Last Monday, I dusted off my rowing shoes (a rainbow pair of Crocs, the ugliest footwear you’ve ever seen but easy to slip off after entering a rowing shell), picked out my oars, and helped carry a four-person sculling shell to our dock.
After a long winter training indoors, we were back on the water.
It felt good to stretch out and swing with my three boat-mates as we made our way up our pool of the Allegheny River. My hands were frozen, but the icy air was invigorating. No rowing machine, even those ones with water sloshing around as you turn the flywheel can take the place of paddling around on a real boat in a real river.
We were slightly past the halfway point of practice—we’d spun our boat, crossed the river, and were heading for home when the motor on our coach’s launch hesitated, sputtered, then died.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones who were a little rusty.
We were 1,000 meters ahead and paused, waiting to see if our coach could get the engine started. After a few minutes, it seemed futile.
“Well…” someone said.
“Let’s go get him,” our bow seat finished.
We turned and headed back upriver. Just starting my fourth season, I was the most inexperienced rower in the boat. I didn’t know what we were going to do when we reached the launch.
Our coach tossed us a rope and we tied it to the rigger in our stern.
We were going to tow him home.
Towing a launch with a rowing shell is a delicate exercise. It’s not like running with a heavy backpack, where the exercise is the same but with resistance.
This was a fundamentally different motion. In a normal row, everyone starts crouched at the top of their seat track. Members push off in unison, straightening their legs as the seat rolls down the track, propelling the boat in the opposite direction of where the rowers are facing.
The boat glides through the water as the rowers roll back into position on the track. Good rowers must exert patience—dropping your oars back into the water before the boat has finished its natural motion will only slow you down. Once the boat is nearing the end of its acceleration, the group drops oars and pushes again.
There’s a rhythm when it goes well, with the beats of a waltz. A quick count of “1” on the initial push, then a “2-3-4” on the recovery.
But to understate the obvious, towing a boat disrupts the rhythm. We’d push back, sending our shell forward, and then on about the count of “2” in the recovery, the rope would go taut, and the heavier launch would jerk us back toward it in the opposite direction.
It was essentially twenty mini bungee jumps a minute, the rope jerking us in the opposite direction.
To minimize the impact of the whiplash, we had to take short, choppy half strokes. We also had to ensure that the much heavier launch boat did not crash into our shell, splinter our stern and make a bad situation infinitely worse.
This also meant we couldn’t stop as every stop carried a high risk of collision.
We lurched on like that, moving two meters forward, one meter back with every stroke.
It required intense concentration and teamwork in a sport famous for both.
We passed the first of three buoys that signaled progress and lurched on.
We passed the second buoy and lurched on.
The sun dipped below the skyline and we lurched on.
Finally, we made it back to our dock. I fumbled with the rope and could barely free the launch in my exhaustion. We all managed to get every rower and boat back in one piece.
That night I lay in bed aching but satisfied.
The U.S. Marines never leave an man behind, and neither does the Steel City Rowing Club.