The freakishly mild winter continues — thunderstorms in January sent the dogs fleeing for the slot under my home office desk yesterday and made both of them seriously incontinent on the oriental rugs — and this morning, when padding down the quahog shell driveway looking for the Times, I looked up at the anemometer and it wasn’t spinning, a sure indication there was flat water down on the harbor.
I went back indoors, saw the thermometer proclaim a balmy 51 degrees at 7 am, and announced to Daphne: “I think I’m going for a row.”
Ordinarily the poor woman would express some fear that I was off to kill myself (a reasonable fear given her pleas that I not go for a bike ride the morning I went head-on into a Ford Focus), but she thought a row was a grand idea, and encouraged me to risk hypothermia and cardiac arrest.
Winter rowing is sufficiently weird that I can’t begin to talk with any expertise about it. When I rowed competitively in college the winter was the time to hunker down inside a gym and lift weights, row on ergometers, run up and down staircases and suffer on the indoor rowing tanks. Most years it is so cold that Cotuit Bay freezes over hard enough to walk across, and rowing isn’t conceivable. This year is a different story altogether.
I usually aim for St. Pat’s day for the first water row of the year, but the opportunity presented itself two months early, so off into mye closet I went looking for microfiber tights, longsleeved shirts, and the other winter workout gear I have for crosscountry skiing, winter cycling, and sculling. As the Scandavians have said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
My boat was still on its outdoor rack, left there because I’m lazy and figured I couldn’t take advantage of a opportunity like this morning’s should one present itself. I picked the broken twigs and leaves off the hull, pulled the wine cork out of the drain hole, and swung the 40-pound, 25-foot long plastic spear onto my head, forgetting the first rule of sculling — don’t carry a boat on your head while wearing a baseball cap — the weight of the boat on the little rivet on the top of the hat presses into the soft spot, or fontanelle, on one’s skull, causing immediate agony and the hassle of having to put the boat back into the rack, take off the hat, fold it in half, jam it into the back of one’s rowing shorts.
I carried the boat (named the Arschclown ((there is an umlaut over the “o”)) in deference to its German manufacturer, Empacher, my fondness for Office Space and empathy with all the “talentless assclowns” of the world, especially those who think they can relive their athletic youth on skinny little boats that tip over if you look at them funny) on my head, down the street and down Old Shore Road to the boat ramp at the bottom of the hill. The morning dog walkers, Dunkin Donuts drinkers, and hungover guys in their pickup trucks shook their heads at the sight of an over-weight guy in tights and clogs slapping down the road with a boat on his head, and pulled over to watch me launch in -45 degree (Kelvin) water in bare feet.
There was ice on the water this time last week, so who knows how cold it really is, but as I got the oars into their oarlocks and climbed onto the rolling seat I had to wonder at the intelligence of a row on a body of water with no other boats out there to save my butt should I flip over — which has been known to happen about two to three times a summer when I space out and run into a channel marker or mooring buoy because sculling is a sport when one goes backwards and has to look over one’s shoulder with paranoid regularity.
Hypothermia is not funny. Society’s fascination with the stupid ritual of the New Year’s swim is some sort of tribal shock ritual meant to remind its participants to stay out of the water from November to May. I used to go for a New Year’s swim back in the day, staggering out of Gerry Henderson’s house at midnight to fling myself en masse with other drunken Cotusions into Nantucket Sound and then instantly regret such stupidity when my head shrank, my reproductive organs vanished, andI had to run back to the only shower on amputated jagged leg stumps on a dirt road rutted with frozen mud puddles.
Tipping over while sculling in January is not an option.
I have a wonderful route I usually follow from March to November that circumnavigates the wealthy isle of Oyster Harbor — home to the superduper rich — down scenic saltwater rivers like the Narrows and Seapuit, past the historic boatyards of Osterville where the famous Cape Cod catboat was invented, a nice 9,000 meter row that I would hold up as one of the best circuits in all of New England.
Not today. I wimped out and decided to row no more than 50 feet from the beach, in the lee of the north wind, so if I did flip I could get of of the water as soon as possible rather than spend some terrifying time in the middle of the bay trying to reboard the boat. Getting back into a flipped shell is an ordeal in warm water. The capsize itself is a complete shock — a terrible moment of no return when one side of the boat plunges down because of a “crab” when the oar on that side enters the water at an angle and slices downward — and a very wet corkscrewing experience follows, usually when one is in full anerobic hell with a heart rate over 150 beats per minute, breathing in and out twice every stroke.
Having that occur in January, with a 49-year old heart, is up there on the actuarial tables for stupid life-ending events, and since I like life, I stayed close to the beach and did eight 750 meter pieces, stopping at the end of each to catch by breath and turn around wheelchair style, pushing with one oar and pulling with the other. I have a speedometer thingy called a stroke coach that magically receives a signal from a little underwater propellor and tells me my distance, speed, strokes per minute. I kept an eye on that until a half-hour had elapsed and called it a day at 6,000 meters. Wimpy, but sufficient for the first row of 2008.
By the 20 minute mark the nervousness fell away, the stroke started to swing, and I realized why rowing is such a nice familiar part of my life. I am a very lucky guy to be able to walk 500 feet, launch a nice German rowing shell, and take my exercise, sitting down, on a spectacularly balmy morning in the middle of the New England winter. Last year’s first row was in April.
Now off to the Moonakis Cafe in Waquoit for a stack of blueberry pancakes and a side of homemade corned beef hash, I earned it.