The Tao of Rowing
The stroke of genius that changed a Gloucester woman’s life. (And could change yours, too)
My passion for rowing developed early I was told — perhaps when I was as young as four or five.
At my grandparents place in the Adirondacks, on Lake George, my grandfather, weakened by advancing illness would row me out to the middle of the lake and then, when he was too tired to row us back, I would do it.
My parents told me I took great pride in that responsibility, eager to deliver a weary grandparent back to his cheery boathouse with window boxes filled with colorful flowers. I loved that lake and its quieting influence — especially the sound of the water lapping at the edges of the shore.
Long after my grandfather’s death, my passion for rowing and paddling persisted. I continued to row his boat around the lake, exploring the islands, inlets, coves, and the magnificent boathouses that graced its shores.
For many years I worked with kids in outdoor wilderness experience programs, taking them for two-to-three week canoe trips on New England rivers, sharing with them the thrill of whitewater, rocks, and scary turns, and then reflecting on each day by the brilliant light of a cozy campfire.
Other sports, like running, took my fancy for periods, but eventually I reckoned I could no longer sustain them with an aging and injured back.
So, what next?
Well, with constant urging from my friend Ann Banks, I finally decided to see if rowing in those Viking-like wide-bellied wooden dories you see touring Gloucester Harbor might be something I would enjoy.
In the early ’90s, Gloucester Gig Rowers was not the same organization it is now. There were just two boats: the Siren Song and the Gannet. Now, with the Annie B, named for Ann Banks, we have three.
As a novice at this new endeavor, I settled into a seat and the boat was pushed off from the dock, the “cox” (a coxswain is responsible for steering the boat, and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers) yelling out commands, and the person behind me telling me what to do next: hold on to this oar, raise it straight in the air when she tells us to, and lower it in between the wooden pins.
The oar was so heavy and awkward. The inclination, when going from a rowboat to a pilot gig dory, is to handle the oars like you would in a rowboat, but it is a totally different stroke that defies everything you have learned to do to row a row boat well.
The big awkward oar rolls in your hand because you haven’t figured out how to hold it properly, flips out of the water, hits other oars, and generally the experience can leave a new rower feeling quite inept and humiliated.
Then, there was very little organization or instruction and if you wanted to learn to row it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience and on-the-job training. But the experience grows on you, and like discovering a good relationship, you might even feel like you are falling in love.
Sixteen years later I can now say, like many fellow gig rowers in our club, that I love being in these boats with five other rowers and a cox.
Once settled with the foot bar adjusted, the cox will command, “Ready all?” — both a question and a statement — the rowers will look straight at the cox. With everyone’s attention, she will say, “Stand Oars!”
From the stern, one-by-one, the oars will carefully be lifted, blades facing towards the stern and the cox, all the way to the bow, like a colorful fan raising from the boat and then standing in line vertically from the center of the boat.
Not only is this ritual mesmerizing and magnificent to watch, it protects the oars from being tangled and damaged. They are expensive — good ones are hand-tooled and valued at $1,000 — and useless if cracked.
On the command “Set Oars,” our oars will be placed carefully in the wooden thol pins and the rowers will slide slightly from the middle to either the port or starboard, their oars resting in between the wooden pegs, on the opposite side of where we are sitting.
There will be a moment where the cox looks over his boat assured that everyone is ready, and depending on the experience of the crew, he will either work into the row by saying “we will do 3 short strokes and then a full,” or just “Row!”
Everyone leans forward with their oars behind them, close to the water. The pace starts with shorter strokes to get the boat moving, but once the rowers find their rhythm, the boat starts to move. The strokes are lengthened out and the rowers easily fall in step with the stroke, watching exactly how the lead rower, or “Stroke,” sets the pace.
The blades slice into the water like cutting a piece of cake, straight down, pushing the water to the stern. Once the boat is in motion, there is the sound of the oars moving between the thol pins, weathered wood resonating on wood at the same time, a tick-tock of wooden collaboration, and the water clapping gently at the sides of the boat. The ocean brine is intoxicating and the movement of each stroke can be felt in your core and quads, leaning forward, then leaning way back, as each stroke is completed.
It is early — the gig has been launched and the rowers are comfortably in their places in seats six-through-one.
Rowing a gig dory is a captivating sport. Once a rower gets hooked, she just wants to keep rowing. On this early morning the light shines on the rowers faces, a burnished gold settles over their features as the wind tosses their hair. There is so much to see in the harbor — the fishing boats, readying for their next excursion at sea, boats up on dry dock, a clatter of color and machinery strewn across the mouth of the slip just in front of where the piers and docks had been stripped and finally rebuilt.
You can row in and around the harbor from Smith Cove to the North Harbor where one can watch the windmills on the skyline. And while it is tempting to take in the sights, the focus must be on the stroke, and the cox. Focus. Don’t get distracted. Thoughts must come and go. Each stroke must be in perfect harmony. Every rower must be “catching” (dropping the blade in and pushing the water back to the stern) the water at the same time, at the same pace, with the same strength.
The harmony is an exhilarating choreography of motion, power, and the spiritual connection between yourself and the other rowers. A good row will be silent except for the calls of the cox, the birds above, and the oars dipping in the water in unison. There are no words that could compete with this experience.
• • • • •
Rowing can be, and is to many, a meditation — experiencing focus and being fully present.
There are different types of rows: instructional for new rowers, recreational for rowers just wanting to enjoy the experience without stress or competition, and meditation rows which have no talking whatsoever (except from the calls from the cox).
Race training and conditioning rows, are designed to increase technique, strength, and stamina for racing. Around here, the biggest race of all is the annual Blackburn Challenge, which takes place every year at the end of July. It is the largest open-water challenge in the country: a 20-mile row around Cape Ann.
The race is open to anyone willing to paddle or row on or in any type of boat or platform. Sponsored by the Cape Ann Rowing Club, the Blackburn has been in existence for 28 years and has been enjoyed by people in pilot gig dories, shells of all sizes, rowboats, outriggers, and stand up paddlers.
The race is not completed by everyone however as it is arduous. For those who do finish — and even for those who don’t or can’t — there is a raucous celebration at Pavilion Beach with food, music, and beer, and, more importantly, swapping stories of the day.
The Cape Ann rowing season begins in late Winter, starting with the Snow Row in mid-March, and runs through October. (Gig Rowers season ends on January 2.)
And each season presents its own special gifts.
Winter is cold and windy. It requires hats, gloves, and so many extra layers. You will see unusual birds like the Greater Scaup or the Ring-Neck duck. It is not uncommon to hear a rower call out, “There’s a Red Breasted Merganser!” (a diving duck). These birds migrate to other northern coastal areas as the temperatures rise.
Seals are my favorite visitors to the harbor. Their large, black heads appear out of nowhere and, often with puckish curiosity, they will follow the boats, keeping a safe distance. To see a seal on a row is the creme de la creme of any rowing experience.
When the weather warms up, the winter attire is happily ditched and the rowers look to enjoy the warmth of the sun. The light is still delicious — with the deep and dazzling colors of the boats moored in the harbor reflected in the water.
The air becomes pungent with the ocean fragrance and the seagulls are a noisy cacophony above as the fishing boats troll in from a long adventure, ripe with a good catch.
When the harbor is more forgiving with less wind, we will venture out to the outer harbor, cruising past the old Paint Factory. Morning or evening, spring or fall, the way the light falls on this spot is stunning. Further out, we pass Ten Pound Island and its lighthouse, and then on to the breakwater, which separates the harbor from the ocean. It’s a good distance — perhaps three miles there and back — and it requires steady rowing in order to make the trip in about an hour, which is the length of most rows.
Many agree that summer is the best time to row. The sun is warm, the harbor is crazy-busy and the warm wind against our faces is intoxicating mixing with an occasional splash of cool water from an erratic oar.
Rows can be scheduled to coincide with many local activities, especially during St. Peter’s Fiesta with its Greasy Pole, and dory and seine boat races, or during a concert at Stage Fort Park where we’ll anchor just offshore, lash the boats together and enjoy the music, and maybe a picnic and some drinks.
Our most highly-anticipated outing is during the Parade of Sails on Labor Day Weekend and we mingle among the glorious tall ships, which soar high over our heads and dwarf our boats.
Jason Grow is a Gloucester-based commercial photographer. He recently became the proud father of several hundred bees.
▶︎ To learn more about the Cape Ann Rowing Club, go to their website. For more information on Gloucester Gig Rowers, visit their website, or stop by Maritime Gloucester, 23 Harbor Loop, Gloucester. In addition to rowing, the clubs enjoy other activities, like picnics, game nights, book clubs, cribbage contests, snowshoeing, and skiing.