Rowing: ‘From the release, ready, all row’

October 13, 1998 — “Try singing a song to yourself or something,” my rowing instructor offered from her sliding seat behind me.

She could see the muscles in my neck throbbing each time I pulled my oars. She knew I was tense, and she was trying to get me to relax.

Rowing, when done properly, is supposed to work many of the body’s muscles — neck muscles not among them. And I was reminded of my rigid technique every time I tried to turn my head in the days following my lesson.

Singing a song worked, however.

Neil Young’s “The Deep Forbidden Lake” seemed fitting.

“On the lake, the deep forbidden lake …”

I began to loosen up. Once you get to the point where you can actually attempt to do something — like sing — and take your mind off the mechanics of rowing, the motion becomes more fluid, almost natural.

“… the old boats go gliding by …”

But, there is still quite a bit to think about, especially for a first-timer like me. And it wasn’t long before an errant stroke stopped my tune in mid-verse.

The act of rowing cannot be fully appreciated until you’re actually on the water in a “shell” (a boat, to you and me). You can use your local health club’s rowing machines all you want; live action rowing still takes a while to get used to.

First of all, you’re traveling facing backward, which is always a bit disconcerting to people accustomed to looking in the direction they are headed. And then there’s the involved stroke itself, which is broken down into four parts: the catch, drive, finish and recovery.

At the catch, the rower — seated on the sliding seat, with legs bent and arms outstretched — drops the oars (or oar, depending on the type of shell) into the water.

The drive begins with a strong leg push, then the rest of the body uncoils, forcing the oar blades through the water. During the finish, the oar handles are pushed down bringing the blades out of the water.

Then, in the recovery, the rower methodically slides back to the starting position, ready to do the whole thing again … and again … and again.

A lot to think about … especially when you’re trying to sing to yourself.

Just when I thought I had the whole stroke thing kind of figured out, my enduring instructor, Lake Lanier Rowing Club head coach and executive director Sara Nevin, yelled forward something about feathers.

A good rower always feathers the oars, I learned. Feathering — the turning of the oar handle so that the oar blade runs parallel to the water — occurs after the finish and ends before the catch. Got that?

The introduction of the feather into my stroke saw the twitch in my neck return and forced that Neil Young song out of my mind.

I now realized why Sara asked me before the lesson if, as a child, I was good at patting my head with one hand while rubbing my belly with the other.

I feathered with the grace of an ostrich at first and learned what rowers mean when they say they “caught a crab.” The oar blade enters the water at an angle — not perpendicular — and gets caught underneath the surface.

If you’re lucky enough not to be thrown from the boat — which thankfully I was — you still feel quite clumsy. I caught enough crabs early on to feed a small village.

But that, too, did pass, and I soon was singing again.

Sara decided I performed well enough with her in our “double scull” to move onto my next test, sweep rowing in a “coxed four” (four rowers with a coxswain).

I found rowing with one oar a bit easier than two, perhaps because I mastered the main stroke in my prior lesson. More likely it was because Sara chose three of the most patient rowers alive to hop in the boat with us — Rowing Club members Jay Gaspar, Henry Kannapell and Carolyn Walter.

The most confusing part was deciphering what Jay, our coxswain, was shouting at us. Rowers speak in tongues, I realized.

“Ports to back, starboards to row.”

“From the release, ready, all row.”

“In two, bow pair out, stern pair in.”

“On this one, Power 10 … quick legs … swing the bodies,” he would yell.

I would pause for a moment, and then do whatever Henry, sitting in front of me, did.

Once we got all of our catches, drives, finishes and recoveries in synch, we moved along at quite a quick pace (“the boat had nice run” in rowers speak).

I became comfortable enough to actually take in my surroundings — and it was breathtaking. The sun, sneaking behind the shore’s lush treeline, splashed its light atop the still waters of Lake Lanier.

Sure beats being in a gym.

And it’s hard to find a better workout. Rowing is deceiving. When done properly, the stroke is so smooth, it almost looks effortless.

The hurt you feel the next day, however, will quickly dissuade you from that assumption. But it’s a good hurt. The kind of hurt that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

The kind of hurt that makes you want to do it again and again.

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