Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rowing and the Soul - Guest Post from Molly Field of Grass Oil

This post comes to you today from the unsinkable Molly Field of Grass Oil.  She's unsinkable, literally and figuratively, though today she brings her vast knowledge of the literal and shares it with us all.  

I've only known her for a few months, but it doesn't seem like it's been such a short time at all.  She's a kindred spirit, she's someone who knows from whence I came, she's patient and understanding and the kind of friend that will completely tell you the truth, even when it's the hardest thing to hear.  

I adore her.

The words just flow out of her fingertips, she is one of the most detailed and prolific writers I know.  If you ever want to be blown away by a description of anything, she's your girl.  She's a mom of three boys and recently decided that zip lining is awesome while chaperoning a field trip.  Defender of the path, zen yoga expert, maestro of the keyboard, queen of the water. 

Oh, to spend an afternoon on the water with her.  


Rowing and the Soul


While Kelly and I have never seen each other face to face, I have had the blessing of knowing her heart to heart and she belongs to a tribe in my life of “some of the nicest people I have never met” and I am so pleased she asked me to write about what happens to be my current love: rowing.  I will do my best to not subject you to a mindless palaver.

About a month ago, Kelly asked me to write about rowing and how it can translates to a form of meditation. Surely the meditative and mental health aspects of just being outside, near the open water – all the negative ions pulling away bad energy and the heaviness of the air makes you breathe better – is just one aspect to how rowing is meditative. But because rowing is all about buoyancy, trust, softness, balance and poise, there is more to it. It’s like yoga on the water. While spring is lovely, rowing in the fall, witness to the majesty of autumn’s foliage, rowing is peerless.

While the feeling I want to convey is poetic, I have little doubt there will be questions, so let’s get to the technical: When one talks about rowing, it’s not an automatic discussion due to the different forms of the activity and usually people think, “you must have massive arms.”

Rule: the sport is “rowing”; never “crewing” – you will be mocked by real rowers out of the parking lot of the regatta, bar, library, boathouse, school, deli, sports authority, office depot or wherever you happen to say, “my daughter rows crew” or “I love crewing.” Crew is a noun. Your daughter can row for Harvard’s crew, but she doesn’t “crew.” In fact, there’s somewhat of a rebellion afoot amongst colleges to go back to the classic form, “rowing” to preserve the nature of the sport and return to “William & Mary Rowing,” “Yale Rowing” or “Colgate Rowing” because the word “crew” as a sport has been bastardized by well-intentioned yet ignorant people – my guess is because “crew” has been hijacked by street gangs and pirates. My face literally twitches when someone says “So you crew?”

All rowing occurs in a “shell”: eights, fours, pairs, singles, doubles and quads.

So, there’s “sweep” rowing with its many people and one long, heavy oar (the “sweep”) per person and a shout-y “boss” called a “coxswain” who is the only person who can see the finish line; and then there’s “sculling” which has one or more people but each has two oars (the “sculls”) and no shout-y boss ever.

No one calls oars by the term “sculls” or “sweeps,” but rather the method by which you crew row.

That “crew” was a test. Did you pass it?

Regardless of the type, rowing requires no small amount of faith. You can’t see where you’re going, so there’s that. You’re in a very narrow (18” max) shell and it’s very tippy so there’s that. Then you have the elements to contend with, so there’s that.

When you row sweeps, as in any team sport, other people can screw up or grace your experience. They may not want to work as hard as you and thus you tolerate them. If you work hard (me) you end up taking a lot of people for a ride and hurting your back in the process. I rowed sweeps last year and loved it, ’cept for the back pain part. That was brutal. Plus you’re at the whim of the coach and your boat mates – so when one is late, everyone is late.

When you scull, which is what I’m doing now, you have yourself to contend with. You have your flaws and weaknesses and graces and finesse to work with. Your balance in the boat is all up to you; your timing in the boat is all up to you and your success in the boat is all up to you. Two people sculling use a “double” and four people use a “quad” and I’ve heard that there are experimental “trios” in the works because while you might have an odd number of rowers, the oars are even and thus your course is even. Sculling is like solo running: freedom.

The irony is this though: when you row in a single, you should never row unaccompanied because you need a partner, someone else in their boat to be your buddy. Above all, we practice water safety and the water is getting cooler now, so that’s a very important factor.

Ok. Now that we’ve got that down, let’s get to the real reason I’m writing this: meditation.

My drive to the boathouse is an experience in and of itself: it’s located in a bucolic area, some of the country’s finest water, off the main strip and nowhere near a city. This time of year the roads are decorated with nature’s confetti as autumn tells us she is here and it’s time to let go, drop, unwind, float, waft and settle with the breezes.

When I pull in to park, the water is about thirty more feet to see the banks.

Then another fifteen feet or so, I see the reason why I came here, why any of us come here. The water, she calls to me and she calls to you, asking you to come down, sit on her edge and just be.

And the water…? Today, the water was like glass. I could not believe my luck. This is the view upriver, toward historic Bull Run in Manassas, VA, which is nine miles away.

This is the view downriver toward historic Occoquan, VA, but you can’t get to it from here because there’s a dam.

This is the view to the right, up Sandy Run Cove which is a mile each way and is absolutely lovely for just a few boats at a time because it’s so sheltered. It happens to be my favorite place to row.

So I go back up and I see the racks are out and I get a chance to select which boat I want to take out for a spin. All these boats are “racing shells” made by “Peinert” and they either 26’ for heavyweight rowers or 25’ for lightweight rowers. Most females are in the lightweights. So I select the bottom rack and put my girl, S13, in the slings to inspect her gear and nuts and bolts. I lift her from the slings and carry her down, and we get ready to know each other again.

I select my oars and take them down to that beautiful and inviting dock.

Getting in the boat is no small task, but this is veering on the technical, so from here, we are on the water. To take this photo, I had to twist around and show you where I am headed, upriver toward Manassas.

Rowing well is all about cadence. There’s the seat you sit on that slides up and down a track. You push off a footboard with your legs, roll out your back and chest and then pull with your arms gracefully and mindfully. Every motion requires presence in the boat. If your head is not in the boat, your body will soon follow. You reverse the “legs back arms” motion as you roll back up “arms back legs” to start it all over again.

People misconceive that rowing is all arms. Rowing in a rowboat or a dinghy is all arms and back, but rowing in a racing shell is mostly legs, with about 60% of the drive, the core (abs and back) another 25% and the arms finishing up at about 15% of the motion. The boat moves beneath you, so the seat’s sliding is really an action of the boat’s movement rather than your calves pulling yourself back up to start.

After I’d had enough of upriver, I came back to the dock and went toward Sandy Run. The time of day when I took these pics was around 1:30 and the sun was lowering and it showed how its reflection danced on the water. You can see where I’ve been by looking at my boat’s stream trail. In the foreground, you can see where my oars dipped, depicted by darker patches in the water on either side of the stream.

The motion is like a leg press and your body swings from the hips narrowly between the 11 and 1 positions on a clock. Your intention is that everything is balanced, smooth and calm. Power and speed come in when you’ve got that down. It is wonderful work for the body and soul.

When you’re rowing recreationally, the cadence and motions are up to you, there is no need to power through everything. Today, it was so calming and soothing, like rocking in a chair, in the lap of a loving mother wrapped in a blanket in the sun. The eyes remain open and soft and the back is straight, never hunched. 

And so you go: legs back arms … arms back legs … legs back arms … arms back legs…

As you continue, you see nature: herons perching, turtles sunbathing on rocks, fish jumping, ospreys diving and the noble bald eagles resting on the banks of the river taking a break from their mighty hunts. Nature has only the seasons and the sun to tell her time. You are in no rush. The moments repeat as long as you need or want them to.

This day, I saw a small sand-colored spider on the water, trying to navigate. Behind her she had let loose some silk. The sun was so bright, her silk caught its rays. I saw it wafting, floating in the air atop the draft getting longer and longer still, like a fly fisherman letting out his line. The breeze caught her silk line and took her around to the bow of my boat and over to the other side of the water. I pulled in my blade in to get out of her way and not soon after: up she went. Riding on the air and she floated up, up and away into the trees on the other side of the water. I trained my eye on her, this ever smaller tan dot, in contrast with the shadows in the woods. I followed her ascent into the birch, maple or oak she was about to call home. And I just sat there, marveling at my smallness and nature’s beauty. If she could do that, walk on water, fly and land in a new tree I can be whom I’m meant to be too …

Beneath the boat, the water swims and glances its hull. When your balance is perfect, you can hear the water tick, tick, tick-tickling the underside, and shissshing the sides. Your oar’s blade dips into the water, your legs push you back, the blade comes toward your feet your back sways from the hips and the blade lifts out as you push your hands down, twist them slightly to feather the blade and do it again.

Legs back arms … arms back legs … legs back arms … arms back legs…

These moments are there, waiting for you for as long or as little as you need. The rocking feeds the spirit and if you’re like me, when you finally lie down at night ready for sleep, you feel like you’re still in the shell, rocking back and forth, with your body’s memories lulling you to sleep.

Thank you.




  2. Such a great description of the art of rowing! I know nothing about it, so I was surprised to see how small the boat is! Good for you - I am sure I could never do this (but then, I'm not so big on exercise of any kind). And the spider - I love that spider. I have a bit of fear about them, a primal reaction, but really, they're fascinating creatures, and SO creative in the necessity of their webs. "If she can do that. . ." Yes, indeed.

    1. Hi Barbara! The boat is tiny. I have seen more robust people row just fine - not many olympians are 18" across. the seat sits slightly above the gunnels (sides of the hull), so it's very possible to do. and there are "recreational" shells out there with more width to support balance and less nimble folks. The spider... she was a gift to me that day. I was feeling "able," but down slightly, and watching her make all that happen was kismet. Thank you for reading and commenting. :) -m

  3. I am so jealous. I want to be on that water too! Great post. I think in this busy, crazy world we live in getting out in nature does the soul a lot of good. So does the exercise, the quiet and the solitude.

    I am also jealous that DeBie beat me to getting you to guest post about rowing...I should have asked sooner. Darn it.

    1. LC! running is wonderful, but rowing is ... well, perfection. it's harder to do, it requires a lot of balance and peace of mind - but once you're in the zen, you don't wanna get out. and there is no impact whatsoever. the strength that's required is mostly for lifting and setting the boat in and out of the racks and the water and back.

      if you can row near where you live - look into it.

      and as for writing about it for you - i can always do that. :) -m

  4. Wow Molly, you paint a lovely picture with your have a wonderful gift!


    1. AC! Thank you so much! I miss being on the water so much... but NOT today ... yeesh! it's cold and those winds! I appreciate you following this post - check out Kelly's stuff too. She's a lovely writer. :) xo -M

  5. That is a wonderful description of rowing. I can't wait till we get back on the water. (I especially appreciate your comment on "crewing" . It drives me crazy too.)

    1. Hey Kathy! Thank you so much for following me over here! I miss the "spit" as you call her. The past couple weeks have been so busy. My callouses are almost all gone... :( -M


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