Rowing: Captain of the Crew

I can tell, as I am bending on the dock to tie my shoes, that he is waiting patiently to speak with me before we heave the boat back to its rack in the boathouse. I stand up and listen.

“Good row,” he says. “I know it’s been a lot of years for you, so some things will have to work their way back into your stroke. Pay special attention to that tap-and-away with the hands and arms; getting that together sets the boat from the top of everyone’s stroke. Work on following your port stroke partner’s body, but keeping that next starboard oar in the corner of your eye to time up that catch. Re-laaaaaax the slide; recover on that three count. See you Sunday.”

The coxswain of a typical eight being typically motivating

No oar, but a crucial crew member: The coxswain of a typical eight being typically motivating

I listen without a word, all attention. I take it all in, I take it all seriously. Sage coach to rookie? Not exactly. The speaker looks 17 and is likely no more than 20; in any event he must be less than half my age. I am 52.

It is an unwritten rule in most societies that the young do not address their elders in an authoritative or corrective way, even if they are justified. No one likes a know-it-all, especially if he is right. Young people who try to speak to older people in this way get put in their place faster than an eggshell gets shoved down the Dispos-All. While I try not to be rigid, I too feel as if I have earned a measure of respect from the younger generation. If a youngster corrected my behavior unbidden, I would be taken aback.

I gladly make one exception: the coxswain of our boat at my rowing club.

A coxswain (pronounced KOK-sn; derived from an Old English word that essentially meant hayseed) is simply the steersman of a boat, usually a small one. In competitive rowing, the cox is that and so much more. A good coxswain has more list-able qualities than a Boy Scout: observant, prompt, authoritative, knowledgeable, motivational, indomitable — in short, he has to combine, in one person, the oversight of a job that the rowers need do only one-eighth of.

And I say “in short” because that’s often the case. The cox of our boat is not particularly small, but he is slight. That matters, as the more weight you add to a boat, the harder it is to get it to go fast. So coxswains are often small and light; many times they are women. And just as often, the rowers in their charge are enormous, tall, hulking types. Confidence is key; as a little slip of a person, the coxswain must assert, earn, and maintain her authority and the respect of the physically intimidating crew, or the boat’s chances of winning are gone.

I have returned to rowing after a break of 30 years, so my relearning curve is steep. A parallel fitness curve runs right next to it. The coxswain I described in the beginning of this piece is my favorite because you always know where you stand with him. For one so young, he has mastered the art of criticizing without belittling, praising without puffing, being honest without equivocation, and motivating without shaming. I know armies of adults who can’t handle even one of those skills. When this….well, yes, this kid bellows over a staticky speaker in our boat at 32 strokes per minute (hey, we’re in our 40s and 50s here) that he needs full pressure until the end of the piece, I want to give it to him, with flawless strokes. So do the other seven guys, even though our hearts are beating like crazed jungle drums and trying to squeeze themselves out of our bodies through a nostril. I am certain, because of his conduct, that our cox has not given up on me simply because I am old and my stroke, cartilage, muscles, and oxygen exchange rate have all become ragged.

The young man clearly has the boat at heart in his efforts. So it’s easy for me to do the same. That’s the key element, the circumstance that erases all thought of propriety in the younger-addressing-older situation. The benefits for me in just a short time, fitness and otherwise, have been worth every difficult step.

So…bring it, Junior. Sir.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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