I learned to row in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, with a middle-aged ophthalmologist coxswain who refused to wear his glasses. Richmond is not a rower’s city; rowing is not a Southern sport. We were the only masters (older than collegiate) rowing club for at least 200 miles. There were twelve of us in the club, including a wiry plumber, a plump opera singer, a deeply wrinkled cigarette factory worker, a burly real estate agent, and a handful of bored doctors and lawyers.
Our boathouse was carved into the basement of a civil-war era warehouse on the banks of the James River below the falls, across from the city’s water-treatment center. The damp morning air we breathed while rowing smelled of sticky sycamore trees, stale tobacco, and pee. After heavy summer thunderstorms, the overflow raw sewage would fill the river with flotsam of used plastic syringes, crack cocaine bottles, condoms, and diapers.
We usually rowed a mixed eight with four men in the stern of the boat and four women in the bow. The plumber rowed “strokes” seat #8 since he had the best combination of rhythm and strength to set the pace for the boat. In seats # 5/6/7, the “engine room,” we had a couple of strong tall lawyers. The opera singer, the cigarette factory worker, and a doctor (all women) followed in seats #2/3/4. I was the smallest person in the boat, so I rowed bow. I was a nurse. Bowspersons have a strange sense of humor since they would be the first person to hit anything in the water.
We were dedicated rowers who trusted our coxswain to navigate us safely through the winding river, around barges and tugs. When you are sweep rowing and have a coxswain to guide the boat, you don’t look at where you are going, but rather at where you have been. You concentrate on the stroke and rhythm of the boat, look straight ahead, and count on the coxswain to see. Our middle-aged coxswain who refused to wear his glasses had a pleasant personality, but he had blind spots.
We didn’t know about our coxswain’s visual problem until he hit a green channel buoy—one of those iron eight-foot anchored ones—when we were rowing full force. “Weigh-nuff!” (rowing-speak for “Stop!”) he yelled. Somehow I didn’t get hit in the bow, but the woman in front of me did. The opera singer’s port oar hit the buoy—thwack!—and the force of it catapulted her out of the boat into the middle of the river. “Oh my God!” she screamed in an amazing octave as she flew through the air. She bobbed to the surface, sputtering but unhurt. Luckily, we were upstream from the water treatment plant.
We didn’t say anything to him after that row, but we wondered about our coxswain. A few weeks later he was again coxswaining the eight. While into a power-up stretch, we heard a rumble under the bottom of the boat. “Weigh-nuff! I think we hit something!” Sitting up in the boat holding our heavy wooden oars flat on the water, the boat took on water and then slowly began to sink below the surface. We had collided with a partially submerged sycamore tree. Our coxswain held his hospital pager overhead to keep it dry as a nearby fisherman in his motorboat rescued us. After we pulled the wrecked boat up on land and dried ourselves, we met as a team in the boathouse.
“Ahhhh—so what happened out there—didn’t you see that tree?” the plumber asked.
“It was dark. But I guess I need to start wearing my glasses. You know it’s no fun getting older,” he said, followed by a strained laugh. I was in my 20s at the time and thought this was pathetic.
I took up sculling a single after that so I could be responsible for my own navigation. I’ve rowed on some beautiful rivers including the Amstel in Amsterdam and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Rowing a single on the Amstel with my Dutch boyfriend rowing beside me was like being inside a Rembrandt painting, with billowing grey clouds and bursts of sun glancing off the water. In Bangkok, I didn’t row so much as paddled, being on the US Women’s Swan Boat team. Our team had practiced for a year in a makeshift boat on the majestic Potomac River in Washington, DC. The boat we practiced in was a flat, stable Dragon Boat. In contrast, Swan Boats are graceful 3-ton teakwood round-bottom boats. When our team entered our first Swan Boat on the Chao Phyraya River in Bangkok, we almost tipped over. It was the end of the rainy season. In amongst the water hyacinths, a bloated dead pig floated by belly up. We quickly regained our collective balance in the boat. In the race we came in second, beaten by a rugged team of Thai female farmers who were used to flooding and dead pigs. I was glad they won.
I moved to a West-coast city that is a rowing mecca. Rowing a single into middle age can get lonely, so I joined an older women’s rowing team. On a recent morning I rowed bow in a four, with three strong women who have survived working for Microsoft. We were rowing on Lake Washington with a fifty-five-year old coxswain who has a pierced nose, tattooed neck and shaved head. She makes frequent references to S&M and bondage while we are rowing: “Feel the burn! You know you want more!” This can be disconcerting until you get used to it. She has perfect eyesight and as far as I know she’s never hit anything in a boat.
The early morning sun was turning Mount Rainier pink, and salmon were jumping in the water. There were no used syringes, cigarettes, or dead farm animals in the water, but I caught a whiff of sycamore tree. The smell evoked a pang of longing for the James River, for the ragged team I learned to row with, and even for the blind coxswain. It occurred to me how much we miss seeing when we’re young. It is nice to have all those miles of water to gaze back upon.
Note: I wrote this brief essay almost ten years ago, and I now row mostly on my home rowing machine. I do, however, still feel that pang of longing for the James River in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I look forward to visiting it again in a few weeks when I return there for a reading of Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, on Tuesday October 11th 6:30-8pm at the Fountain Bookstore. My former colleague and immediate past president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Sheila Crowley, will join me. It is also a benefit for The Daily Planet, Richmond’s Health Care for the Homeless and safety net Clinic. Going home.