If you have looked around my website, you may have found I have a certain attraction to boats moved by oars. Claire, our angel that took Anthony back into town two days ago, suggested we take a look at the local surfboat club where her oldest son, Tom, is a first year rower. As Anthony and I are both rowers, we were pretty keen to do so. It wasn’t like we had any pressing plans other than a gin and tonic later that night.
These surfboats are 26 feet long, open and crewed by four plus a cox, who steers the boat using a long wooden scull as a tiller. The boats were traditionally part of the Surf Life Saving clubs (Australia’s life guards). In the past, it was these boats that would crash through the breakers to rescue swimmers. With the invention of outboard motors, these boats would have become obsolete if it were not for the spectacular exercise and completion they foster. No Surf Life Saving club is complete with out a surfboat team.
Around 5:30 in the evening, we strolled to the beach to a crowd of three boats and a mix of twenty girls, boys and coaches. The boats are a sporty version of a very classic shape of rowboat. Each rower is given one symmetrical sweep blade, or Macon blade, that is much longer and far more stout than traditional flat water boats. There was a mix of carbon and wood oars as the completion the previous weekend had provided big enough surf (hence the name) to tumble the boat end-over-end causing some breakage, but fortunately not any arms or legs. Unlike flat water boats, the seats are staggered from side to side, instead of one behind the other, making use of the boat’s large and more stable platform. I am always interested in the customs of different rowing cultures, so similar in the discipline and demand of teamwork. In this case, what stood out was the star in which they laid out their oars while prepping the boat. The Sweep rudder, always made of wood and far more stout than the other oars, is laid down first perpendicular to the surf. Each succeeding oar is laid on top at varying angles making a ten-pointed star on the ground that keeps the handles out of the sand. The stroke used is a sliding seat stroke, however, no sliding seats are used; instead, a long smooth fiberglass seat is placed down. The expectation is that each rower will slide their rear over it. Because the lycra of the swimsuit will not slip as well, the custom is to wet the seat, give yourself a spectacular wedgie, dip your business end in the water, and on the command, jump into the boat together.
I was delighted when they asked Anthony and I to row. I was perhaps a little apprehensive about the wedgie, but it was certainly not the first time I had done near-naked rowing. Rowing a new type of boat is a delightful experience. It is such a simple device, and the combinations are always the same, just different ratios of each. This was a large upper-body stroke, unlike flat water which requires more leg. Again, the oars were the largest I have used, and I was told to look at my blade, a faux pas in flat water, but a requirement in a rowing sport where the water, even on a good day, is constantly changing. Still, form applies, and it is not the strength of the rower, but his applied strength through the water that makes a fast crew. It just felt right being in a boat again. I was somewhat worried of a nagging shoulder injury that had kept me out of the water in the fall, but was satisfied that I could still lay some strong strokes down. The roll of the waves and the hint of salt spray, fighting the breeze out to the ocean, and listening to the crash of the fiberglass and wood down the backs of the waves, all reintroduced me with rowing the ocean once again. With a quick turn, we were going with the waves and wind skating down the waves, small ones, roughly two to three feet, but it was still a rush to feel the boat pick up speed on the way down the face of the wave. In larger surf, a command will be given, and the oarsmen will let the oars flow over the tops of their heads to drag in the water and run to the back of the boat to lighten the bow and let the Cox steer down waves of up to three meters.
Remarkably your butt does not chafe, or mine didn’t in the half hour I got to row. It was a good row, and I hoped I acquitted myself reasonably well. The boats move wel; it would take some time to feel the set in such conditions. I am sad there are no surf boat clubs in Seattle. I was grateful for the row and was on a rush the whole way back to the hostel.