August 7, 2020 by 8junebugs
So I’m a single sculler now.
For the foreseeable future, it’s just me, myself, and I on the water in an alarmingly tiny boat, for as many meters as I can get in between just-before-dawn and 7:20am.
I mean, I’m not always totally alone. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I can usually count on seeing at least one teammate. Maybe as many as four or five, if we include former teammates and coaches! And I have been working with a coach off and on to mentor me through boat progression; I’m cleared for the racing singles now. (They’re called “advanced” boats, but if you’ve ever been in a boathouse when that word is used, you’ll know why I mention it parenthetically.)
Sometimes, though, I am totally alone.
In the boathouse.
On the water.
In my head.
Time alone for parents is invaluable even without a pandemic keeping everyone in each other’s faces. Time alone while rowing is taking some getting used to.
Even when my crewmates are on the water with me, we have our own goals, schedules, drills. We each go at our own pace right now, not racing each other (I mean, not officially) or logging PRs. Right now, we’re navigating the situation—and the lagoon—together, but apart.
It’s a matter of necessity. Team boats are off the water indefinitely. EBRC is doing its own version of sculling practice—mixed-level pods of rowers out with mixed-style coaches in water that is unfriendly to small boats on a good day and fucking brutal the other 89% of the time. This is still better than nothing and my teammates are making the best of it, as we do. But that level of exposure—my exposure to teammates, their exposure to my family’s germs through me—did not seem wise. Every decision is a risk and every risk is a decision, etc.
So here we are.
I learned to scull four years ago but had rarely practiced it. The only time I’ve dumped a boat, it was a 2x and my pair partner had her oarlock in the wrong position, so we did a slow roll at the dock. (I nearly went out with an oarlock in the same wrong position last week—I’m not fully awake before the first 1500m.)
The logistics of carrying, launching, docking, and racking the boat on my own, though…well. That shit’s expensive if you break it. Hence the coaching. I’ve been going a few days a week for nearly a month and have enough of a routine down that making a change in it really threw me off the other day.
I maintain my usual practice schedule. I decide which boat to take out based on the conditions. I find workarounds for equipment issues. I set up a GoPro (thanks, work reward points!) so I can review video later, with or without a coach. I set the workout. I hold my line and I watch the time. I dock on my own, bow first…better and more consistently, oddly enough, than when I cox a team boat and can see where I’m going.
The best and most important part of rowing is the team. I know there are single scullers all over the world who could rightfully disagree with me and I honor their drive, commitment, and independence. But there’s a reason it’s called the ultimate team sport.
On the one hand, when I’m out there on my own—or, out there at all—I am more myself, more empowered and engaged than I have been since the pandemic started. I’ve said “any boat, any seat, any day” for years, and now it’s finally true. (Not dragon. Or whale. Also not fond of canoes.)
And I am most at peace when on or near water, whether it’s rowing, lounging in Aptos, or floating in a lake.
On the other hand, when I’m out there on my own, I am deep in my grief. I miss my team and my coaches. I miss the accountability of showing up for them as much as for myself. I miss hearing the boats sing. I miss training and racing together, obsessing over lineups, cooking breakfasts together once a month…
The last practice I attended before the boathouse closed was a land practice—ergs only, no matter how glassy the water or how loudly we groaned. It made stopping even harder, honestly, because who wants to go out on a grind? But our team playlist was spinning and at one point during Billy Joel’s “Pressure,” every goddamned woman was in sync. Every. Single. One. And we are not a small crew.
We rowed as one and more or less on the beat for several 10 counts in my head. It was focused and aggressive and every time I thought we’d break, we kept going.
Song rhythms don’t match the rowing stroke well or for very long—you’ll hit the catch at just the right moment and match the beat, then let it go on the recovery. We make playlists for motivation, not for cadence. Plenty of rowers don’t worry about syncing up on ergs because it’s just conditioning work.
I’m not one of those. Moving as one is everything in the boat…so it’s everything.
I will consciously switch my feet to walk in step with whoever is stroke for that row from “hands on” to “roll to water.” (One or two teammates know I do this, I think.) The sooner you focus and find the rhythm together, the better the practice or race will go, so why not start on land?
Or it could be the marching background…either way. And when we erg, I usually pick a stroke seat to match.
There is power and grace and speed and divine exhaustion in sculling just as in sweep rowing. You can hear the boat sing. (At least, I assume you can. So far, I’ve gotten as far as hearing the bubbles…which is a good start. Most days, it’s hard to hear anything over the wind and the freeway.)
But you’re the only one who will hear it. It’s not a shared experience of confidently blended technique and power and focus.
There’s a reason I auditioned for ensembles in the 90s, not solos.
For now, though, the chorist is a soloist by default, seeking a different kind of competence, confidence, and clarity. My goals have been kicked back to novice level—learn the boat, follow the sequence, find the power (it’s not at the catch, where I normally keep it)…then adjust. Find the speed in a swing/sling motion, rather than in the jump. I have to shift from trust in my crew to trust in myself, and that is both easier and harder than it sounds.
Oh, and keep the shell from crashing into anything on land or water. A 1x is barely as heavy as my youngest child but is longer than my car. So.
I do like it…more than I expected, certainly. A teammate said I seem to be happy and at peace with it, and I think that’s true-ish (and it’s what prompted me to write this down). I am at peace on the water. I am happy in a rowing shell. And every now and then, I can relax into the recklessness of my racing self, the “fuck it, let’s go” part of me that keeps my name on the roster when life sideswipes my training.
I will respect and love the single and honor what it will teach me about speed and focus and finesse, and what it will teach me about myself.
The sooner I can take those lessons back into a big boat with my crew, though, the happier I will be.
* With thanks to the Cal Women’s Crew for putting this song in their hype video a few years ago: