ran down to the dock. She said that one of the coxswains needed my help with something, so I told her I would be right there.

I was kind of annoyed that my crews were not on the dock already, so in the interest of time I tried a new method of exiting the launch. I swung one leg over the side and made a not-so-graceful leap for the dock. I cleared the side of the bathtub easily, but both legs somehow missed the dock entirely. In one slick maneuver I half-landed on the dock nose-first, with most of my body splashing down into the freezing water. However, I managed to catch the edge of the dock with my hands. In a purely reflexive motion I hoisted myself up and lay beached on the dock. Once out of the water the first thing I did was look wildly around for witnesses. My nose was throbbing and my vision was swimming, but I was amazed to realize no one at our busy boathouse had seen me fall.

I stood up and gingerly touched my nose, which felt about five times its normal size. I heard "heads up" and realized one of my eights was walking down the ramp to the dock. I immediately decided to play it cool and tried to look nonchalant. The coxswain told me she had fixed the problem and the other boats were on the way out. I tried to smile and nod and searched her face to see if she noticed my nose was purple and I was dripping wet from the chest down. I didn't even get a second glance. I thought for a second about dry clothes, but realized I had none and so climbed back in the launch to try the motor again.

This time I got the launch started and pulled up next to the first eight. I tried to speak to them but I still couldn't see that well and my whole head was throbbing, so I just rode along next to them for the first ten minutes of practice. The cold wind helped numb my face and I gradually forgot my wet clothes - we ended up having a pretty successful session after all.

When we got back to the dock my very thoughtful boyfriend was waiting with a cup of hot coffee. He took one look at me and asked me what on earth happened out there? I told him and he just shook his head and drove me to the emergency room to get my nose looked at.

Luckily it was a nice clean break across the bridge - no surgery required. The doctor saw my permanent stitches on the X-Ray from the other two times I had broken my nose and had it straightened back out…but those are other stories for another day. It took me a few months before I finally told my athletes what had happened that morning. By the time I told them I had already established my reputation as a klutz, so they were not surprised.

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