How many rowers laughed when photos emerged a couple weeks ago of the bogus student “oarswomen” involved in the Operation Varsity Blues/college admissions scandal?
Critiques of the young ladies’ form aside (wrists aren’t flat, back is opening up too early on the drive), the one thing that would have doomed this would-be student athlete in the eyes of any college coach is the choice of rowing machine, or ergometer as they are known.
This young woman is on the ever-chic piece of rowing furniture known as a WaterRower, the stylish choice of rowing dilettantes everywhere. There is only one rowing machine in ubiquitous use by college programs, national/Olympic teams, and participants in the annual World Indoor Rowing Championship and that machine is the Concept II Ergometer.
Posing a person on a WaterRower in the hope that establishes their credibility as an experienced puller of oars is like a catching a counterfeiter trying to pass Monopoly money off on a bank teller. When a coach wants to know about the potential of a rowing recruit the one number they want is their 5,000 meter time. WaterRowers, while perfectly good rowing machines, don’t use the same monitor or the same mechanism as a Concept II, and are only used in trendy group rowing studios or by Frank Underwood, the ultimate political weasel in House of Cards (who winds up on his ass after the strap attaching the handle to the flywheel mechanism snaps).
There are many rowing machines, but only one Concept II. And there are only so many slots a college rowing coach has to fill with hardworking athletes who actually worked their asses off trying to get a seat on a college boat — giving one to an entitled, unqualified spawn of celebrities with more money than ethics is a crime against that poor rower who actually deserved to be admitted.
Rowing machines have been around for a while, but most people are familiar with the Concept 2 made in Morrisville, Vermont and used in the annual C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints — the putative world indoor rowing championship. In the last decade the ergometer has broken out of the boathouses and basements where they were alternatively ,loathed and loved by their users, largely due to CrossFit’s embrace of the machine for its high intensity interval workouts.
Since first appearing in the late 1970s as the Model A, the Concept 2 has become the standard rowing machine used by rowing teams to train and score rowers. There’s also a big following amongst non- and former-rowers, who used Concept2’s online logbook to log their workouts and compare themselves to other rowers around the world. Every winter — usually smack in the middle of the worst of the ice and slush — indoor rowing races like the Cranberry Crunch held here on Cape Cod give people like me a chance to compete against other people and not go slowly crazy cranking away listening to the same heavy-metal playlist I’ve been listening to since 1995 when I bought my Model C.
All those satellite indoor rowing regattas culminate with the C.R.A.S.H.-B’ Sprints in late February — a couple hundred ergometers on the floor of the Boston University hockey rink — with a digital leaderboard and an announcer and all the trappings of an actual sport. Those sprints are 2,000 meters and can take an Olympic gold medalist as little as five-and-a-half minutes to complete, to somewhere north of eight minutes for less endowed mortals. It’s an ugly experience marked by anguished expressions on red faces followed by involuntary vomiting int a trash can. The sound of the flywheels and the fan blades is Pavlovian for anyone who has logged a lot of time on an erg. My buddy Charlie who has a silver medal, used an erg on the balcony of his apartment in Arizona while he studied for his MBA and got in shape for the ’84 LA Olympics. He says the sound makes his stomach churn. yet he still climbs onto the machine every so often.
There have always been other rowing machines to pick from. A college teammate, John Duke, designed and marketed the Water Rower — which uses a clear plastic tank filled with water instead of the Concept2’s use of air pressure and a damper to simulate the drag of an oar through the water on the internal flywheels. Kevin Spacey rowed a Water Rower in House of Cards. I’ve never tried one.
Then there are the horrors that hotel chains used to buy and stick in their fitness centers. Those things were bad and led to Concept2 offering an “Erg Locator” on its website so addicts could book themselves into hotels with the real McCoy when they traveled on business. Those knockoffs weren’t nearly as bad as the “rowing machines” sold for $29.95 that used two screendoor pistons, and a squeaky seat on wheels to give grandma something to ride while she watched General Hospital.
There have been some software programs that have tried to enhance the monotony of indoor rowing. Because the Concept2 display has an ethernet port, I could plug it into my laptop, set that on a chair next to the machine, and row against virtual conpetitors or a computer-generated paceboat. Those programs would upload workout results to the Concept2 Online Rankings, and had options to show one’s power profile, and other super geeky statistical functions that did nothing to improve on the bleak truth that rowing is about as dynamic an activity as being a human metronome approaching cardiac arrest.
Stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters — all of them are boring because they don’t move. The view never changes, there’s no wind rushing, no splashing, no risk of capsizing or getting taken out by a Cape Cod nailbanger in a Ford F-250 with a bag full of Fireball nips. Peloton is viewed as the digital exercise company that cracked the boredom issue by networking high quality stationary bicycles with online classes. I tried to ride one in LA last spring, but I was too tired to figure it out and missed the full Peloton experience.
Now a Cambridge company, True Rowing, is about to introduce a new indoor rower, the “Crew” with a 22″ flatpanel display and the promise of real time rowing workouts broadcast from the Thames, the Charles, the Schuykill ….. There will be instructors, and from what I can read from the press release and early coverage, an opportunity to row in synch with the rower (s) on screen. That’s a big deal because a lot of the trick in rowing is learning how to perfectly coordinate oneself with seven other people in a round-bottomed, 60-foot long boat that’s a little bit wider than your butt in lumpy water and waves.
The Crew is a good looking machine – a little too “Jetson” for my tastes — and has all the expected pieces such as an oar handle, a place for the feet, and a rolling seat for the butt. Resistance comes from magnets. I’ve towerd on ergs that used a basket of weights (the Gamut circa 1976), water, air, and even magnets to put some resistance behind the flywheel. Magnets were the worst and the method favored by one of the early makers of health club and hotel rowing machines. But no judging until I actually get on a Crew and pull a few strokes.
The obvious difference with the Crew is the monitor. Concept2 uses a display that gives the most basic feedback — split times, elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories, watts , etc, — so the rower can stare at a little square of grey LCD numbers and do constant arithmetic, calculating how many more strokes will be needed before the agony will end.
I wish True Rowing the best, and I signed up for a first look. At $2,000 for the machine and $40 monthly subscription, the machine is priced exactly the same as a Peloton bicycle. That prices the Crew at twice the cost of a Concept 2, signalling that True doesn’t have delusions of eating into Concept2’s base in the rowing and CrossFit markets, but is going after the rich guy with the same pitch the Water Rower used — rowing machines should be beautiful and capable of hanging out in the living room.
Dick Cashin is one of the investors in True Rowing, and that more than anything is the best endorsement for the Crew as he is a rowing legend who rowed in the USA eight in the 76′ Olympics, won the Worlds, a medal in the Pan American Games, and consistently wins his age group in the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I interviewed him for a story I wrote about indoor rowing for Forbes in the early 90s and he’s still active competing on and off the water. If Dick thinks its a machine worth investing in, then it’s a machine worth checking out when it starts shipping next year.
I have been looking for a small boat project to cut my teeth on. The need is for a light, easily car-topped rowing scull that can handle a slight chop and be used for river, creek, and harbor rowing. It has to have a sliding seat and riggers like a true scull and be rugged enough to put up with saltwater and some general neglect. In other words I don’t want a racing shell or anything at the level of a Carl Douglas or a Graeme King single, and I already have a tired composite trainer, an Empacher single I bought in the late 90s with some dot.com cash which is woefully tired and due for a refresh.
I have no idea how to build a shell, but I assume it’s a real test of woodworking and boatbuilding skills. Both Douglas and King are essentially luthiers who command high prices and lots of patience on long waiting lists for their gem-like boats I want something relatively simple to build and more on the lines of a wherry than a racing shell.
So I started researching and came upon two designs worth consideration, both featured by Woodenboat Magazine. The first is the Kingfisher, a design by Graeme King that has been around for a few decades and is closer to the design of a true racing boat. With a V-bottom, the Kingfisher would appear to be a simpler design to build than a classic shaped-hull scull which is made by forming a thin skin of cedar over ribs. Because I am a “clydesdale” sized rower, I need something a little more capacious (sculls are sold in various sizes according to the weight of the person who will be rowing it and I am definitely at the XXXXL end of the scale).
I decided on the Petaluma, an 20-foot open wherry with no deck. This design was discovered in a garage in Petaluma, California and reproduced by a local boat builder, Gregg Sabourin. The original boat may date back to the 1920s — builder unknown — the only marking on the boat being the initials “CRC” which may stand for the “California Rowing Club.” The boat was probably rowed on the Petaluma River in Sonoma County which empties into San Pablo Bay at the northwestern head of San Francisco Bay.
According to Simon Watts, the California woodworker who sells the plans and building instructions, the original boat was planked in red cedar and fastened with copper clench nails.
So I ordered a set of plans and now am looking for a local woodworker who can help me make the molds and has the tools needed to make the necessary cuts. Who knows? I may actually build a boat one of these days.
You can’t buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston’s Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.
David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club’s archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous “coffee table” book printed privately for the membership.
Which is a shame, as I’d stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.
The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.
The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men’s club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.
It was only a matter of time before the exercise-cultists discovered the rowing machine, aka “ergometer”, aka “erg.” I wondered why the concept of group rowing classes haven’t taken off — Chris Ives sort of pioneered the concept in the 90s, Swiss sculler Xeno Mueller has a devoted following out of his studio in Newport Beach, Josh Crosby breathed a new life into the Water Rower (the stylish piece of furniture rowed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) and now, thanks to Crossfit, the wheel-of-pain has come into its own as the flavor of the month for gym rats seeking the next big thing to go along with their smart wristbands and perpetual search for the new and different.
While it would be tempting to point at the Sunday New York Times Style Section article as either the moment in time when ergs came into their own …. or jumped the shark, it is good to see the misunderstood, much maligned erg make its debut in the national press as something other than a weird thing used by masochists.
Here’s where Crossfit gets credit for taking the erg out of the boathouse and into the gym:
“Why the surge in popularity? Thank CrossFit — and nearly everybody selling indoor rowing does. That craze’s high-intensity strength and conditioning workouts sometimes require ergs, and CrossFit offers rowing certification for instructors. Some CrossFit boxes, as the gyms are called, offer temporary homes for group indoor rowing start-ups as they already have the machines and the space.”
My Yale buddy and fellow-rower Mike Ives gets a prominent mention in the piece:
“And on a steamy recent Tuesday at the West Side Y.M.C.A. in Manhattan, Michael Ives, 55, a former Yale rower (toting the gold medal he and his team had recently won at the Henley Masters Regatta in England) had to turn away some 10 hopefuls from one of his evening classes.
“I don’t think it’s a case of misery loves company,” Mr. Ives said. “It feels good, and it sounds good,” he added, referring to the rhythmic, almost meditative, whooshing of all of the ergs moving in unison. His class — pioneered by his younger brother Chris, widely credited with being the first to offer indoor group rowing, in 1995 — is a polished version of what crew teams might do off-season. There is no music, only the sound of Mr. Ives’s preternaturally calm voice offering pacing instructions.”
I never rowed for Harry Parker, but I rowed against him, and I lost. Since I have written on rowing, I thought it appropriate to remember the most successful coach, or at the very least, the best known, in the entire sport.
In his 50 years of coaching the Harvard men’s crew, Harry had 22 undefeated seasons, about 16 unofficial national championships, and most regretfully for me, a Yalie, beat Yale 44 our of the 51 times the two colleges went head to head on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut — that’s the oldest competition in American sports.
I met him several times — once as an applicant (I didn’t get in) — twice as a competitors (I lost both times to his crews) — and once as a writer when I was researching The Book of Rowing. He was a difficult interview, maybe it was me, but Harry personified the word “taciturn” and was renowned for his sphinx-like demeanor among those who rowed for him on the Charles.
I’m not a sports statistician or historian, but I don’t think there is another coach of any sport — amateur, professional, collegiate — with as long and successful career as Harry Parker’s.
When I rowed the Harvard-Yale race in 1978 — still the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life — I spent close to 20 minutes in an oxygen-starved. lactic acid-soaked near-death state staring straight astern at Harry’s craggy visage as he rode along confidently in the coaches launch as his boat pulled away with open water and kicked our ass. I literally lost my shirt.
The indoor rowing season’s first race happened this morning — Cape Cod Rowing’s Cranberry Crunch — and I am glad to have that behind me. Nothing personally compares to the pre-race dread I feel about the 2,000 meter distance. It’s short enough to demand a maximum effort sprint but long enough to punish the rower foolish enough to go out too fast with the dreaded “fly-and-die” strategy.
I finished under 7 minutes — always the big threshold — with a 6:53, coming in second in the master’s division to a beast of a man, Rick Martin, who smoked me by ten seconds with a 6:43. This was not my best shot — I rowed a 6:50 after Thanksgiving — but since excuses must be made I’ll blame the flu that knocked me out during the holidays. I’ve been underwater ever since, fighting to regain my lung capacity.
Now I have a month to get it together for the Crash-B sprints in Boston. I’ll buckle down on the paleo program, keep throwing some interval work into my usual Crossfit regimen, and hopefully come closer to the increasingly dim goal of breaking 6:30 in my last year in the 50-54 heavyweight class.
If by any remote chance you are thinking about competing on the indoor rowing circuit this winter, my two favorite races are now open for registration.
Cape Cod Rowing’s Cranberry Crunch, aka “The Cape Cod Indoor Rowing Championships” takes place Sunday, January 27 at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, MA. Doors open at 10, racing begins at 11:30, distance is 2,000 meters across various age groups and by gender. There is a 500 meter sprint challenge as well. Registration is at Regatta Central for $20.
And the mother of all indoor regattas, the venerable CRASH-B Sprints, aka “The World Indoor Rowing Championships”, is taking place February 19, Sunday, at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. Registration deadline is January 14 and costs $25 for masters, $20 for collegiate and high school rowers. The distance is 2,000 meters across lightweight and heavyweight classes for men and women. If you miss the registration there is a walk-on “bullpen” race where you show up, pull your piece and get counted against your class. This is my last year in the men’s heavyweight 50-54 category and perhaps my eighth year racing at the Sprints.
I’ve written before about the necessity of a good playlist to make it through a winter’s worth of erg rowing. Now that I am training for the CRASH-B sprints (Feb. 17 in Boston, registration now open until Jan 7), I back to messing around with playlists on my android phone.
Row2k — the best source of all rowing news online — has a feature on erg playlists and a poll to vote for your favorite (I voted for Rammstein’s Du Hast as it is prominent on my go-to list and is utterly teutonic sturm und drang). I also respect the Rage Against the Machine on Row2k’s list, but have to puke on Jackson Brown. Now to go compile this sucker off of Amazon and load it up for my next bout with the Wheel of Pain.
If you row and you read Row2k you owe them a contribution. Send them $60 and get an awesome t-shirt. No site matches the depth of their coverage, the completeness of their calendar, the awesomeness of the features, the relevance of their news and the usefulness of their classifieds.