Six Things I Love about Rowing and Six Things I’m Finding Challenging

Two very different perspectives on rowing, both from Rowing Quotes:

“Nice? It’s the ONLY thing, said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing… he went on dreamily: messing about… in… boats; messing..” — Kenneth Grahame from The Wind in the Willows

“Marathon runners talk about hitting ‘the wall’ at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole – an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker but an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the five-hundred-meter mark, with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable…Therefore, you are going to die. Welcome to this life.” — Ashleigh Teitel


I was originally going to call this post “Bruised egos, bruised bellies, bruised hands: On learning to row” but I decided to stick with my “six things” theme. See Six Things I Love about Crossfit and Six Things I’m Not So Sure About and Six Things I Love about Aikido and Six Things I Struggle With.

A few of you have asked how rowing is going.  On our Facebook page for the blog a couple of people asked if I was going to blog about rowing.

I was reluctant to write about rowing because I’m such a beginner. But here’s some first thoughts. First, rowing is harder than it looks! And it had never looked easy to me. It’s pretty technical and demanding. The rowers reading all know this.  Second, I’m really enjoying it.  I like a challenge. Third, my adventures in something new (Row, row, row your boat! Trying something new) took a turn for the more difficult this month when my masters rowing group moved to the lake.

I’ve been out on the water five times now and I’m more comfortable each time. The boat is no longer shaking with nervous newbies. Every bit of rowing is tricky and complicated, from getting the boat off the rack and into the water to docking and getting out gracefully when we’re done. I settle for the walrus flop onto the dock.

We’re still indoors sometimes though as cold water safety rules apply in the spring and the coach boat needs to stay nearby novices in the lake. There’s only so many coach boats to go around. We also have to wear safety whistles in case we tip the boat but I’m hoping to avoid that.  And we’ve missed some days due to wind and waves. I’ve been concentrating hard on not tipping, mostly by  following the direct order, “Never let go of your oars!” (There are a lot of direct orders in rowing: Quick hands. Square your oars earlier. Keep your eyes in the boat. Go slowly up the slide. Hard port. Etc etc.)

We had originally hoped to be out in an eight person boat but instead we’re in a four. It’s relatively stable as these things go but it’s still the tippiest boat I’ve spent time in and I’ve sailed small dinghies before and I’ve spent time in kayaks and canoes.

What do I love?

1. The water! I love being outside. But you know that. You’ve read Green exercise and the health benefits of the great outdoors. Though ‘keeping my eyes in the boat’ limits my appreciation of birds, fish, flowers somewhat. That’s sort of like riding a road bike as part of fast paceline. The surrounding countryside might be gorgeous but you don’t really get to look up much and notice it while riding. I focus on the arms and backs of the women in front of me, kind of like in cycling where I spent a lot of time looking at the backs of other peoples’ bike jerseys and only see through the pack with my peripheral vision.

2. The people!  I love being part of a team. You know that too from Indoor Soccer, Team Sports, and Childhood Regrets. I like the women I’m rowing with, a mix of first and second season novices and some more experienced rowers who’ve come back after time away.We also have a wonderful and attentive coach who manages to yell in a way that sounds supportive. The larger club community seems pretty friendly and supportive too.

3.  Not everything is new. Some of the beginner lessons I’ve already learned from cycling. Mistakes move backward down the line and get amplified, for example. Going slower is harder than going fast. Rowing at a very slow pace into the dock is tricky. “Anybody can row fast.” Ditto slow biking races which I’ve done as training drills–last to the line wins. Yay for track stands. Balance really matters. It’s easier to balance on bikes and boats at speed.

4. In the water there’s pretty direct feedback when you get something right or wrong. We have a good stroke and all of sudden feel the boat respond. So nice. Our goal is to increase the ratio of good to bad strokes. I think right now we’re up to three or four in a row.

5. Someone else is in charge. You need to like being yelled at! Direct orders FTW.

6. It’s also fun learning something new. Making gains quickly from week to week is exciting. And this seems like a great place to learn. London is home to a high performance rowing centre and rowing seems to be a big deal in London. There are high school teams and university teams as well as social rowers.

What are the challenges?

1. Coordination! There’s no rowing at your pace. You follow the person in stroke seat. More than anything else I’ve done–even team trials on the bike–working in time with others matters. There’s no slowing down when you want to or taking a rest. You follow the person in the front of the boat, always. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if your oars don’t go into the water at the same time.

2. It’s technically difficult and so many different parts of the stroke matter. I’m at the stage where I just get one bit right and then everything else falls apart. I was working on bending at the waist and not breaking my knees too soon but I’d also been previously working on making sure my oars were square going into the water. Turns out, for now, I can do one or the other, but not both.

3.  Rowing is hard on your hands. I’ve written a bit about this here: On the wearing (or not) of gloves and the care and feeding of calluses. But now the top of my right hand is bashed to bits too because it’s the left hand that crosses over the right and you want the oars at the same height. Pretty much by the end of a practice we’ve all nicked ourselves somewhere and have blood on our hands. Don’t ever google image search “rowing hands.” Just don’t.

4. Keep your eyes in the boat. That’s tough. But I have some experience of this with cycling. Good concentration helps.

5. Port and starboard keep throwing me off after years in sailboats. What’s the problem? Well, you’re sitting backwards in a rowing shell and so your right hand is on port side. As a teenager I remember learning this by thinking that “port” and “left’ each have four letters but that doesn’t work when rowing when you’re facing the wrong way.

6. Despite what many people think–that rowing uses your arms and back–in fact it uses many of the same muscles as cycling. You push the boat away with your legs. I have strong legs, so that’s good, but riding home can be a bit tiring.

Anyway, this is all new to me. Fun. Do you row? Do you row and cycle? What’s your best bit and your hardest challenge?


8 thoughts on “Six Things I Love about Rowing and Six Things I’m Finding Challenging

  1. Yay! I’m so happy you wrote about this. I’ve been mildly obsessed with rowing since my days in Boston, when I’d see collegiate teams rowing on the Charles. It seemed so athletic and challenging yet so refined and elegant, the way the boats would just glide along the surface of the water. You know the rowers are working their asses off but they make it look so easy.

    We have rowing in Tampa on the Hillsborough River, and while I have no time for something like that right now, if I ever decide to give up one of my sports, rowing is on the top of my list of new sports to take up.

  2. Thank you so much for this interesting post. I have my first ever rowing lesson tomorrow and now have an inkling of what to expect. I hope I’ll like it. Not so sure now… I don’t really look forward to being shouted at and to not being able to appreciate the surroundings. But like commenter Caitlin, I’m drawn to the sport for its apparent elegance, having watched college teams perform on the river Cam.

  3. Thanks for comparing rowing to cycling. I’m a cyclist, too, and I rowed for the first time this morning. It’s challenging to get everything in sync. On a bicycle I don’t have to think so much, I can just feel it. But hopefully I will get to that stage in the boat, too. Thanks for sharing your motivating post.

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