On the Water
I'm in the car with Vallery, Andrea, Lyz, and Kerry on the way to crew practice. We drive down the steep hill leading to the baby-blue boathouse. Mr. Roth's green minivan pulls to a stop; we hop down to the gravely parking lot and get our bags out of the trunk. I thank Mr. Roth for the ride and wave goodbye to Andrea as the rest of us head up the stairs to the locker room. The locker room is too warm and stuffy, but the girls don't seem to mind. They just set down their gym bags and backpacks on the worn wooden benches, amid the sticker-covered red lockers. Intermediate and Varsity rowers don't seem to care that we're novices; they make friendly conversation as they change into brightly colored workout pants and grungy tee shirts. Some girls sing along to the modern music drifting from the adjacent erg room overlooking the water.
Walking back down the stairs and outside to the front of the boathouse, we talk about who is in our boat and who we like and don't. We wait outside for our coaches and talk about school; Michelle arrives and joins our conversation. The sun is hot, so we sit on the empty truck-bed in the shade and revel in what rare cool breezes come our way. My coach, Lisa, comes up from behind and taps me, indicating that I join my boat. I wave goodbye to my friends, none of whom are in my group. My boat heads over to the hill and stretches. Lisa assigns our seats. I'm not in the eight boat with my group, so myself and three others in my boat will be heading out with Lykse.
Marcus, Kieran, Spencer, and I join the other rowers from different groups who had been left out of their boats. Kerry is another straggler from a different group and is assigned the bow seat, one behind me. The group meets at the tag board and Lyske learns all of our names.
Lykse then leads the group to one of the most run-downs boats in the house, the Campbell. Ian, the skinny little coxswain with the voice that seems too loud for his body yells out the first command. "Hands on the boat!" We all lean over and place our hands on the hull, waiting for our next order. "Pull it out in two! One, two!" The rollers squeak as we ease the Campbell out of the racks "Let it run!" Ian shouts, and we come to a halt. "Lift it up to waist in two! One, two!" I feel the strain of the boat on my hands as the group silently hoists up the Campbell. "Up to shoulders in two! One, two!" The heavy boat cuts into our shoulders but no one complains. "Walk it out of the house and lift up when you get to the ramp. Out of the house in two, one two!" We shuffle forward trying not to step on each others feet as we struggle with the heavy boat. Now comes the hard part. I reach the ramp and strain to lock my arms over my head. After what seems like an eternity we reach the bottom of the metal ramp and move onto the slightly swaying wooden dock. "Toes to the edge!" Our weight pushes the dock down and sends brown river water seeping through our shoes. "Down to waist in two, one two! Down to the water in two! One, two!" We ease the boat into the dirty Potomac and retrieve our oars, sliding them into place. "Bow, one foot in! And in! Everybody else, one foot in! And in!" We take our place in the boat, myself in the two seat, behind Tyler and in front of Kerry. We take off our old tennis shoes and slip our feet into the Velcro shoes nailed to the boat. We take up the yellow rubber oar grips and wait for Ian's next command. "Push off the dock in two, one two!" We push against the slimy dock side and wait as the boat drifts away from the boathouse, gently rocking on small waves. Lykse drives up in the launch and tell Ian to give the first command over the bullhorn. The stern four row, while the rest of us set the boat. We run through our pick drills for a while and start to switch off rowing. Eventually everything falls into rhythm. Lyske's commands, echoed by Ian, blend together and become automatic "Stern four, row! Bow pair, ready at the finish, and row! Seats three and four, sit ready at the catch! Everybody set the boat! All eight hold water!" We carry out our jobs effortlessly and keep the beat for each other as the oars slice through the water. Time becomes obsolete, and all we know for one precious hour is the water and the peace of rowing.
Before we know it we've pulled into the dock again. Our hands are back on the slippery green edge and pushing the boat further towards where they are stored. On Ian's word we step out and bring the boat back into the house and roll it onto the racks. Only then did I notice the calluses on my hands and the ache in my shoulders. Kerry and I met back up with Lyz, Vallery, and Michelle. We say goodbye and lug our bags to the parking lot, ready to come back and do it all again on Friday.