First row of ’07

After burning my brush pile this morning, roasting a couple wienies over the embers, and looking wistfully at the anemometer not spinning on the roof, I hauled out my single scull — the A$$ Clown — and tuned things up … oiled the wheels of the seat, hit the oarlocks with Boeshield, changed the batteries of my SpeedCoach, and made the momentous decision to celebrate Fool’s Day with a row around the Three Bays. Upstairs to dig out my cold weather rowing gear — spandex, fleece and Gore-tex — and by 2 pm I was clomping down Old Shore Road with the boat balanced on my head, remembering why I hate the rivet on top of baseball hats (because they drive into the soft-spot on top of my scull).

The anemometer boned me, as the harbor was far from placid but instead looking a little choppy. Sculling in rough water is an enerverating affair of chaotic pitching, missed strokes, waves over the side and into your lap … a total suck-fest unless you are really into masochism and think rough-water rowing is what separates the wimps from the gold medalists. Me, I’ll take a millpond any morning, but that’s what I get for impetuously deciding to hit the water at 2 pm on Sunday afternoon in early April — waves and more waves.

I gently lowered the shell into the water, slid the sculls (oars) into the locks, tightened down the gates, and climbed in, I managed to slip off one clam boot (nice look, man in blue spandex with black rubber clam boots) toss it on the beach, get my foot into the stretchers (boatshoes), get the other boot off, toss it too on the beach, and got my other foot tied in. Time to go. Auspicious thoughts (“This is the year I will lose 50 pounds and win the World Master’s and The Head of the Charles), then nervous thoughts (man, it is getting rough out there. Where did this wind come from?) then push away with the shoreside oar and there I am bobbing in the A$$ Clown (an Empacher T18 trainer, named after Michael Bolton, who was so tarred in the movie Office Space, and suggested by my loving wife, who told me one morning that I looked like an A$$ Clown because of my somewhat revealing rowing shorts) thinking, “Didn’t they just pass a law that makes it mandatory for kayakers to wear a personal flotation device between Jan 1 and May 1?”

Yes, there is such a law. But I am a sculler, not a kayaker. Kayakers see where they are going, scullers do not, but glide along most gracefully … backwards without the faintest idea of where they are going. Why is there such a law? One word: hypothermia. As in, if you go sculling in April on Cape Cod when the water temperature is under 40 degrees fahrenheit (4.4 celsius, 277.44 kelvin), and capsize, then you will die in a matter of minutes, or, instantly if you heart goes into a massive cramp.

Stick close to the beach, I tell myself. First rows are always a little sketchy. Left hand over right hand or right hand over left hand? I turned on the SpeedCoach and started a pick drill with my arms only, then arms and back, then arms, back and quarter leg drive, and then arms, back, half leg drive and then WHACK hit a mooring’s winter stick and nearly made like a u-boat. Calming down, I moved a little closer to the beach, and starting rowing with my arms and back only, saving the rolling seat for a moment when I could get out of the wind and into the lee of the shore. It was a southwest breeze — the prevailing Cape Cod wind of spring and summer, and while it was pushing clement breezes and making the day a nice one, it was also pushing one foot waves down the length of Cotuit Bay perpendicularly into the starboard side of my boat, and onto my spandex lap.

Shrinkage was the least of my problems, so I decided to suck it up and row hard to get out of the long harbor fetch and across to the opposite shore of Grand Island and into the lee. Three strokes of total pitchpoling chaos and I catch a crab — a figurative crab, the bane of all rowers, where the blade of the oar enters the water at an acute angle and knifes deeply down, rolling the boat with it. “Here it comes,” I thought. “I wonder if I can get this sweatshirt off before it drags me to the bottom.

I recovered, thought hard about turning around and quitting, but I had less than a kilometer to show for the effort and didn’t want to get on the evil erg one more time. So, onwards I pushed, across the channel to the lee shore, when suddenly all was tranquil and smooth and I began to really row, stretching out the stroke and making the boat actually move — the first time I felt good in a scull since trashing my back in one on the last row of 2006 last November.

Things were pretty uneventful for the next two kilometers. I looked over my shoulder every twenty strokes to make sure I wasn’t going to hit a dock or winter stick, and by the time I entered North Bay I was sweating and double-breathing on the stroke, a sure sign I was getting some workout benefit.

Through the boatyard at Crosby’s– the yachts all shrinkwrapped in white plastic on their stands in the parking lots, the slips open, not a soul in sight — and under the drawbridge where the keeper usually give me a wave when the bridge is manned in the summer months. Then to the halfway point (number 4 on the aerial photo), where I rested for a minute in the lee, drinking some water, before slogging into West Bay (site of the dreaded Oyster Bags and the people who don’t want to look at them) and back into the open fetch and waves. Going bow-first is better than taking waves abeam, so the row was actually pretty productive, a little hard due to the headwind, but not too terrifying.

The roughest part of the row was at the Wianno Cut, where the waves from Nantucket Sound roll in between the stone jetties and make things a little roller-coasterish. A shell is at least 20 feet long, and about 18 inches wide, so any kind of wave rolling under is guaranteed to induce a massive case of the pucker effect.

Then the best part after the worst — Seapuit River, right inside of the barrier island of Dead Neck, the surf on the other side crashing away, the birds twittering, and not a soul in sight. This is why early spring rowing is the best — I literally did not see another person for an hour. No boats. No fishermen. No clammers. No water skiiers — nothing.

The row back across Cotuit Bay wasn’t as hairy as the first crossing for all the cobwebs were out and I was rowing like someone who has rowed for 34 years should row.

I pulled back into the beach and wouldn’t you know it, someone pinched my clam boots. Bastardo. I hope they get Mad Cow Disease. So, off with the socks, and into the water. Lift the boat back onto my head (this time the hat was tucked into my waistline), and off I went, up the hill, waiting for the inevitable sound of a car coming up behind me, stopping, and a voice asking “Is that a rowing boat or something?”

“Why no. This is my new hat. It is made of Carbon Fiber. Do you like it?”

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