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Row, row, row your boat: the graceful art of rowing through the water requires a certain rhythm and elegance.

I was a twenty-year-old college student about to have knee surgery, but this was decades before outpatient arthroscopic procedures. I wasn't looking forward to a week in the hospital, at least a couple of months gimping around on crutches, and a long zipper on one knee for a lifetime.

As I couldn't drop out of college for the surgery (that would mean an immediate draft notice) I was facing a summer-long recuperation. I hunted around until I found a tired plywood rowboat, which I bought for a princely fifty bucks, and I slapped on some fibreglass and paint to make it reasonably presentable and more or less watertight. A neighbor on the bay, faced with my sad story, was conned into letting me put the dinghy on his dock for the summer.

And so it came to be on warm mornings that I would hobble down to the dock with a pair of oars, a paperback book, a canvas backrest, a tube of Sea and Ski, and some zinc oxide for my beak. I would row across the bay to a sandy strip that my mother referred to as "The Mating Beach" where other kids gathered and I would spend the day trying to get sympathy from the babes.

Sitting at anchor in a crowded harbour a while back, I watched an endless stream of dinghies going to and from shore and I had a revelation. No one seems to row anymore.

A week later I was at a boatshow admiring a pretty little fibreglass dinghy, complete with faux lapstrake 'planks' and a wineglass transom, but without fittings for oars. When I asked the salesman, he looked at me blankly and said, "Why?" The transom was braced to handle an outboard, so the builder clearly assumed that no one would actually want to row his boat.

Then, while looking at a bunch of tenders at a dinghy dock recently, I realised that most of them had a paddle for an emergency but not one had a pair of oars.

No one seems to row anymore.

I found that very sad because rowing was more than just good exercise or a way to shore, it's a whole mental attitude. Rowing was about enjoying the delights of an anchorage on a quiet morning, taking the long way to the dinghy dock so you could admire the sweet lines of a yawl that had arrived late, and perhaps even complimenting the owner sitting in the cockpit with his coffee.

Rowing was about taking a moment to lean on the oars and breathe in the sea air and feel the sun's warmth and savour life. Having an outboard takes away that one-on-oneness with nature. There's the noise and the vibration and a fuel tank and protecting the prop when you run ashore on a pebbly beach and then having to unbolt the damn thing at day's end.

Of course back when I was rowing the Bum Knee Express, outboards were a lot more 'iffy' than they are now. Those dinghies that did have an outboard usually had a 'British Seagull', an engine that was so simple that almost no one could get it to run.

It was said that the Seagull had been used to ferry British troops off the beach at Dunkirk but, if that's true, they would have been smarter to abandon the Seagulls on the beach and keep their guns.

Starting a Seagull involved wrapping a cord around the flywheel and giving it a yank, with the loose end certain to whack anyone else in the dinghy. There was never a first-pull start because you had to fiddle with the carb and the choke and a little throttle lever and then pray to the gods that you'd mixed the right amount of oil with the gas and that you hadn't flooded the engine and. well, you get the idea. It was a black art and it's no wonder most of us rowed.

Rowing was what kids did in a time before PlayStation and Wii and iPods and all the other things that now seem to fill their time. Give a kid a rowing dinghy in the morning and turn him loose; he'd spend the day hooking up with other kids in their dinghies, exploring beaches and islands and having water fights and enjoying a healthy adventure where time was kept by the height of the sun or pangs of hunger.

Rowing is also a lost art. There's so much more to rowing than just paddling along; there's a rhythm and an elegance that is an acquired competence. First, you slip the oars into the round oarlocks or, if you're good, those U-shaped locks. Areal oarsman would never use pinned oars; they hate those pansy oars with pins through them for security. And none of those flimsy aluminum oars, either; solid spruce, preferably Eastern White, with thick layers of varnish.

You centered the oar and aligned your blade at right angles to the water without a thought. And finally, as you pulled the oars to the end of each stroke, you snapped your wrists down and feathered the oars so they lifted cleanly from the water without a splash.

Do this a few million times and it wasn't just second nature but a fluid and graceful talent in which you took pride. Splashing water with your oars was embarrassingly painful not only to the rower, but to any knowledgeable sailor who was watching. Unless, of course, you were a kid, because you quickly learned how to send a spray of water from an oar with the accuracy of a water hose; a necessary ability in a water fight.

I feel sorry for all those people buzzing to shore with an outboard for their coffee fix; it's the nautical equivalent of driving on a beautiful day with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on high. They have no idea what they are missing.

No one seems to row anymore.

With more than 40 years as an award-winning boating journalist, and as a former editor of both Yachting and Sea magazines, Chris Caswell is a well-known racing sailor in the USA with silverware in everything from Lasers to ocean racers. He is the author of six books on boating.
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Title Annotation:THE PIN END
Author:Caswell, Chris
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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