Climbing in, sitting down, pulling the oar toward me and away. It was all up to me, following the rhythmic instructions of the coxswain sitting right in front of me, facing the long line of eight rowers extending far behind me on the Detroit River.
I couldn’t see any of them. For the first time, I got to row stroke, the all-important seat at the head of the boat.
It was up to me to set an even pace that other rowers could follow.
Usually, I like to lead. But last night I had the opportunity to row as stroke seat, the first seat in an eight-person boat, and I realized the pressure of having to set an even pace that is easy to follow for the seven rowers behind me.
That means my oar got stuck in the depths of the water and I popped out of my shoes and flung backwards off my seat. It wasn’t pretty. And with the coxswain staring right at me, it was highly embarrassing.
When we had a break in the drills, I asked him why I kept burying my oar in the water. What was I doing? How could I ease the pressure and lead better?
He kindly led me through the rigors of rowing at the lead.
“As you feather your blade, push down with your outside hand to lift it out of the water,” he said. I did it, and it was easier.
And then he reminded me the order of a good stroke – arms away, body away, then legs kick in and give that power. Do it in the proper order and you won’t strain your back – and it will be easier for the others to follow you.
Aha. So if we do things in the way we learned them, life is easier.
Oars don’t slap the water in an awkward effort to pull smoothly along in an even stroke. Races go well, steady, with rhythm.
He told me everything I needed to know and then we turned the boat and began a 2,000-meter race back to the boat club. We came in second out of three boats. Not bad, he said. At the end, everyone was tired and messing up, but for the most part, it was nice, even rowing.
Yes, I had a lot to learn, but I wasn’t horrible. I only popped out of my seat once.
It’s a humbling experience to have to sit at the helm and show everyone else how to smoothly pull away from the dock and out into open water and then back and forth along the crest of the evening waves, the white-hot summer son at our backs trickling the sweat beneath our shirts.
The river was accommodating last night, almost as if it knew I was new at leading.
But I’m not new at leading, I thought. I’ve been a leader all my life.
Except maybe now I know what to look for, how to slow down my stroke rate, how to count evenly so that the other know what to expect and when to square the blade and immerse it in the water, ready for the heft and pull of a full, strong stroke to move the boat ahead.
Take your time with the recovery, the coxswain said. Don’t rush your recovery. Don’t wait at the catch.
He sympathized with my short stature, said he could relate, and that as slow as I may go, I probably need to go slower so the people behind me with longer legs have enough time to make it back, too.
It’s those wild, unexpected, uneven strokes that send the rest of the team off-kilter, wondering what’s happening. No one can look up to a leader who’s erratic.
Race finished, we peeled away the river’s surface to row slowly into the docks. The boat was silent. We were tired. Chests heaved up and down from the effort. I drained the last drops of my water bottle.
At the end of an hour and a half of rowing, it usually comes down to stroke pair – seats 7 and 8 – to row the entire boat into the dock. The rest of the rowers are instructed to “lean away” from the dock so the boat lifts and the riggers and oars don’t bump the dock and get damaged in the process. Someone has to reach for the dock and hold on tight.
It was the first time it had been up to me to lead us out and lead us back in. Stripped down to bare essentials, I finally realized the weight of leading.
It was a beautiful night, golden-drip sunlight turning the river into diamonds. A lone man stood on the cement embankment underneath the bridge. Usually he fishes, but last night he just stood there, staring out at the water.
We lifted the boat overhead and took it into the bay, settled it on the iron shelves. For the first time, I grabbed a towel to wipe it down. I felt more responsibility, more a part of the team. It was a good night indeed.