Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cadence

It was too icy to put in the dock, so we waded straight out from the shore, and into the sub freezing Maine lake water. The crew shell bit into my shoulder. I nudged ice away with my elbow, and stood, chest deep in lake and waited for the command to flip the hull. Maybe I would be frozen solid before the command came. I felt so cold that the cold was beginning to feel like warmth. I was in the bow, this day, an unfortunate place to be, since I was furthest and deepest out. I was the last of the eight women lined up on alternating sides of the boat, and I had an uninterrupted view of dawn breaking around us.

What can I say? My coach was an idiot, tempting hypothermia with his athletes. And I did get sick that spring, but not before I was able to sit in the first, the leader, the stroke position. I will always remember the day that I stroked. In part because I did get sick a few days afterwards, and wasn't able to pull the strength needed on the urg to be considered for the position again, and in part because I loved setting the cadence for the boat. But, I remember it most of all because, that day, we made the boat sing.

Instead of rowing at dawn, that session we rowed at dusk. I sat, facing the coxswain, as she built up the rhythm with her calls. She quickly moved us out of the warm-up and into the distance portion of the practice. I pulled with long, sure strokes.

Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.

The coxswain barked out short, sweet commands. Soon, none were needed. I pulled the oar close to my chest, pushed the oar handle down and away, reached out for a long, smooth stride, backed the oar into the water, jumped from the foot stretchers and pulled, long and wide, until the oar handle returned to my chest. I rolled the oar, and heard it drip all the way back to the start of the stroke. I watched the eyes of my coxswain. Her eyes told me what I needed to know. We were perfectly in sync.

Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.

No thinking. Thinking would make me rush to the next part of the stroke. Instinct took over--the cadence took over. I relaxed into the rhythm. I ignored the burning of my muscles. I focused on giving each slide its due. Making each pull identical to the one before. Letting predictability guide those behind me.

Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.

Still our coxswain was silent, letting the sounds of the boat and oars and bodies guide us. Eight bodies moved to one beat. I could feel the hull surge with each pull through the water. I could hear the rush of water inside the boat. It ran down the midline of the hull, as the boat, level, flew across the lake. This rush of water became a song. Idiot Coach cut his motor so we could hear, uninterrupted, our song. A gentle "SHHHHHHHH" sound.

Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.
Reach, back it down, jump, pull.

No longer eight separate bodies, but one boat in motion, we heeded the final command from our coxswain. "WEIGH ENOUGH." Our hands held the oars, still, above the water, and the hull sailed singing sweetly along while we silently existed within the moment. Trees became shadows, darkness descended, and our boat sang.


Only on a perfect day can you make a boat sing. This rhythm that I remember from my rowing days gets me into my writing stride as I sit at the keyboard, clicking out words. Hopefully someday soon, I'll make my novel sing.

Check out this cool look at rowing (I wish there were more (*any*) women in this video).

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