Moonlighting as a Tow Boat

Rowers in a quad sculling shell
Not the row under discussion…

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 row for the sexy footwear…

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.

9 thoughts on “Moonlighting as a Tow Boat

    • Hey, four years ago I’d never stepped into a rowing shell….you can definetly learn as an adult. It’s great exercise, very social, and gets you out in the fresh air. You should find a club and give it a try!

  1. My rowing memories are by kayak. Now, I know that’s a whole different “boat” all together and does not compare to team rowing, but those were fun summers. I was in a small motorboat once. The motor died — and it didn’t have one of those smaller, back-up mini engines. It took forever for us to row to shore (taking turns). Forever. I was sore for a good two days, after.

    Crocs: I think they only start “getting ugly” when you get away from basic, flat colors, as there are some really wild, bright colors and patterns out there (but wearing the clogs as a go-to shoe is kinda ugly, agreed). Of course, the new non-clog ones look like more traditional shoes — at least on the female side. I’ve had several female co-workers use those more traditional pairs in a business-dress office environ with skirts or slacks.

    Surprisingly, our office manager — who was “office code” crazy — never dinged anyone for wearing those non-clog crocs. But heaven forbid if you loosened your tie and undid the button!!! Or if a skirt was too short. “No skorts! she cried. “No boots, especially cowboy!” she chastised the men. “This is an office, not a dude ranch/not a horse stable!” Ugh. Oh, how she loved her forms and adding papers to one’s human resource file.

    What I’ve noticed, surprisingly:Crocs acceptance in the food services industry. I worked in that industry back when you couldn’t just wear black sneakers: they had to be these black, non-skid soles that were expensive — and you’d never wear anywhere else.

    I don’t find Crocs “therapeutic” at all. But they must be or you wouldn’t see waitresses in sports bars wearing Crocs with a pair of black socks. I’d think they’d be an OSHA issue, but they seem to be work-safer than I realize. One thing I do know: don’t get oil or gasoline on them. I was using them — with socks — to do the lawn (but not for long). The resin used to form them is a sponge. No amount of soap and water can save ’em, as they are permanently slippy, after any chemical gets on them.

    • Yes, I don’t find the Crocs particularly comfortable – not uncomfortable, mind you, just average. Now, my crocs are cheap knock-offs, and serve their purpose here well – they’re (1) easy to slip off, and (2) cheap and not beloved, as we leave our shoes on the dock while out and sometimes they are accidentally knocked into the water. (3) theft is possible, though no one’s ever stolen any shoes in the 4 years I’ve been there.

      Not sure how these knock-off’s would do with oil or the like. They frequently get goose droppings on them, as the geese love to use our dock as a toilet. A good hosing down takes care of that, but these shoes stay in the garage. They never enter the house proper!

      And kayaking is also a lovely sport. Anytime you’re out on the water……

  2. Well, it’s an interesting post! I was under the impression you rowed for your college team. That you picked up the sport just four years ago, is impressive.

    I myself, never ever roller skated. This second hand store I frequented (R.I.P, the best of the second hands, ever) was stockpiled with rollerblades, as well as the gear. The prices couldn’t be beat: Helmet, a buck. The netted bag of pads, a buck. The blades — brand new, mind you — two bucks. They called to me. . . .

    . . . and there I was . . . with a cane, supporting myself, figuring it out. Eventually, I ditched the cane and while I wasn’t doing stunts, by golly gee willikers: I could move forward in a straight line and turn corners.

    Sadly, unlike water — which is everywhere — it is hard to find safe places to skate. I don’t skate near or on open roads or street side sidewalks. The two, local city parks I bladed at — around a ballpark and tennis courts — are poorly maintained and the asphalt sidewalks peeled and are now impossible to skate on. The county parks are just as bad, with the tree root bumps, etc. I like having grassy buffers on which to tumble, safely. Open parking lots do not work: way to rough a surface.

    No, do not make cracks about water skis. It’s a miracle I put horizontal wheels under my feet and survived to tell the tale. Two blades of pressure-treated resin strapped to the soles ain’t happening over here.

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