On the water with the SBRA

Sarah Baker
Jul 23, 2014

Not long ago — actually less than a week ago — I had a very basic understanding of the sport of rowing. 

Long, skinny boat. Oars. How hard could it be?

Last Tuesday, I made my way to the Sandusky Bay Rowing Association's boathouse to find out.

I met up with SBRA vice president Leslie Fantozzi and watched a rowing safety video (with extremely poor acting) and then she got out some of the group's ERGs (indoor rowing machines) to give me a feel for the rowing motion.

I sat down on the middle one between Fantozzi and SBRA president Amy Fox and we started rowing. 

Personally, I'm an extremely visual learner, so when Fox was chanting "back, arms, legs" or maybe it was "arms, legs, back," or "legs, arms, back?" to indicate which part of the body should move with which part of the stroke, I struggled to catch on to the verbal cues. I probably looked like that one cheerleader or dancer in a synchronized performance trying to slyly peek at the others to see where we were. And naturally that just makes you one step behind.

However, I did well enough on land, without oars, boat or water.

After working on the ERGs, Fox took me over to one of the boats in the boathouse and showed me the difference between rowing "on the square" and with a feather. On the square indicates the blade of the oar stays up and down, or square, throughout  the rowing motion, whereas adding a feather rotates the blade. 

While my land lesson was complete with that, we weren't able to take a boat out Tuesday, due to high winds — the group doesn't go out with winds over 13 mph.

So it was decided that I would go out with the group scheduled to go the following evening.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't spend a good chunk of the next day checking the wind speed on my phone's weather channel app, at least partially hoping the second attempt would get canceled as well. Not because the workout scared me. I'm no stranger to a difficult workout. No, my fears were more centered around the idea of failing. Of just being so bad at rowing that the other people in the boat would spend the whole ride grinding their teeth in annoyance because of how awful I was.

It was a beautiful day. A little chilly, but not much wind, and not overly sunny (until we got out on the water, of course, after I decided sunglasses were unnecessary).

So, I went back to the boathouse, just a smidge nervous.

SBRA secretary and Master's coach Erika Kemp was our coach — meaning she sat in the back of the boat, facing forward, whereas the rest of us were lined up 1-8 facing the back.

She lined us up according to seat — I was 3 — and we went to get the boat.

With two on either side in the front and back, we lifted it to our shoulders and carried it out to the water over our heads. We stepped into the water, and my first observation was not about the water temperature — although it was chilly — but about the mud. There was no sand, our feet just immediately got sucked into straight mud. 

And then someone had to mention the possibility of snakes. (Why does it always have to be snakes?)

But thankfully, there were no slithery friends swimming around to greet us.

We walked in, rolled the boat into the water, and thankfully none of the disasters going through my head — falling, dropping the boat, explosions — came to fruition.

In the boat, you do things in pairs, and as No. 4, Fantozzi had the particular misfortune of being paired with me. While she went to grab our oars, I was set to check the oarlocks... oh. Well, um, yep, they're there. So, she had to do that too.

Getting into the boat was another fear I hadn't really given much thought to until it came about. How on earth were we each going to get into this boat from thigh-deep water without it tipping, or me falling in, or my somehow breaking this thing? But, with my eyes wide and a permanent apology all over my face, we got in, two by two. 

The ladies in seats 5-8 rowed us out a ways and then Kemp, with a headset that amplified her voice through the boat, began to run us through exercises by pair. Panic. 

This is where I can without hesitation say I completely and utterly failed. Each pair was to start with just arms, then arms and back, then into a full stroke. 

I could not for the life of me get the hang of just arms. Thankfully, Kemp didn't let me struggle through it long before she suggested we skip straight to the full stroke. This, thankfully, I got the hang of much quicker, especially as Kemp chanted, "Drop, pop. Drop, pop." (Drop the oar into the water, pop it back out — blissfully simple instructions.)

After each pair went through the exercises, we started rowing by sixes — meaning one pair was always resting. The resting pair was switched out every so often by Kemp, always "on 2," or on two strokes. She also put us through some "power 10s" — 10 hard strokes with more leg work. These were tough, but not terrible — although it seemed, despite switching out the rest groups, that my pair was in all of them. Suspicious.

Anyway, it was beautiful out there. Cedar Point was out on our right, the water was sparkling and the houses of the Chaussee on our left were a fine sight. It was just as Fox had described it to me — like a ballet, with all the parts in sync. Well, except for my oar. I did OK for the most part, but every so often my stroke was just completely off and I had to readjust. 

We encountered some slightly choppy water, forcing our "on the square" strokes to feather to avoid the waves. 

This was difficult. There were already about 20,000 things to think about during the stroke without adding the feather.   

Eventually I just switched back to rowing on the square. 

Just as I was wondering how on earth we'd turn this thing around and head back, I noticed that Cedar Point had somehow moved to my left side. I later found out Kemp has controls in the back of the boat to gradually shift our position in the water. 

As we pulled back into the shore, new panic began to set in. Getting out of the boat.

This again we did by pair, and to be completely honest and without much shame, my dismount was extremely ungraceful. I slithered out like one of the thankfully absent snakes.

I can't tell you how it was to pick the boat up and take it back in, because when we were finished the SBRA's Masters group came out and took our places. But what I can tell you is, it was a good workout and a really cool experience. For those looking for a full-body workout with a sense of camaraderie, while also utilizing the natural beauty of Lake Erie, I doubt they'll find a better way to get one.