Friday, 24 April 2009
There’s rowing and there’s rowing
I would sail and row more if I had a safe launching and landing spot. So, hoping to increase my time on the water, albeit in a different boat, and wanting to turn the fat around my waist into muscle on my shoulders I went to the local marina for a test run with the rowing team.
The Catalan open water rowing boat is a traditionally shaped llagut made of thick fibreglass with a slightly faster underwater profile than usually associated with this type of craft. Crewed by a cox and eight oarsmen with wide, spade-bladed oars affixed to nylon thole pins the boats develop quite a lot of power. But not a great deal of speed. Their relatively short waterlines and heavy build ensure that rowing is always uphill. Or at least that is how it seemed to me on my first outing.
On the quay I was glad to see that the atmosphere wasn’t too sporty. The crew carried their gear in plastic shopping bags and wore gardening gloves. One older man, with arms and neck as hard and sinewy as olive tree branches, arrived in his carpet slippers. I’d brought no gear at all and wondered if anyone might help me out. I stood watching as individuals produced their personal lengths of line to attach their oars to the pins. Nobody seemed interested that there was a newcomer on the dock.
It was Carpet Slippers who eventually lent me some line, but not before he’d given me a curt lecture about all the wusses that turned up to row and hobbled off afterwards, never to return. I replied that one shouldn’t expect too much from beginners, or treat them too harshly and he suggested that maybe I should join the women’s team. Then he produced a grubby piece of foam and placed it under his haunches. ‘You’ll burn your arse if you don’t have one of these.’ He said before spitting into the water.
I was allotted the starboard bow oar with a good view of Carpet Slippers’ walnut-skinned neck in front of me. I looked about the boat. It had no flotation chambers, no buoyancy bags, no bilge pumps, no bailers and no buoyancy aids. Now, (to borrow from A.A. Milne) nobody could call me a fussy man—but I do like a little bit of buoyancy to my boat.
We pushed away from the quay and the cox commanded us to row. Being used to rowing alone I had to concentrate hard to stay in time. On the couple of occasions that I managed to foul my oar on Carpet Slippers’ I received an ‘ALL TOGETHER!’ from the cox and a disgusted grunt from somewhere aft. We rowed out of the marina. A stiff easterly breeze blew and I was surprised when the cox turned the boat west and we set off downwind. If I’m out for a recreational row I never go downwind on the first leg. To row downwind I have to row upwind first. It’s the same when I’m sailing. It’s partly for safety—if anything goes wrong it’s easy to get home, but also because downwind is the treat, the pudding, and without having clawed upwind first I find it difficult to enjoy.
We heaved away downwind. The cox counted us into sprints but I hadn’t been informed of the training plan and only by focusing very hard on maintaining the space between my oar and that in front could I keep up. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that it was a beautiful evening with a littering of gilt-rimmed clouds in the west and a low, rosy light. The sea was getting all wine dark and Homeric and pearly spray flew by but there was not a moment for enjoyment. It was focus, focus, focus underpinned with worry about the distance we were rowing downwind and the struggle we’d surely have to row back.
We had rowed about two miles when the cox turned the boat to face the wind, which had climbed to the top end of a force 4. The wide oar blades caught the breeze and became unwieldy. We began to slog. I couldn’t believe that in these conditions nobody feathered their oars and felt that I might be getting above myself by feathering mine. But not feathering meant expending unnecessary energy on the return stroke. And I had no energy to waste, indeed I doubted I had enough to get back to the marina.
We rowed into the steep chop, the bow occasionally crashing down and spray coming aboard. Trying to regulate my breathing I noticed the amount of water sloshing about in the bottom of the boat. The cox crouched in the stern keeping out of the wind and urging us to row harder. I wondered if I could flick a packet of water at him without losing my stroke.
Keeping my more mutinous feelings at bay we eventually pulled into calmer waters in the lee of the marina and so to the dock. I wondered if there might be some sort of commentary on the outing or if we’d go for a drink but everyone went straight to their cars. I returned the length of line to Carpet Slippers secretly hoping he might say, ‘You didn’t do too badly kid.’ But he just took the line and went.
Now the question is: Should I go back for the next session? Reasons against returning: I can’t enjoy the sea in the way that I’m accustomed, the boat and its handling don’t conform to my ideas of safety, it costs 100 euros for a six month season, I’m not a natural team player and the atmosphere is downright unfriendly.
Reasons for returning: Good exercise and, that good old precursor of a fall, PRIDE. I was piqued by Carpet Slippers’ suggestion that I am a soft-arsed wuss. And I will eat my own carpet slippers (not his, which are rancid) if I’m not up to this.