A View from the River: Completely Happy
by Louisa Mink (Class of ‘08 SHS)
Ask 50 different people what it means to be completely happy, and you’ll get 50 different answers. Right? Well, maybe not. In fact, you might be surprised to receive nine identical answers : “Completely happy? I’m completely happy when my boat has won a race!” Then you’ll know you’ve stumbled upon some members of the Stonington High School crew team whose home base is Mystic Seaport.
If you kept asking, trying to get the rowers to define their idea of complete happiness, they would tell you about the most beautiful feeling in the world. It hits the entire boat when it crosses the finish line first.
It’s euphoria, a huge rush from all the endorphins suddenly hitting your bloodstream; vanquishing the pain of exhausted muscles. It’s great pride, knowing your boat was able to lock into a rhythm and use all the power the rowers had to give, and knowing that everyone was completely focused on the race.
This was no product of chance; victory is the sweet payback for hours of sweating and striving to push your body to the next level of strength and endurance. At practice on the Mystic River, we are told to look for that pain, embrace it, and try to top it, because that is what we need to have in us for a race.
Rowing is more than brute force, however. It is finesse and rhythm. All eight rowers in the boat have to be in tune with each other, focused on the person in front of them, and doing exactly what that person is doing. “Together” is the key phrase. The oars must enter and leave the water all together, which means that the rowers must complete all the motions of the stroke at exactly the same time.
And who reminds the rowers of all these things? Who keeps them motivated during practice, making sure everyone is pushing themselves, yet not letting technique and form be left behind in the rush? Who steers the boat, avoiding the cans, buoys, sandbars, rocks, and lackadaisical pleasure boaters that turn the Mystic River into a giant obstacle course? Who carries water, band-aids, and sweatshirts for the rowers, and gives them gummy worms for an after-practice treat? Who interprets the instructions from coaches yelled through megaphones or scrawled onto a dirty index card? Is it Superman? No, it’s the coxswain!
The coxswain sits facing the rowers, and he or she is the brains of the boat. The rowers face the opposite direction that the boat is going, so the coxswain is the only one who sees the course. The coxswain gives a command, and the rowers follow it (sometimes on peril of their lives, if the cox happens to be grouchy that day!).
A typical day at practice goes like this: the high school team arrives at the Mystic Seaport at around 2:30, some from the school bus and others from cars. Everyone changes, then meets at the dock to carry oars down and stretch out. The boats are gotten into the water by lifting them up from horses, pressing them over heads, and rolling them down into the water. Then, oars are inserted into the oarlocks and run out, and half the boat gets in at a time, first starboard and then port. This is done so the boats don’t flip over at the dock. We row backwards to get away from the dock into the river, and then one side of the boat starts to row forwards so it is turned to face up the river. We do a warm-up that consists of breaking the stroke into individual motions, starting with using only the arms and then adding in the body and each quarter of leg movement, going up the sliding seat, until a full stroke is reached.
After this, we do full pressure pieces up and down the river, usually starting beyond the railroad bridge and ending at the Seaport. We might also do a head race, which is a four mile distance from Noank to the end of the river in Old Mystic.
During these pieces, the third varsity goes first, then the second and first. The aim is to catch the boat in front of you, and keep your lead on the boat behind you.
It is very exciting when the boat manages to do this. It is great once the rhythm in the boat has been achieved, and the power in it is being put to full use. The objective is to jam the legs down, and connect with the abs and lats to actually lift yourself up out of the seat and get your weight out of the boat. When this happens, the boat lifts up out of the water, and air bubbles get underneath it. You can hear them rushing along the hull, and see them coming up in the boat’s wake. Another way to see the power is to look at the blades of the rower’s oars. If they are pulling hard, the oar will have a mound of water in front of it with an empty space behind, and when the oar is no longer in the water, there is a whirlpool in its place. The coaches follow us in their power boats, and shout encouragement's through the megaphones. My favorite on to hear is, “Lock and send!” This means lock your oar into the water, then drive the legs to send the boat skimming.
We also do many different drills to help with timing or certain elements of the stroke. The coaches run these drills, and they look at each rower and tell him or her how to fix their stroke, or compliment a good stroke.
It is important to “row smart”, and keep the technique and rhythm during a race or power piece. If the boat starts to panic and scramble or miss water, the race is as good as lost.
Before our first race, Coach Ken Godfrey told my boat (the girl’s second varsity) to just row smart and keep our focus. It was hailing out, and we were racing Greenwich and Tabor, two private schools with beautiful new equipment. We fell behind at the start of the race, but then it happened. We locked into a rhythm, and rowed smart. We started to walk through Greenwich, meaning we were gaining on them and passing. Then, I thought, “My God, it looks like we might have this!” Everyone must have thought so, too, because we started to walk Tabor, and came in to win the race!
That brings me full circle back to the completely happy feeling. I don’t think that you can get that feeling anywhere else, or I never have, at any rate. It is the product of much hard work and time, put in by the coaches, coxes, and rowers.
Because you have to be a full-grown person to do crew, there is no “little league” for rowing. It is a sport that you start in high school or even college. Many people don’t know much about crew; to them it is only early morning practices and blisters. Really, it is teamwork at its finest level, and the perfect marriage of finesse and force.