Rowing to Win: It’s All in the Hair

A replica of a Viking boat.
A replica of a Viking boat.

My grandmother?s grandmother is from Cornwall.
She was a Viking. Bred to row boats on the open sea.
Somehow the genes best suited to rowing on the open sea (1/2 inch of insulation, big feet, long legs and broad shoulders) were passed on, unsolicited, to me.

When I went to college, I found myself on the Oregon Ducks? Crew Team. I was one of two in-between freshmen who rowed in both varsity and subvarsity boats. Working girls.
I had to use the men?s room between races in the regattas because I didn?t have time to wait in the line to the women?s room.

When I moved to Virginia 25 years later, I found a team of rowers among whom I was able to enjoy the sport at my own, less-than-athletic level. We row from the Fairfax County side of the Occoquan Reservoir.

A modern racing shell--Australia's Olympic Women's Eight, 2012. Photo by
A modern racing shell–Australia’s Olympic Women’s Eight, 2012. Photo by

The Prince William Crew Team, which rows from the other side of the reservoir, rows at a more-than-athletic level, meaning not only are they all tall, svelt and in-shape, their hair is perfect, their clothes are perfect. We call them ?The Aryan Race.? They are all blonde and sport short stylish coifs. I hear they even compete for seat placements in their boats.

Our team is a little more relaxed.

Well, a lot more relaxed.

Our team motto is: “The Older We Get, The Faster We Were.”

We don?t know who is rowing in which boat until we are all standing outside the boathouse at practice time and we line up, ports on one side, starboard rowers on the other. It doesn?t matter if you are short or tall, male or female, Republican or Democrat, atheist or devout. We are all those things.
For the races we usually get lineups figured out a few weeks ahead of time, scheduling things only after we know whose kid?s soccer team made it to the playoffs. We count heads and decide whether to enter mixed gender boats, an eight or a four. Our boats, called ‘shells,’ we rent from our kids’ high school club.

In the modern racing sport of crew, the bowseat is seat number one. Usually a small person to keep the bow up, this person, whose oar extends off the starboard side of the boat, usually ends up doing a lot of strokes to turn the shell when docking or trying to get out of tight places. Bo is our bowseat, not just because we like to say “Bo in the Bow,” but because she is Gumby, able to stretch from about 5′ 2″ to 5′ 10″ to match the stroke. She really is an athlete.

Our 2011 Women's Eight. Bow-in-the-Bow is the only one working.
Our 2011 Women’s Eight. Bo-in-the-Bow is the only one working. I am six.

Counting up to the stern, the middle seats 3, 4, 5 and 6 are considered ?the engine room,? because they are positioned according to laws of physics that remain unintelligible to me, to provide power to move the boat. I am almost always assigned to seat 4 or 6 because, well, because I am of Viking descent … and I always row port.
The most important rower in a boat this size is seat number 8, the stroke. Everyone is supposed to make her oar do what the stroke?s oar is doing. The most difficult job is seat 7, who has to set the starboard-side stroke by watching the oar to her right and mimicking its action with precision.
The stroke decides how long the stroke is, how fast it is, and most importantly, when it is.?Like how a caterpillar walks.?If the oars don?t all go into the water at the same time, the boat is not going to go anywhere except to the bottom of the lake.

The stroke faces the coxswain, a very small person with a very big voice who guides not only the rowing but the boat itself. She is the brain of the caterpillar. The coxswain works out with the team and bears an inordinate amount of responsibility for the boat?s success or failure. The coxswain is the only person facing forward, the only person who knows where the hell we?re going.

The Regatta

Yesterday was the last regatta of the 2013 season.

Head of the Occoquan Regatta, November 3, 2013. Photo by Damian.
Some 815 boats raced in the Head of the Occoquan Regatta, November, 2013. Photo by Damian.

As I approached the park, my primary concern was traffic. We had Damian in our carpool and his race was scheduled for just two hours from now. Would he make it? I had strapped my bicycle on the back of Karin’s car just in case. Much as I relished seeing Damian, a hunky triathlete, pedaling my decidedly feminine bicycle equipped with old fashioned baskets, I was relieved when a traffic cop gave us the last parking spot near the outermost shuttle stop.

Our boat would launch several hours later, 45 minutes before our 3:20 start time.
We would cheer on the men’s boat as it passed the boat house, two-thirds through the course that wound down the reservoir toward the dam.

We also spent hours wandering among the high school and collegiate rowers slinking up and down the hill by the boathouse. I listened to a volunteer in a neon traffic vest ?yell herself hoarse, repeating “Heads up” and “Pedestrians please stay to the left.” ?I had been assigned this job at last year’s regatta, trying to keep the steady stream of nervous athletes carrying boats down the hill from crashing into the exhausted rowers carrying theirs up. In the mix were teammates carrying bundles of oars like so many matchsticks staggering behind the awkward shells, negotiating among high school parents, children and an oddly large number of lost-looking people who wandered, incognizant, into the paths any long skinny boat. Someone had to direct traffic.

This year I decided to rest up instead of volunteer.

Last year, our Women?s Four placed first among five boats at this race.
The win had naturally been a huge surprise.
The wind was gusty, the waters choppy and our boat a little off-balance.
Add a strokeseat who had never rowed strokeseat before (me — because the normal strokeseats were at soccer playoffs or something,) and a height difference among rowers of almost a foot.
But no one had been more surprised than the men on our team.
Last year, our men?s boat landed at the dock just as the emcee was announcing the results of the women?s race. The men heard ?? and first place goes to Oakton Masters.?
For a full ten minutes the men thought they had won.
hoto-20131103-081They carried their boat back up the hill, congratulating each other as they went into the boathouse, racked the oars, then ceremoniously descended to the awards booth to collect their medals.
?Who is here to represent the women?s team?? one of the men recollected being asked.
One of the women on injured reserve, Shafer, collected the medals.
The men had not placed.
So when we landed on the dock Shafer was able to surprise us, placing blue ribbons and heavy medals around our necks like plumeria leis at the Honolulu airport. The only thing that could possibly have made this better was hearing the men sheepishly recount their tale.

This year was a little different.

Instead of having a goal of ?not DFLing (Dead Fucking Last)? we had a reputation to uphold, a title to defend.
And this year instead of 6 boats in our race, we had 13.

And one of those boats was the Aryan Race.

Bo had the foresight to know we needed a secret weapon.

About an hour before the race she gave us each a paper bag.
I opened mine with trepidation.
Within a finely woven hairnet I found the blondest blonde wig I could imagine.

Our secret weapon.
Our secret weapon.

I immediately put it on.
We could beat the Aryan Race if only we had the right hair, of course.

Some women on a neighboring crew team, the Northern Virginia Rowing Club, spotted us from the next boat house one level down. They seemed to know exactly what we were laughing about and came up the stairs to confirm it.
We happily shared the wigs, each of us transferring our own to one of them. They posed for pictures as we had.

We knew better than to actually wear the wigs in the race. That would not be nice.

Despite the laugh, we were all nervous. Our competition with last year’s win was just five boats. This year we faced 12. And this year, for the first time, we faced the Aryan Race. I recognized that part of last year’s win was sheer dumb luck. This year, although my goal was no longer “not to DFL,” I had no real expectations of winning. And this year, being chosen as stroke was not just because someone else was at a kid’s soccer game. Coach Tom had chosen me. My goal was to really do the best job I could … and my hope, to get a medal. ?It would be really nice to beat the Aryan Race. Really nice.

The Race

After weaving through foot traffic to the farthest dock with the boat on our shoulders, we dropped it in at the edge of the dock, handed our shoes to the “shoebabe,” who in this case was Steve. We rowed upstream to the marshalling area above the start slowly to stretch and warm up. It is hard to set the boat (keep it from tipping side to side) when rowing slowly so we rowed just two at a time. The two flat oars resting on the water kept the boat stable.

Another photo by Damian.
Heading out from the dock. (photo by Damian.)

Susan seemed preoccupied with the curves on the course and she advised me emphatically that I would need to tell her when boats approached from behind. Because Susan had been coxing a boat last year that had been struck from behind on a sharp turn, she recognized the need to be certain of the rules and the enforcement of them might very well be in her own hands. This year, she was prepared; she knew her rights — and her strategy. A coxswain must concede to an advancing boat. If we could approach to pass and thereby gain the inside of a turn, we would slow a competitor significantly.
She studied the buoys on the way up.

Our bow number, 844, was much higher than that of others in the marshalling area; we were early. Trying to stay warm in the frigid air, Susan had us row into the sunlight. We watched the other teams and listened to the boats before us get started one by one.
We had been seeded fourth so I was especially nervous about being passed. We weren’t really as good as our win last year implied but now we had to live up to the expectation. The nine boats behind us would undoubtedly be moving up over the course of the 20+ minutes we would spend reaching and pulling toward the finish line by the dam.

Finally we heard the call for 844. Susan raised her hand in the air and the announcer said we were free to row. Susan gave the familiar command “ready to row … and row,” followed immediately with “building by two in two … one … two.”

I knew she wanted to cross the start line at full speed but going from dead in the water to race pace was something that had caused me to slip a disc two years ago. No matter what Susan said, I would not allow that to happen.
As soon as I heard the air horn that signaled our bow had crossed the start line, Susan was talking about passing the boat in front of us. She said we needed full speed to pass on the inside of the first turn.

At the start of any race I feel I can do anything. I heard the whirlpool made by my blade and the one on the other side made by Karin’s. We were going full bore. I had to pay attention to keep my butt on the seat. We kept it up for about ten strokes. Was the other boat doing the same–lurching from a standstill to airborne like a jet?

“We’re going to pass this boat,” Susan answered my thoughts.

Suddenly my adrenaline ran out.
“Come on, you can do this,” Susan urged.

I knew I had to keep up the pace for the three women behind me who needed me to be, above all, consistent.

When Susan said “ease up on starboard, stronger on port” I knew we were in the turn.
She screamed at the coxswain ahead of us, twice, to “move to the left.” I knew we had a real chance then.
The third time she screamed at the other coxswain, I knew she really meant it. Susan, our calm, reserved, works-in-the-provost’s-office-Susan had become a monster. I was scared. I knew I couldn’t get away from her by rowing harder, but I could see that she really wanted this. I was obliged. And I believed her, trusted her judgment better than my own.

As we pulled past the other boat I settled into a pace that I knew I could keep up. I asked Susan in one syllable, “whatsourstrokerate?” She said we were at a 29. Last year we had kept up a 28 the whole way. I had been planning to try to maintain a 27. We were good.
I brought the rate down just slightly when I heard breathing behind me that sounded just a tiny bit too stressed. I focused on dropping my blade in rather than stabbing it in. I tried to feather smoothly. I tried to remember to hang my shoulders and push with my legs instead of pulling first with my arms. The legs had to be finished before my back opened up, my greatest failing.
I rowed. We rowed.

Susan kept asking about boats behind her. I shook my head. We had agreed I would tell her if a boat got within eight boat lengths. The rules dictated that she had to concede if a boat came within three. It looked like the boat we had passed was neck and neck with another boat, a third on its tail, about eight lengths back. I almost dropped a stroke.
I was paying too much attention to the other boats.

Susan was already calling for us to be ready to ease up on port and pull harder on starboard. We were already at the second turn. Her eyes met mine, I checked behind us. I shook my head an inch, “nope.”

Suddenly a huge orange pumpkin appeared at my right shoulder.

I smiled at Susan. “Goodjob,” I told her, she had cut amazingly close to the first buoy. We had the inside track.

Then I sensed a boat to our left, far left, had we cut too close? Were we off course? The boat was stationary. A fisherman.
We were rowing hard, suddenly focused, I realized that we had not yet reached the Prince William boat house, would we make it? When I felt Karin’s oar falter, almost catching a crab, I knew we were all in the same frame of mind.
She apologized.

Our race, two-thirds the way through the course. Photo by Damian.

Susan looked at her meter. “Twenty nine,” she said. I dropped the pace a tiny bit by lengthening the stroke, reaching farther. It would force us to slow the pace without losing speed.

Soon I felt the river widen, we were passing the cove where the Aryan Race had its den. We were half way and no one was close to us.

“We are closing the gap,” Susan was saying. She had said this before, which meant she wanted to pass another boat. I was not that ambitious. I knew if we merely stayed close we would beat it because it had started before us.

“Let’s walk it up,” Susan encouraged. She knew we could, at walking pace, pass the other boat. I focused on sitting up straight, the boat was off to port a tiny bit and it was straining my back.

Somehow, I suddenly knew the boat ahead was white. I could here its blades splashing into the water, I could hear the oarlocks turning. But oddly, I could not hear the coxswain. I would do whatever Susan said. I was no longer in charge of my body, it was on autopilot, reaching, dropping the blade in, pulling, pushing down to pop the oar out with my left hand, rotating to feather with my right. Rotating back to drop again. Drop and pull, release, slide slowly and repeat.

“We are approaching the flagpoles,” she said, suddenly we could feel the crowd. Other coaches would see my sloppy form. I straightened.

Then I heard them, our manly men who had come in last, yelling for us, the low moan of “GO OAKTON.”

I felt hot at that moment. They deserved something too, they really did. They were all such good guys. We should win this for them.

Drop, pull, release. Drop, pull, release.


“Twentyseven, no, twentynine,” Susan answered, “What’s behind us?”

I shook my head with as much energy as I had. It wasn’t enough. Speaking took too much energy, but I did it anyway. “Nothing.”

Then Susan sat up with attention. “Harder on port,” she called, we were on the last turn. It was time to pass the white boat. Then I heard their coxswain. They were going to put up a fight.

I settled down our pace. We would draft them, I imagined, like bicyles. If we pushed too hard at this point, we might catch a crab.

I saw a man in the trees then, right behind our boat with the lens of a commercial photographer. He had caught us.

The last section of the race took about two days to complete, or felt like it. Finally I heard the air horn signaling our bow had crossed the finish and I fell forward just as Susan said “Paddle,” the command to row at zero pressure.

“Sorry,” I said, and picked up a slow-motion rowing.

We were finished.

We wouldn’t know whether we had placed until all the boats were in, of course, but we had rowed a good race. Since no one had passed us, we had a chance at a medal.

As soon as we could talk we were comparing notes, “It felt fast,” someone said. Someone else agreed.

“It felt fast, because it?was fast,” I said.

Susan, alone, was still on the job. She had us row by pairs back upstream to the boat house. We watched the subsequent rowers finishing. Soon too many boats for comfort were coming up behind us. We are about to get run over, I said, remembering I was supposed to warn Susan. I imagined the line to land at the dock. It could get very messy as exhausted rowers dawdled to lift their boats over their heads.

As we approached the dock one of the boats behind us pulled up fast. It was a collegiate team of four men, all in good shape. Really good shape. As it passed I stared at their beautiful forms. The stroke was shirtless and had a fine dark dusting of chest hair. They moved with beauty and grace. As I felt our boat listing to the port I realized I was twisting to watch the men pass, entirely distracted, as had been the three women behind me. We all laughed.

As we approached the dock I heard Coach Tom. He had volunteered as dock master. Yes. He called for us to come in, telling the gorgeous men to go to the other dock. Soon we were in the boathouse and Bob had a handful of plastic bags. “Our women have done it again,” he said. “Congratulations.”

I was not as thrilled as the others to receive our third-place medals, and too tired to open the package. I handed mine to a person nearby, Steve. “I can’t open this.” He obediently pulled apart the wrapper, handed me the contents and we were all posing for pictures again. Almost in a whisper, someone asked who was first and second. Bob obliged. “Prince William was four seconds behind you.”

Despite our variations in size, hair color and discipline (Karin is a marathon runner, I walk the dog) we managed to beat the Aryan race by more than four full seconds in a 22-minute race. Nice.

By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.