Learning to Row: A Morning on Oyster Creek

The July Project: Day 25

Oars on water

Today was my first full, on‑the‑water rowing class. As I mentioned a few days ago, a friend (Mark) and I are taking a Learn to Row class offered by a club in Sugar Land, Texas. I was feeling apprehensive in the last few days because my first attempt at taking a few strokes tethered to the dock on Thursday night felt clumsy and awkward. We’d spent some time on machines and listening to the instructor in the classroom, but there was a part of the mechanics that I couldn’t make any sense of at all. How in the world was I supposed to know when to feather the blade and when to turn it upright? The instructor struggled to explain it to me, but I wasn’t getting it.

I wasn’t looking forward to revealing yet another sport for which I have no talent, especially with the added risk of humiliation-by-immersion. I didn’t sleep well last night. I lay awake in bed for a long time thinking about all the ways I might suck at rowing.

It turns out that my worries were unfounded.

We arrived at the Oyster Creek Boathouse just before 9:30. The club members had already been out for the 8 a.m. club row, and they had boats ready at the docks for our class. We received our assignments; Mark and I would be part of the crew for an eight-seat boat rigged for sweeping—an arrangement in which each rower handles one oar. We took seats three (starboard) and four (port). All the rowers stowed our bottles of water and adjusted the “stretchers” that would hold our feet.

Marty, the club’s athletic director, would serve as coxswain (or “cox”), the crewman who calls out commands over the boat’s PA system from a forward-facing seat in the stern. Two veteran rowers would sit in seat number one in the bow and at “stroke”—seat number eight—to round out the crew’s six students. Marty gave us a few quick reminders and words of encouragement. He admonished us that from here on out, he was in charge, and that we’d traded in our names for numbers. He ordered “Oars out!” for the port rowers. Then into the boat, away from the dock, and we were off!

The veteran rowers took a few strokes to get us clear of the dock, and then Cox started putting us to work rowing in pairs. I waited nervously while One and Two took their turn. Then he called out, “Three and Four at the finish, ready to row,” and there was no time left for nerves. I focused all my concentration on what we’d practiced, and my problem of mechanics vanished. In that boat gliding along in the middle of Oyster Creek, the turning and feathering of the oar blade was perfectly obvious. Worry instantly gave way to delight! Marty said, “Nice work, Three and Four.” Woohoo!

The next hour and half was filled with a lot more of the same—practice, practice, practice, and I won’t bore you with the details. To sum up: there were some rough spots, I got tired, I bruised my left pinky, there were some smooth spots, I made a few good strokes and a lot of sloppy ones, and I had tons of fun. I used muscles I didn’t know I had. I’ll be sore tomorrow or the next day. Did I mention that it was tons of fun?

The lesson here is one I’ve heard many times from my coach friends, but I needed to learn it again. You have to show up. All the worry in the world won’t make you better or worse at tackling the challenges you face. But if you show up, pay attention, focus on the task, and hold yourself open to learning, maybe something good will happen.

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