Even on our way to Prom, all Clare, Abby and Lena do is talk about crew.
“The piece we did today was so hard!” exclaims Lena.
“What was it?” asks Abby.
“Thirty stroke builders starting at rate 30 going up to AFAP.”
“What splits were you at?” Clare asks.
Lena grabs the back of Clare’s seat to pull herself up towards her. I can see the muscle definition in her tan arms. “In the 1:30’s.” she replies.
Caroline and I exchange annoyed looks in the back of Clare’s car. It’s as if they are speaking a different language.
Any time I am with junior Clare Fina and other members of RCRC (River City Rowing Club), all they talk about is crew. Any time I want to hang out with Clare, she always has crew. I had never even heard of the sport until a couple years ago, when Clare and several other students—including junior Lauren Larrabee, Allison Walters, ‘13, and Will Wright, ‘13—also began rowing. Trisha, the girls’ coach at RCRC, confirms that crew only recently became popular on the West Coast.
Why the sudden popularity? I don’t understand it. As a soccer player I have never understood the appeal of sports like track or swimming, where there is no interaction with other players and not much strategy to the sport. Rowing seems like another one of these types of sports.
Not only this, but Clare is a coxswain. She directs the rowers and keeps them in sync by yelling at them. Why would anyone want that job?
On Sunday morning after Prom night, Abby, Clare, and Lena are up at 8 a.m. to go to the Pac-12 rowing championships. This is only the start of their dedication to the sport. They all go to practice for two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, and often also have races on weekends that take at least a whole day, if not a whole weekend. Many times the races are far away.
Crew is not just a sport; it is a lifestyle. For many members of RCRC, crew will also determine the next big step in their lives: which college they will be attending. Besides going to watch the races, another big reason Clare is attending the Pac-12 meet is because she wants to talk to some of the coaches that may be recruiting her to row in college.
Lena, Abby, and Clare have also come to cheer on their favorite school, which for all of them is University of California, Berkeley. Although not having any affiliation to any particular Pac-12 school made the races a lot duller for me, I’m glad I don’t have a favorite because if I liked a school that wasn’t Cal, I’m not sure they would have taken me with them. Lena will be a Cal Bear next year. Abby’s brother, Andrew, will be rowing for Stanford next year, but Abby maintains that she will still hate Stanford, Cal’s rival.
We came in time to watch the women’s and men’s V8 races. Each race is 2,000 meters and takes around seven minutes. The boats are only in sight for the last minute or two of each race, when suddenly there is a great uproar of “Go, Bears!” and “Let’s go, Cal!” throughout the mob of blue-and-yellow colored people in the Cal section. The boats cut through the water quickly in front of the crowd.
And then it’s over. Not only does crew seem boring to participate in, but it’s also pretty dull to watch. My preconceptions about rowing being boring were definitely proving true. However, Abby looked at the boats in awe. After the end of the race, she asked me, “Isn’t it amazing? You have no idea how hard that is. They go so fast and they are all in perfect unison.”
But it wasn’t until I went with Clare to one of her practices and saw what happens behind the scenes that I really realized there is more to crew than meets the eye.
Watching one of RCRC’s crew practices is a lot like listening to Clare’s crew conversations with her friends. I could not understand anything Coach Trisha was saying: “Katie, don’t let your hands drop before the catch . . . Go to lane zero and let’s begin with 20 strokes on 20 strokes off at an increasing rate . . . Keep that even keel! . . . Don’t slide into your catch at the end of the recovery!”
However, as practice continued, I finally began to get a sense of what was actually happening. The words referred to the different parts of the rowers’ stroke with the catch referring to the very beginning when the paddle is inserted in the water and “catches” the water, then the “drive” through the water, then the finish when the paddle comes out of the water, and the recovery to move the paddle back to starting position.
Each part of the stroke has a very specific technique. The paddle has to be inserted in the water just so, and the drive has to be made using the correct muscles in order to be most efficient. The paddles come up out of the water at the finish, and in a split second they turn parallel to the water in complete unison in order to make the recovery have the least amount of air resistance. Everyone has to be perfectly synchronized.
“Engage by squeezing the glutes!” Trisha would yell on her megaphone, “It’s all in the legs. Feel your core! Hold your hands high!”
Myles, one of the rowers, was in a single boat, and even my untrained eye could see the boat tip side to side and see how hard it is to stay balanced in the long thin boat. “You have to constantly adjust to make the boat more stable.” Trisha told me. All the small details and the precise technique keeps rowers from getting bored with rowing even after years of practicing every single day.
I watched Lena’s boat skeptically. “Shouldn’t the coxswain be facing the rowers?” I asked Trisha.
“Once you get good, you can feel what’s happening in the boat and interpret the boat feel,” she said. “The boat feel tells the coxswain what is happening even better than watching the rowers does.”
It turns out there is strategy in rowing; it is just mostly done by the coxswain. The coxswain is the brain of the boat.
Later I asked Clare, who coxes for RCRC, how boat feel works, but she struggled to explain it: “I can hear and feel the different parts of the stroke, the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. The movement of the boat and the sound of the water tell me if the rowers are in sync and how I need to adjust the boat to make us faster and more efficient. In some boats, the coxswain faces the rowers, and the coxswain can see if their crew is in sync and if the strokes are being made correctly by looking at the puddles.”
This led to a 15-minute argument at the lunch table.
“You mean the ripples,” I replied.
“No,” said Clare, “I mean the puddles.”
Others who were listening to me interviewing Clare paused their own conversations to agree with me. After a lot of argument, Clare was finally able to get us to understand what a puddle is. A “puddle” is not the ripple in the water but the negative space inside of it. Clare explained that the shape of the puddles, the color of the water in the puddles, the foam the water makes, and the way the puddles from the different paddles collide when the strokes are taken, tell the coxswain how the stroke is being taken and if the rowers’ strokes are together.
Coxswains have to interpret what is happening in the boat along with steering the boat in order to adjust for things like wind and the current created by other boats. Coxswains are also in charge of creating just the right balance between speed and efficiency to make their boats as fast as possible.
Clare recalled one of her biggest decisions of the season as coxswain.
“In the women’s freshman V8 we needed to get first place to qualify for finals,” she said. “We were in third place, I looked over my shoulder at Lauren Paciulla, and she mouthed, ‘Sprint!’ I was thinking the same thing; I knew that boat was good at sprinting. I increased our rate, and we sprinted for the last 1,000 meters. Usually boats only sprint for the last 300 meters. We came in first by a lot.”
Although Clare’s decision worked out well that time, it was a very risky move. It is dangerous to tire out the rowers too early in the race. Many times if coxswains push their boat too far, the rowers can’t stay in sync; the boat becomes slower and the coxswain can lose control of the boat.
Clare was able to push her crew to the very limit by keeping them motivated, another one of a coxswain’s many jobs. The coxswain must coach the boat when the coach is not there and must motivate them to push themselves as hard as they can.
Larrabee, who used to be a coxswain, says that although it might not seem like it is a big deal, motivating your rowers is a very important job and makes a really big difference in a rower’s performance.
“I wish I had someone to cox me now when I swim. It would make it so much easier,” Larrabee says with a sigh. Coxswains work to make their coxing as motivational as possible to really push their rowers as far as possible.
Clare isn’t big enough to be a rower, but it seems that being a coxswain is just the right fit for her anyway. She is loud and decisive. She loves being in charge.
“Being a coxswain may not be as physically demanding as rowing, but it’s a lot of responsibility,” she said. “It is a lot of strategy. You have to be able to assess a situation and everything that’s going on all at once in a split second, come up with a solution to whatever is happening and figure out what you can do to make your crew faster.” Like rowing, coxing can always be improved and requires lots of experience to interpret the boat feel.
Although to some it may not seem like it, coxswains are essential to a boat. Without a coxswain a boat could not function. In fact, V8 boats (boats with eight rowers) without coxswains can be very dangerous and have almost no maneuverability. In order to stay together each rower must keep their eyes on the blade in front of them at all times, so a coxswain must act as the eyes for the boat and let its crew know where they are and tell them what to do.
Once I understood a little more about how much work rowing is and how precise the technique is, I had a much greater appreciation for the sport. Surprisingly, I am most impressed by the coxswains. Although rowing is incredibly physically demanding, there is not much else to it besides perfecting technique. The coxswain must do all the thinking for the boat and make the decisions that could make or break each race.