Sep 21 2007

The Book of Rowing

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Overlook Press first published The Book of Rowing in 1988. They are preparing a new edition this fall and asked me to write an introduction. Here is the draft:

Introduction - The Book of Rowing

In the twenty years since I wrote this book, rowing has gone through some massive changes, but remains in the end, the same sport it has been since the invention of the rolling seat in 18th century.

Three forces within the sport have combined to extend its reach and bring it to thousands of people who would have been blocked from participating as recently as the 1980s. All of these changes have affected me personally, and I’ll indulge myself with three anecdotes.

The first big change in the last twenty years is women’s rowing, a sport regarded as something of a stunt when it emerged on Ivy League campuses in the 1970s. Even today, women’s rowing is regarded by some cynics as a way for colleges to remain compliant with the Federal Title IX regulation which mandates equal funding and access to sports for women as men, but women’s rowing has, in many regards, eclipsed men’s rowing to become the fastest growing sports in the United States for young women.

Women’s Rowing

In 2005 my daughter, Alexandra, decided to give up a promising career in lacrosse for a try at rowing at my prep school alma mater, the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. She was an excellent athlete, with a good record in cross country running and the height that catches a crew coach’s eye. After some debate (and a little influence from me), she decided to drop lacrosse and try rowing. I went to her first race, on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Massachusetts -- one of the most storied courses in the United States -- and watched, with great fatherly pride as she came in third in a three-boat race due to a crab – or missed stroke – she caught near the finish.

She was discouraged, but in the weeks that followed was asked by the head coach, Sally Morris, to take a seat in the first boat, the one that had won the National High School Rowing championships the year before, minus one graduate. She won the next race in that boat, and the race after that, and the race after that, and on the final weekend in May, the Brooks first girl’s four won the New England Interscholastic Rowing Championships on Lake Quinsigamond. I was, of course, bursting with fatherly pride, and made plans to accompany the team to Cincinnati, Ohio for the US Youth Invitational, the junior scholastic championships.

Keep in mind, I was a fan following a rower in her first season rowing, a fan who was an alumni of a school that had no women in the early 1970s, a rower who himself never won a championship or achieved any great distinction during his rowing career.

In the finals in Ohio I stood on the shore of Lake Harsha, a man-made lake about twenty miles east of Cincinnati, and tried to video tape the race as it came up the course to where I stood near the finish line. I was surrounded by the parents of the other rowers, all screaming for their daughters, and for the first half of the race, when the crews were mere splashes of their oars in the distance, we listened to the announcer call the race. At the half-way point I turned on the video camera and zoomed in on the lane assigned to the Brooks crew. The camera’s lens wasn’t very powerful, and all I could make out was the Brooks green and white uniform and the splashes of the four oars as they caught the water on every stroke. The announcer was calling the race even, and I began to be gripped with an overwhelming emotion, a nervous breakdown of massive proportions brought on by the stress of following the entire season in silence, never wanting to come off as interfering or the know-it-all parent who wrote, literally, the book of rowing. I couldn’t focus the camera; I had literally flooded its viewfinder with tears.

They won. Today my daughter is a freshman rowing at the University of Virginia, the second ranked women’s crew in 2007, and dare I hope she has a shot at an Olympic seat in 2012 in London ?

Indoor Rowing

In 1994, feeling a bit thick around the middle, I bought a Concept 2 Model C ergometer, parked it in the boat shed, and started an unhealthy obsession with indoor rowing that persists to this day. Indoor rowing? In the late 1970s, when I was a collegiate rower, the state of the art in rowing machines was a very expensive, heavy, monster of a machine called a Gamut Ergometer. While I was tortured in the bowels of Yale’s Payne-Whitney gymnasium by then head coach Tony Johnson (now coaching at Georgetown) the Dreissgacker Brothers were in Morrisville, Vermont rigging an old bicycle to an oar handle in their barn. What emerged was the first Concept2 Ergometer, arguably the biggest revolution in rowing technology since the rolling seat.

I bought an erg and started rowing on it, a Sony Walkman providing some distraction while I worked my way up from a very difficult ten minutes to, over the course of a year, an entire hour-long workout on the machine. The weight poured off. Every stroke the machine gave me feedback on where I stood. There was no cheating the machine’s monitor, and adding to the obsession, was the launch, in 19TK of the Concept 2 Online Ranking Database. Now I was rowing for bragging rights, focused on getting the best score for 2,000 meters, 30 minutes, 10,000 meters, and one hour. This virtual competition lead me to enter the CRASH-B Sprints, aka the World Indoor Rowing Championships, conveniently held since 19TK in Boston, Massachusetts. I drove up to the Harvard Indoor Track by myself, my rowing gear on underneath my street clothes, checked in at the desk, changed in the men’s room, and entered a vast hall filled with sussurating ergometers overseen by a massive Jumbotron displaying the top ten rowers in each heat.

I warmed up, took my assigned erg, and waited for the starting signal. What ensued was the ugliest six minutes and 28 seconds in my life, enough to come finish in the top twenty of my division.

I still manage to climb aboard that ergometer once a day – I am on my second machine – with over 10 million meters logged since I started in 1994. I don’t log my miles on the internet anymore, now I row against virtual competitors around the world in real time thanks to the magic of the Internet and software that synchs my machine with others via a PC. I am not alone in my obsession. Indoor rowing is a very big deal in the United Kingdom, there is a race nearly every winter weekend in Europe and the United States, and from health clubs to prisons, there are teams competing in the online rankings as well at live races. Buy an ergometer – it’s the one piece of home exercise equipment I guarantee won’t turn into a clothes rack or yard sale feature.

Masters Rowing

As I wrote in the first edition of this book, the rise of recreational rowing due to the invention of the Alden Ocean Shell in the 1970s extended the sport from college boathouses and private clubs to the rivers, lakes, and harbors of anyone with the money and inclination to buy a boat and learn how to row. I could not have predicted the massive explosion of interest in master’s rowing that began to build in the 1990s and continues to this day.

I bought my scull in 1998 from Empacher, a rugged version of that German builder’s famous racing shell that would stand up to the rigors of saltwater rowing on the three-bays behind my house on Cape Cod. On the day it was delivered I launched the boat, took two strokes, and capsized. I had put the oars in the oarlocks backwards. I couldn’t get back in the boat, so I side-stroked it back into the beach, realizing I had just furnished the day’s amusement to the old men who sit on the seawall in the morning with their coffee and newspaper.

Things went better after that, and I was joined by a friend in my morning row, one who encouraged me to start racing some of the spring master’s races held on Charles River. That was fun, although I am definitely a distance rower and not well suited for the quick little 1,000 meters that is standard in master’s events.

What exactly is a master? When I full of myself and rowing in the Head of the Charles as a college student, the master’s were the grey-haired old farts that everyone cheered the way they do when antique cars roll past during the Fourth of July parade. Not any more. Master’s rowing is now a very crowded, very competitive world of type-A personalities trying for medals in World championships, travelling internationally to regattas to pit themselves against the best the world has to offer. Sure, there are duffers like myself who take to the water for some good low-impact aerobic conditioning, but next to us are guys in better shape in their 50s than they were in their 20s, doing pyramids and practice starts with the focus of an Olympian.

I’m grateful that rowing has stayed in my life and I hope it stays in yours.

So, please enjoy this latest edition of The Book of Rowing. My thanks go out to Maria “Fritz” Beshar who arranged for me to write this book for Overlook in the 1980s, and to my editor, Juliet Graemes (a rower herself), and all those who helped to update this edition.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “The Book of Rowing”

  1. [...] The Book of Rowing [...]

  2. Dimitrion 15 Nov 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Are there any organized erg regattas on Cape Cod in the pre-CRASH-B months?

  3. nick fullertonon 11 Sep 2011 at 10:52 am

    Have you seen any guitar shaped row boats yet? Maybe I need one in my shop. My back is very sore from lack of exercise I think. Nice introduction there and congratulations for keeping up with your sport. Later.

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