Zen and the Art of Rowing

They strive for harmony and what’s called “swing,” these masters of the river. But sometimes they’re just trying to stay alive at 28 strokes a minute.

By: John Mulligan

“You’re in line now. Breathe deep.” The words come over the water in the low, reassuring tones of Dick Kuntz, coxswain of an eight-oared rowing shell.

Seen from the banks of the Occoquan Reservoir, Kuntz would stand out among the boats snaking downriver in a long line. He would be the silver-maned guy with the navy-blue ball cap. But he is invisible to most of us in the boat, seconds from our dash to racing speed. All that is left of Dick is a big voice inside our skulls, calling our last race before the winter.

Stray noises sound, like the tuning of instruments before the symphony begins. Clank of oar shafts in metal locks. Clatter of seats sliding on wheels. A girl far upwind shouting calls to her crew.

“Bow pair in. Okay, crank it up. You’re at a 22. Up two in two,” says our cox, pushing up the strokes-per-minute to racing rate.

“You’re at a 28. There you are. There’s the start!”

The symphony is on. Seats roll up the tracks. Eight blades splash in sync. Water whispers past.

Sssssssssh. Plunk.

Sssssssssh. Plunk.

Sssssssssh. Plunk.

Kuntz calls ten strokes to seal our timing. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six—Yeah! Seven. Yesss! Eight. Nine. Ten. Twenty-eight now! Chasin’ boats now. Chasin’ ’em! I’ve got two in my sights.”

There is elation in us now, and majesty in the sky and water.

We are rowers of a certain age—“masters” is the euphemism.

Dan O’Donahue is our 68-year-old stroke—the lead oarsman who sits facing the cox. Dan sums up our state of mind with nearly three miles to go: “Twenty minutes and we’ll be done with this.”

Masters rowing is a thriving subculture of the sport, drawing hundreds of men and women over age 26 to don tank tops at ungodly hours and row themselves to exhaustion on the waters of the region.

“Masters is kind of a strange mix,” says Nate Wood, the young coach at Thompson Boat Center who saw me through my first rowing season since college. “You’ve got guys who’ve been rowing constantly for 30 years, guys who rowed 30 years ago and are picking it up again, and guys who are completely new to it, maybe new to being any kind of athlete.”

I belonged in the middle group, having last rowed 34 years and about that many pounds ago. I learned that all kinds of motivations brought my teammates to the Potomac, from the summer dog days when it got hot before sunrise to the black fall mornings when freezing waves put a treacherous glaze on the dock.

My love affair with the Potomac had begun on a fall afternoon in 2004 when I tagged along to crew practice with my son—then a novice rower for McLean High School.

My son’s decision to row had surprised me. I wasn’t one of those windbags who inflicted the sea stories of yesteryear on his kids. But maybe my firstborn had detected some subtle hints around the house: the 13-foot wooden oar, vintage 1968, hanging in the living room; the Head of the Charles Regatta poster in the bathroom with the colored blades of 112 crews.

As I watched Johnny walk down the dock at Thompson Boat Center, near the Watergate and Georgetown, something took me back to another river in another decade. It was the smell of rowing: oarlock grease and fresh water.

I had a dim memory of a wonderful feeling called “swing”—something almost as sweet as it was hard to find and keep.

Swing is crew talk for the elusive quality of rowers moving in synchrony, “swinging” as one through the complex motions of their stroke so they maximize the drive of blades through water.

The satisfaction of the well-rowed stroke comes largely from its difficulty, according to one of my Thompson boatmates, Rusty Miller, who compares it to “hitting a golf ball just right—and doing it 30 times a minute.”

Finally that moment with my son Johnny at Thompson Boat Center took me back to my college crew on New York’s Harlem River. I logged more hours with those guys than with any girlfriend or teacher.

You might say, then, that I was an easy mark in the fall of 2005 when one of the old boys told me about a possible reunion. If we could field a crew, Columbia University would give us a boat to row in Boston’s Head of the Charles Regatta in October 2006.

For me, it was a short step to a device of torture so refined that it’s called by a name from the ancient Greek for work: ergometer.

If aliens ever land on a certain midwinter weekend at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, they will retreat in terror to their home planet.

The scene, the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints, is an assault on the senses.

Scores of sweating athletes—midteens to midseventies—pack the gym floor. A high-volume drone sounds like a plague of locusts. Dozens at a time, contestants race the clock aboard the erg, a rowing machine that is one part pull-rope, one part sliding seat.

I had signed up for the easiest race, a father-son 500-meter sprint. Like so much of the rowing experience, it entailed endless hours of prep time and waiting around, capped by a brief orgy of pain.

After my spasm of burning muscles, it was clear that I was not fit for the Head of the Charles or any other race. Back to the erg I went for the rest of the winter. In the spring I joined the masters crew at Thompson Boat Center.

As I got back into the routines of rowing, I got to know the people who run around on docks before sunrise.

Dick Kuntz was the closest to being indispensable. Dick coxed only briefly as a plebe at Annapolis in 1959, but the bug bit hard. A few years ago at a Naval Academy reunion, he accepted the call from his old mates to cox them in a veterans’ regatta at the ancient rowing venue of Henley-on-Thames.

Dick has a patter for all seasons. One misty dawn as our blades dipped yards from the sandy shore, Dick said in a low voice: “Look starboard now. Bucks are out on Roosevelt Island.” A deer raised its antlers and gazed at us. “Six points!” Dick whispered as we paddled by.

Coach Nate Wood was the anomaly—a kid among the codgers, he finished his undergraduate rowing career at the University of Michigan in spring 2005.

He has a gift for coaching on the fly from a moving launch: “John, think of a string attached to your chest. It’s pulling you steadily up the slide. Chin up, straight back. Athletic position! You wouldn’t try to tackle a runner with your head bent down and your spine curled into a ball.”

Ira Hayes and Joe Bracewell came to rowing from opposite ends of the spectrum. Hayes, a 42-year-old consultant, never rowed a race until he came to the boat center several years ago, 80 pounds overweight and eager for an exercise regimen he could sustain. These days he usually has the trimmest frame in the boat—and always the coolest tattoos.

Bracewell, 59, never lost a collegiate race in four years as a member of a legendary Harvard crew. A lawyer and former banker, Bracewell was feeling out of shape when he came back to the river.

Dan O’Donahue, the senior man on board, followed his high-school son, later a successful Harvard rower, into crew.

Rink van der Have, 59, a onetime Georgetown rower, learned after returning to crew that it stoked his true obsession. “I never get tired anymore when I’m running on the soccer field,” he says.

Fifty-six-year-old Rusty Miller is the spark plug every team needs. He’s stocky, with freckles and red hair. He was sidelined for weeks by an injury but kept showing up at dawn to cox or shoot video from the coach’s launch.

Margie Orrick didn’t even know that Walt Whitman High School had a crew until her daughter signed on as a ninth-grader. Margie spent years of Saturdays at regattas on the walled shores of lower K Street, below the spires and green bluffs of Georgetown University. She became entranced by the journey at two levels.

There was the racing tableau—as she put it, “endless armadas of graceful boats” skimming through the sun-painted arches of Francis Scott Key Bridge toward the white monuments beyond.

Then, as first one daughter and then another “became transformed by the sport,” getting into great physical shape, learning discipline and the costs and rewards of teamwork, the light bulb went on over Margie’s head. Last spring, at 52, she joined intermediate crew at Thompson’s.

In various configurations, the Thompson Boat Center men rowed in at least eight regattas from July through November, from the Capital Sprints in blazing summer on the Anacostia to that last race on the Occoquan in cool autumn.

The prettiest was on the Schuylkill, in Philadelphia, the town that invented American rowing. Its holy of holies is Boathouse Row, the line of Victorian shrines with mysterious names like Bachelors, Malta, Vesper.

The Schuylkill even has its court painter, Thomas Eakins, and its legendary king, Jack Kelly. He was the immigrant’s son and brickworks tycoon who conquered Boathouse Row, won gold in two Olympics, raised his namesake to carry home more trophies, and saw his movie-star daughter become Princess Grace of Monaco.

We rowed happily on Kelly’s river in August.

Everybody’s marquee event of 2006 was the US hosting of the World Rowing Masters Regatta—almost 7,200 competitors from 36 nations, at Lake Mercer in Princeton, New Jersey.

Thompson entered as good a four as it could muster for the September race. Steering the boat and calling directions to the crew was the coxswain, Dick Kuntz. The lead oarsman, or stroke, seated closest to the stern, was Rink van der Have. Behind him, stern to bow, were Dan O’Donahue, 56-year-old Richard Crofton-Sleigh, and Joe Bracewell.

I had watched these four row a grueling practice on the Potomac a few days before the regatta. Their faces, I suddenly realized, were not just grim with exertion. They were carrying some years.

But below the neck was a much more heartening picture: Richard’s shoulders were sharply etched; Dan’s thighs roped at the catch; the lats pulsed on Rink’s back during his pull-through.

At the Princeton races I heard many versions of Why We Row from the ancient mariners. “When you get to be masters age, you row because you want to stay alive,” said Tom Murphy, 53, of Denver, competing with the highly ranked eight of Northern Ireland’s Belfast Boat Club.

He spoke in near-mystical terms of swing. “There’s a Zen that you get into when the boat feels light,” he said. “You’re driving hard, and it feels like you’re flying. If you’re doing it right, all eight swinging together, you hear the gurgle.”

The Thompson Boat Center four placed fifth of six in its heat, in just under three minutes, 48 seconds. Among 18 boats in the three heats for its 60-plus age group, TBC stood in the middle of the pack.

“We didn’t come in last!” said Joe Bracewell. “We didn’t die.”

The 20-kilometer race around Wye Island, by the Chesapeake, is something every rower should experience. Even the coxswain’s chart is exhausting. It warns of submerged obstacles, coves to avoid, hidden islands of marsh grass, everything but “Here be dragons.”

I got my ride around the island by answering an e-mail plea for volunteers to fill a seat in a Prince William Rowing Club eight.

As watermen unloaded bushels of crabs on their dock, the rowing crews marched into the river carrying their boats overhead. Ankle-deep in river muck, hip-deep in water, they rolled their boats down and launched.

The race was four times longer than any other contest on the calendar. Dull aches sunk into elbows and thighs within the first 15 minutes. In the second half hour, we rested by pairs, guzzling water from squeeze bottles for a minute as the other six pulled past the duck blinds in the river, the stately white homes.

The final four miles were a struggle. But we picked up a semblance of stamina for the final 1,000 meters and finished in one hour, 29.13 seconds. Later we learned that we had placed second. The red ribbon—my first and only masters crew trophy—now hangs among the baby pictures and school calendars on our kitchen wall.

By late September the cool air conjured fog on the water at dawn. “This is the time of year when you’re going up the river through the mist,” said Dick Kuntz, “and suddenly you’re back 500 years and the Indians are watching you through the trees.”

That was the week of the Head of the Potomac Regatta, our first in the autumn round of long races in which the boats start at intervals, one by one. The format makes for battles with competing boats fore and aft.

It also made for frustration in TBC’s masters eight. We got passed early by one boat, then a second.

The race cost me in the family sweepstakes. My son’s juniors boat finished in 17:08. Mine came in at 17:40.

My college-reunion race, the late-October Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, was drawing near. To prepare, four members of our Columbia eight booked a test run in North Jersey’s Head of the Passaic, hard by the Meadowlands football stadium. One of the guys couldn’t get to our prerace practice, so my son agreed to fill in. The trip let me spend some driving time with Johnny.

It also created a moment to be savored through the miseries of winter on the ergs: an easy October paddle on the mighty Passaic, my old mates pulling in front of me, my boy in the bow right behind.

Johnny didn’t say much about our Jersey adventure. But when he got in the van for the drive, he popped in a CD he had burned from his iTunes library. The opener was out of my days in junior high—“House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. I took this as a gesture of father-son solidarity.

All of this was a fitting prelude for what Nate Wood calls “the best weekend of the year, no matter what the results.”

The celebrated regatta in Boston is the essence of the sport, shells and rowers of every stripe arrayed before multitudes along a twisting riverscape—steel-and-glass towers, Colonial churches, railroad trestle, footbridge, factory, woodland, picture-postcard boathouses and docks.

The Head of the Charles features competition at every level, from promising high-school eights to world-class single scullers, with masters of various ages in between.

For a lot of rowers, the famous spectacle is a personal landmark, too. TBC’s Rusty Miller put it this way: “In what other sport can you expect to get out and perform on a course that is exactly the same as the one where national-level teams also perform with the best in the world, and on the same day?”

For me it was also a homecoming, back to the city of my birth with my first crewmates, on a course we had last rowed in 1971.

As we pushed through a difficult start in stiff winds and choppy waters, sun glancing off the golden State House dome, I felt myself watching from a remove. This was what Tim Murphy of Belfast Boat Club had described at Princeton a few weeks before, the sensation of flying along inside something larger than ourselves.

Harmony and swing? Far from it. We were showing our age and our rustiness as a crew. We were also rowing close to our seeded position, near the back of the pack. But our swashbuckling cox steered us through a blade-crashing collision with a boat that tried to cut us off at a bridge past the halfway mark. We pulled hard enough to beat some boats. We finished.

And overriding everything—the flaws in our stroke, the grinding fatigue, our time elapsed at the end—was the splendor of each fleeting moment in the journey.

There were down-to-earth pleasures, too. High on my list was eating from well-stocked tents with my old boatmates after we rowed and watching the passing show from the banks of the Charles. We cheered boats of every color—from California, from Cape Cod, from China.

And there in maroon-and-blue, surging into the afternoon sun through the arch of a pretty brick bridge, were my teammates of the previous 17 weeks on the Potomac. Go, TBC!

In the final weeks of the season, we trained almost entirely in the darkness before dawn, bundled in layers against chill winds. From the water, the Watergate was a vague mass topped by the floodlit Washington Monument. Across the river stood Orion, his belt gleaming over the treetops of Roosevelt Island. Shells were visible only as red and green safety lights skipping past.

As we met for the season’s last regatta on the November Sunday that our coxswain turned 65, the sun lit a shimmering path down the Occoquan. Before we carried the shell to the river, Dan O’Donahue called for “Happy Birthday to You”

“Glad you’re a crew and not a choir,” Dick said afterward.

As Dick called our pace through the first mile of the course, we held off the only boat behind us, my old mates from the Prince William crew that rowed around Wye Island. When the second mile gave us a shot at another rival, Dick summoned his inner Captain Bligh. “If you want to pass that boat, you decide!” he commanded with one length of open water between us and our quarry.

I was hosting a battle between my Angel of Rampaging Victory and my Demon of Quit Now, You Pathetic Weakling. Dick tilted the scales to the side of the angel.

“Half a length of open water now,” he cried. “We’re gonna do it. I will not accept otherwise!” Our bow ball inched past their stern. Dick called out our gains by seat number: “I’ve got the eight. I’ve got the seven!”

Now we saw that half of our competitors were, in fact, women novices. Captain Bligh was ruthless. “Push ’em away. Use ’em as leverage,” he shouted. Our sheepishness was quelled. It felt great to pass anybody.

Our strokes grew weaker as we turned toward the finish. “Put it all on, into the boathouse,” Dick cried over the plunk of blades. “Push to the end of the season!”

Finally, he counted down strokes past the orange buoy at the end. “. . . Five. Six. Seven. Paddle. Wotta race!”

Lungs heaving, all hands called congratulations to the competition. Dick steered back to the dock and called for the last time: “One foot up. And out!”

Not half bad, was the consensus as we derigged the boat for its trailer ride home. We had come in tenth out of 14 masters—“an excellent result,” Nate said, for a boat with as many new faces and so little practice.

The sun dipped into the woods as my son Johnny and I hiked to the parking lot just before the rise of the season’s last full moon. My legs were still tingling, Dan’s verdict still ringing pleasantly in my ears: “There was no quit in this boat at all!”

Later I checked the family results. My masters men’s eight had finished the 3.2 miles in 20:31. Johnny’s juniors eight had rowed it 26 seconds faster.

But I was gaining on the kid. His boat had been 32 seconds faster than mine at the Head of the Potomac. All the more incentive to stay in shape for springtime on the river. Maybe I’ll overtake the boy yet.

Maybe I’ll take his CD to the gym and let “House of the Rising Sun” pull me through winter on the ergs.

 

John E. Mulligan, Washington bureau chief for the Providence Journal, wrote “The Girls of Summer,” about the world-champion McLean All Stars girls’ softball team, in October 2005.