The more you row! From beginner classes on the Boardman Lake in Traverse City to lessons in teamwork, here’s how to find balance and rhythm on the water with Traverse Area Community Rowing.

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Rowing is deceitfully graceful. Akin to gymnastics, the appear- ance of effortless motion masks years of dedicated practice and kinetic prowess. Like a masterful painter, an accomplished rower, or a synchronous crew, is able to conceal the brushstrokes. But behind this visage of perfection is toil and imperfect effort.

For the novice there is little spectacle and a hefty dose of reality. You will not be rowing thousand-meter lengths in perfect harmony, pulling along at impeccable pace and rhythm. But you will get a glimpse. There will be a moment where for four, five, even six clean strokes, the boat resonates with unison. It hums with an ephemeral harmony and rowing feels as autonomous as breathing. Inevitably the sequence will collapse. Oars and rowers alike fall out of sync and the mysticism evaporates like lake mist. But that brief instance of perfect weightlessness is ample enough to lure you back into the shell and put oars in your hands time and again.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Rowing can admittedly be an intimidating sport to approach. It’s doubtful that you are acquainted with someone who owns their own shell, and even more dubious that they would let a clumsy novice pilot it themselves. Your next best bet is to find a local rowing organization that is willing to give you some time on the sticks. Luckily there are numerous clubs in the Up North region, such as Traverse Area Community Rowing (TACR).

The best place to start for any novice is a beginner class. During the spring, summer and early fall, TACR offers Learn to Row classes that provide the basics (tacrowing.org). Typically held on weekends, the courses involve indoor training first—rowing on machines (called ergs) to get a feel for the form. Learning the sequencing to make a smooth stroke is essential to becoming an effective rower. The sequence has a rudimentary six steps: hands-away, body over, up-the-slide, drive with the legs, pry with the back, pull the arms in. Simple enough? Perhaps individually. But figuring out the timing, proper technique and then linking them all together in a fluid movement is no simple task. After some exertion on the ergs, it’s time to head to the open water to wobble around.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Teamwork becomes tantamount even before the shell touches the water. Rowers take places under the shell in the rack and follow coordinate commands to remove, carry, right and then gently lower the craft onto the water. Once all eight rowers are strapped in, oars positioned in the oarlocks and coxswain situated in the stern, the crew is ready.

More seasoned rowers are situated in the bow and stern in order to generate the turn and steer. Novices are seated in front of veteran rowers so that the experienced teammate can observe their sequence and provide help if needed (and it will be needed!).

The rowing of the shell is sequenced. First, the four in the stern row together while the four in the bow wait patiently. Those not rowing are instructed to “lay them up,” a command to let the oar blade lie flat on the lake surface. The “launch” (term for the pursuit boat piloted by the coach) chugs alongside the shell, calling out gentle corrections to the rowers by their numerical position in the shell. Then the drill is reversed. Herein lie the fundamentals of rowing. It is built in sequences, one movement compounded upon the next, one oarstroke compiled into four, our progressing into a full eight, and ultimately (hopefully) that eight blending into one cohesive pull—one unified propulsion of the shell.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Rowing silently is proper decorum, both for safety and to prevent confusion. Even the coxswain speaks in soft tones, utilizing a headset microphone that projects his or her voice just enough to be heard over the creak of the oars, a gentle cadence of “Go…and row…” The first command initiates the even swing of the oars rearward, the second calling for the oars to dip into the water and sweep forward.

The overall effect is idyllic and peaceful. The reticence of the crew allows the lake and the oars to converse instead. There is the creak of the oarlocks, the delicate dip of oar blade cleaving surface, and then the whoosh of the oars treading water rearward, a single breath as if the shell were exhaling.

This suspended state cannot last. An oar drags too much; a pull of the oar is a hair too late. The shell sheds its immortality and is bound once more to the stringent laws of physics. It happens. This calls for a reset and an opportunity to once again focus on form, building the sequence from one to the next. Perhaps counterintuitive, it is important to watch the rower in front of you rather than your own blade. It’s tempting to monitor your own motions, but observing the timing of the person in front will help you subconsciously lock into their timing. This continues, building that sequence from teammate, to self, to the entire shell.

The amount of concentration required takes its toll. Perhaps more than anything at this stage it is the mental exertion, the desire to will your body to make the exacting motions it does not yet know how to do consistently. But rather than frustration, there is communal joy. This is a collection of learners, of seekers who are quite literally in the same boat. They are pulling on the oars just as imprecisely as you are and, more important, they have also felt that instance of freedom. They have also sensed in coordinated oar strokes the allure of potential. Somewhere upon the flat cold surface of the lake is a taste of perfection. You just have to row out there to get it.

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Andrew VanDrie writes from Traverse City. vandrieand@gmail.com

Photo(s) by Andrew VanDrie