in," yells Ned. Here we go. "Ready all, shove!" We push away from
It is warm, and
the wind is not bad. They have decided to race on the lake course. We work up
the inlet by fours, do cadences, and practice racing starts on the lake. There
are a lot of big boats around, and there is a continuous roll from the
crisscrossing of their wakes. The Coast Guard or someone is supposed to get
them off the course by race time. I hope they hop on the stick, because this
slop won't subside all at once.
There is lots of
power in the boat today. It jumps on the starts, but the balance is shaky and
the timing is ragged every once in a while. We can see the Cornell crew taking
their starts in the distance. Too far away to tell much. The officials' launch
pulls up to us. "Come on up to the line," the starter says. He has an
Cornell and Penn
get to the start before we do. We have the left lane, nearest the shore, Penn
the middle. I wish we were next to Cornell. Stroke puts his head down to his
oar. I wonder if he is praying. I used to say The Lord's Prayer over five times
before each start, but finally I decided that it didn't do any good. Stroke is
still bent over. Ned takes off his megaphone, grins at me. I smile back, give
him the high sign. Circled thumb and forefinger. Stroke sits up. Ned puts the
megaphone back on. Ned shakes hands with the stroke, stroke turns to me. We
pass it down the boat. "Come on up to the line, Harvard," the starter
Ned pulls us up
by the stern four. I am calm. I take off my sweat shirt, stow it under the
stretcher. "Are you headed correctly, coxswains?" the starter asks.
"My hand is down," Ned tells us. That means we are headed. I fasten my
eyes on stroke's right elbow. They will stay there all the way down the course.
"Touch it stern pair, Harvard," the starter says. We have drifted
backward too far. We take a light stroke. Back to the ready position. "Back
down lightly, stern pair, Penn." The two men in the stern of the
Pennsylvania boat back water lightly. This could go on interminably. But it
doesn't bother me. "One stroke, stern pair, Cornell. Back down another,
Penn." Silence. "My hand is down," Ned says again. He speaks in a
normal tone and we can hear him perfectly. Then the starter's voice snaps
sharply across the water, "Ready all. Ready to row. Row!" A fast
I jam everything
on full power, wrench the oar through. Snap my hands away. Plenty of time. My
hands are faster than stroke's. Second stroke is a half stroke. Comes very
fast. I get in with him. The balance is off to port a little. Not serious. Next
two are three-quarter strokes. We are picking up speed. Ned begins to count.
"One, two, three." On the 10th stroke we will settle to the racing 32.
Thirty-three if we are high. The start feels high enough around 40. We are
moving all right. "Eight, 9, 10. Stroke going down! Stroke going down!"
Ned bangs the sides hard with his steering knockers. They are attached to the
ends of the steering lines. "Ease those slides! Ease!" I follow the
stroke down the side, slowing everything carefully. If the drop is done well we
are off to a good start. I feel a slight check. Not too bad though.
Now we are in the
part of the race I like best. I am fresh, the boat is moving well, and I can
put out on each stroke without having it hurt. There is a lot of noise. The
voices of the coxswains mingling and floating all around you. The hard snap at
the end of each stroke. Steel on steel, as the pressure of the pull-through
comes off the oar lock. The water noises, the occasional slipping of the oars
and the regular splash noise of the catch and always, dimly, the rushing of the
water under the hull. The rasp of your own breath. If anything goes wrong the
other sounds change. Your own breathing is the only constant. Later in the race
my breath will burn in my chest, and my legs will go dead. My forearms will
swell up to twice their normal size and my feathering wrist, the left, will
seize up. It won't feel normal again for a whole day. But I enjoy this early
part of the race. I can think about each thing that I do, and pass judgment on
it, while later I will be running mostly on instinct. Ease, roll, catch, drive,
finish fast, hands away smoothly, ease. It is a sequence, a rhythm that I
settle into comfortably. It is a good feeling to be able to do each part of it
Ned is yelling
constantly. "Three-quarters of a length on Penn, couple of seats on
Cornell. You're rowing well. Take it away. Take it away." Ned has a big
voice. You sort of get lost in it and stop paying attention to the words. The
tone tells you almost everything you need to know. The necessary pieces of
information filter through in articulate form, but the rest is just a familiar
background. "Three-quarters of a mile to go," he yells. "Two-thirds
of a length on Cornell. Penn is out of it. Let's take it away." Cornell is
hanging right in with us. In the periphery of my left eye I can see Penn
several lengths behind us. I don't think about them. I keep my eye on stroke's
right elbow. My legs are getting tired. "Cornell's callinga power
10."Ned yells, "Let's hold 'em." I begin to use the reserves, put
something extra into each leg drive. It isn't really painful yet. "O.K.,
O.K. You're holding 'em. Still two-thirds on 'em." Suddenly we run into a
wash. The boat tilts wildly from side to side, stroke hits water on the
recovery, fouls up his timing. A new note in Ned's voice. "A little slop. A
little slop. Handle it now. Handle it. Get the balance back. Balance! Timing!
Get 'em in together." We are still in it. A gentle roll from the starboard
side. It throws everything off, upsets the delicate blend of timing, balance,
power that we must maintain to make the boat go.
Then we are out
of it. We are down to port, but the water underneath is steady. On the next
stroke the boat comes back on keel. "O.K.," says Ned. "Go! Go! Go!
You have half a length on them. Half a length. Now let's take it away. Half a
mile to go, half mile to go. We just passed the half-mile flag." Everything
is going into every stroke now. My forearm and wrist are beginning to tighten
up. Breathing hurts, legs going soft. Careful not to heave on the oar. Keep it
smooth. Keep the form. Boat won't move worth a damn without form. "Stroke
going up," Ned shouts. We are into the final sprint. "Stroke up. Go!
Go! Go! You have half a length still, half a length. Quarter mile to go. A
quarter left." Everything is flowing now; power on continuously, head feels
light, hot, molten. Legs liquid. Jelly. Catch, drive, down the slide, no pause
or ease, catch, around and around.
length," Ned yells. "You still have a half." This is going to be a
squeaker. I just want it to be finished. Then we hit more wash. Oh God. The
boat pitches. My oar slams down on the water during a recovery. We are out of
control. Ned is pleading. The stroke catches a monster crab. He is almost
thrown out of the boat. He recovers momentarily, loses his head, rocks down the
slide too fast, misses the water completely. I can hear the crowd noise. Soon
it will drown everything. Ned is screaming now. Nothing he can do about it.
Stroke comes back down the slide, no water in front of his oar, out of control.
It is as if I am watching a movie in slow motion. I cut my own pull through
short to keep from hitting him in the back. He goes forward again, misses the
water completely again. I am helpless. Everything behind is disintegrating.
Some people have stopped rowing, others beat at the water ineffectively. I can
feel it happening. There is nothing I can do but sit and watch and wait until
stroke gets hold of himself. Down the slide we go again, and this time he gets
some water. It is not a good stroke, but at least it is something to follow. I
drive with all my power. The water is heavy, dead. We have come to an almost
complete stop. Pull, pull. "Come on, get it back together. Let's go! Let's
go!" Ned is yelling. We are beaten though. I can tell it from his voice.
"Get together and drive. Drive!" The boat is sloppy, wild even. Five
more strokes and at last Ned yells, "Way 'nuff." I almost black