The Seattle P-I
November 17, 2005
A gravel barge slips past Seattle, sailing on waters silvered by sunset. As lights pinprick Queen Anne, the funeral march begins.
"Walk it out," the cox barks. "Step. Step. Swing to north!" The rowers take slow pallbearer strides, the boat balanced on their shoulders. Getting into the water, like everything else in crew, requires precise full-body movements, perfectly synchronized with eight other people.
"Together, together," Maggie chides. "Down and in!"
The hull splashes beside the weathered boards of the Lake Union Crew dock. Rowers snap the burgundy and white oars. Then they dive into the dusk, trailed by coach Thom Hubert in a wakeless launch.
"We get a lot of commuters who long to be on the lake, rather than zipping across it. Some folks row for the meditative element in a single," he explains over the soft slur of Interstate 5. "They get in the zone through the repetitive motion. This is an 'eight,' so there's eight rowers, each sweeping with one oar and a cox ..." He interrupts himself: "Wait, we have a romantic couple." He spotlights a pair seated on a cobbled beach near Gas Works Park. "Are you guys on a date?" he booms through the megaphone. "Kiss her, kiss her! Yay! Young love!"
Giggling, the rowers sweep past docked trawlers, part of the North Pacific fleet. "Winter is a great time, because the power boats have been put away," Hubert says. "It's so flat out there ... and the light reflects off the water. It's a bit like cross-country skiing in the city."
Indeed, the lake has become a private playground. Each day, at dawn and dusk, needle-nosed shells navigate this secret world, smack in Seattle's center.
The Ship Canal mirrors the shadowed Lombardy poplars as the eight strokes past the Adobe campus. The quarter-moon casts little light. Puget Sound salt saturates the air. Each whisper is magnified: the shush of blades, the burble of wake, the squawk of a startled coot.
An experienced cox and coach chivy the inexperienced team along. A rescue launch putters on twin pontoons. Safe, we slide through Seattle's serene, secret core.
"This sport is a good blend of aesthetics and athletics. A lot of people are attracted because it looks so smooth and Zen-like," Hubert says with a laugh. "They don't understand how much effort that takes."
Sploosh. Thwackkka! A rower loses control of her oar; the blade hits the water, pushes in deep and the handle shoots high. "You caught a crab!" the coach's amplified voice teases. "Are you OK? Did you lose any teeth?"
The blades are designed to skim just under the surface. "Most people's experience of rowing is fishing with their daddy or granddaddy. They think it's a big, upper-body motion," he explains, paddling in the air like Wile E. Coyote windmilling off a cliff. "But it's 85 percent legs."
He stops the boats short of the Ballard Bridge. Dim buoys, seemingly the size and brightness of Bic lighters, are strung across the canal. "The native tribes get a certain number of fishing days each year," he remarks. "The gillnets are kinda hard to see. Our boats have a steering fin, about the size of a surfboard's, which could get ripped off."
The eight and the launch circle back past dry docks hung with ghostly sheets of plastic. A water rat churns for the south bank. "I've seen seals, too," Hubert says. "Sometimes it's like rowing on the Discovery Channel out here: Mount Rainier; sunrise; mist; bald eagles circling, diving down and grabbing fish ..."
Small wonder Emily Cooper signed up for 10 "Learn to Row" classes to gain entry to this wonderland. "I love getting into nature in the city, not having to drive out to hike or snowshoe," says the 44-year-old Fremont sports medicine doctor. "Especially at a time when people are trying not to use cars so much because of gas prices and environmental concerns."
Much to her surprise, Cooper was enchanted by the cooperation required. "Rowing's all about synchronicity among team members," she notes. The sport even taught her a philosophy lesson: "Don't stick the oar in before the momentum dies. ... That can apply to life: Don't get in there and muck it up. Instead, be patient and see what your efforts produce.
"I came to learn a skill and stay fit. I learned the symbolism of a team and a new perspective."
She's not alone. And "she" is the key word: Lake Union Crew's "Learn to Row" students are about 80 percent women, Hubert estimates. Males dominated the sport before Title IX, the 1972 legislation that requires schools to invest equally in men's and women's activities. Now the tide has turned.
Marcy Sutton, a 21-year-old Seattle Weekly photographer, enrolled specifically for the girl-bonding. Her sibling -- Jennifer Triplet, a 27-year-old commercial real estate agent and racing cyclist -- sums it up: "It would be cool to continue. It could be a sisterly sport."
Bartender Kate Cowles sought a challenge away from her established social circle. "Forty is a landmark birthday. I wanted an adventure that was all mine," she says.
Zelda Menard Ramirez, on the other hand, wanted to get back to an earlier experience. "I rowed in high school," the 30-year-old teacher and writer explains. "My husband prefers individual sports like cycling. I wanted to get back to a team."
Bob and Kay Matthews take the prize for casual entry. Living in a condo opposite Lake Union Crew, they would watch the boats slide past at dusk and dawn. Kay, 64, decided to give them a call. The woman who answered the phone, "said people of all ages and abilities were welcome."
Kay and Bob, 68, not only learned to row, but bought their own singles. "On Sunday mornings, the power boaters aren't up yet. You can go clear to the Ballard Bridge and only hear cyclists," Kay enthuses.
On a watery weekend, an hour after dawn, I take the plunge. Clouds shroud the city; it's damp and gray. I've biked six miles in a downpour and a rainy row is not appealing.
Hubert's cheer is undiminished, though. He even brought me a hat and "hoagies," L-shaped polar fleece mittens that slip over my hypothermic hands and the oar handles. He steadies the two-person scull -- "sets" it by trailing his blades -- while I chop away at the sullen surface.
My body's moving in too many dimensions at once. While aligning the boat's tip with the Space Needle, I'm concentrating on the leg push, the "goblet-shaped" pull, the slow glide, layback, stretch, catch and maintaining a shallow oar depth. Now I'm like Wile E. Coyote.
"You picked it up quickly," Hubert says, clearly relieved I didn't tip the scull.
Eights, the usual Lake Union Crew beginner boats, are far more stable. But we both knew my affections lay elsewhere. I want another stolen hour of sisterhood and serenity among the oblivious skyscrapers. I'll be back, but only for the heart of darkness in the city's center.
If you rowSeattle has an array of crew centers. Some courses require novices to decide between sculling (two oars per person) and sweep (one); others teach both skills in tandem.
Green Lake Crew -- Seattle Parks and Recreation offers 10 sessions of "Adult Rowing 1" for $95 from the south end of Green Lake. 5900 W. Green Lake Way N.; 206-684-4074; www.greenlakecrew.org.
Lake Union Crew -- Coach Thom Hubert teaches $95 "Learn to Row" courses year-round: 12 sessions in four weeks. Students can then proceed to an $89-per-month membership, which includes sweep and scull drop-in classes. 11 E. Allison St., off Eastlake; 206-860-4199; www.lakeunioncrew.com.
Lake Washington Rowing Club -- The $30 "Try Rowing Bash" is a three-hour boot camp. Eight-session sweep or scull classes are $120 for non-members. Rower Nelson Miller designed the fortresslike Fremont boathouse. 910 N. Northlake Way; 206-547-1583; lakewashingtonrowing.com.
Mount Baker Rowing Center -- "Level 1 Rowing" is 12 sessions for $95, followed by an $84 "Novice Crew Course" for sweeping and sculling. Low-income scholarships are available. 3800 Lake Washington Blvd. S.; 206-386-1913; www.mtbakercrew.org.
Pocock Rowing -- A $170 basic program teaches amateurs how to row alone in four weeks. The center is on Portage Bay on the southwest side of the University Bridge. 3320 Fuhrman Ave. E.; 206-328-7272; www.pocockrowing.org.
Amanda Castleman is a Seattle-based freelance writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"My body's moving
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