I was a 20-year-old college student about to have knee surgery decades before outpatient arthroscopic procedures. I wasn’t looking forward to a week in the hospital, at least a couple of months gimping around on crutches, and a long zipper on one knee for a lifetime.
Because I couldn’t drop out of college for the surgery (that would mean an immediate draft notice), I was facing a summerlong recuperation. I hunted around until I found a tired plywood rowboat, which I bought for a princely $50. I slapped on some fiberglass and paint to make it reasonably presentable and, more or less, watertight. A neighbor on the bay, faced with my sob story, was conned into letting me put the dinghy on his dock for the season.
And so it came to be on warm mornings that I would hobble down to the dock with a pair of oars, a paperback book, a canvas backrest, a tube of Sea & Ski, and some zinc oxide for my beak. I would row across the bay to a sandy strip that my mother scorned as “The Mating Beach.” I would spend the day trying to get sympathy from the babes.
I thought about those days while sitting at anchor in a crowded harbor a while back. I watched an endless stream of dinghies going to and from shore, and I had a revelation: No one seems to row anymore.
A week after my revalation, I was at a boat show admiring a pretty little fiberglass dinghy, complete with faux lapstrake “planks” and a wineglass transom, but without fittings for oars. When I asked the salesman about the omission, he looked at me blankly and said, “Why?” The transom was braced to handle an outboard. The builder assumed that no one would actually want to row his boat.
Then, while looking at a bunch of tenders at a dinghy dock recently, I realized that most of them had a paddle for an emergency, but not one had a pair of oars.
I find the current reality very sad, because rowing is more than just good exercise or a way to shore. It’s a whole mental attitude. Rowing, for me, is about enjoying the delights of an anchorage on a quiet morning, taking the long way to the dinghy dock so I can admire the sweet lines of a trawler that arrived late, and perhaps even complimenting the owner sitting in the cockpit with his coffee.
Rowing is about taking a moment to lean on the oars and breathe in the sea air and feel the sun’s warmth and savor life. Having an outboard takes away that one-on-oneness with nature. There’s the noise and the vibration, and a gas tank and protecting the prop when you run ashore on a pebbly beach, and having to unbolt the damn thing at day’s end.
Of course, back when I was rowing the Bum Knee Express, outboards were a lot iffier than they are now. Those dinghies that did have an outboard usually had a British Seagull, an engine that was so simple that almost no one could get it to run. Starting a Seagull involved wrapping a cord around the flywheel and giving it a yank, with the loose end certain to whack anyone else in the dinghy. There was never a first-pull start, because you had to fiddle with the carb and the choke and a little throttle lever, and then pray to the gods that you’d mixed the right amount of oil with the gas and that you hadn’t flooded the engine, and, well, you get the idea. It was a black art. Most of us rowed.
Rowing is also a lost art. There’s so much more to rowing than just paddling along. There’s a rhythm and an elegance that is an acquired competence.
First, you slip the oars into the round oarlocks. Or, if you’re good, into U-shaped locks. A real oarsman would never use pinned oars (those pansy oars with pins through them for security). And there’s no love for flimsy aluminum oars, either. The right stuff is made of solid spruce, preferably Eastern white, with thick layers of varnish.
You centered the oar and aligned your blade at right angles to the water without a thought. And finally, as you pulled the oars to the end of each stroke, you snapped your wrists down and feathered the oars so they lifted cleanly from the water without a splash.
When you did this a few million times, it wasn’t just second nature. It became a fluid and graceful talent in which you took pride. Splashing water with your oars was embarrassingly painful not only to the rower, but also to any knowledgeable skipper who was watching.
Unless, of course, you were a kid, because you quickly learned how to send a spray of water from an oar with the accuracy of a water hose: a necessary ability in a water fight.
I feel sorry for all those people buzzing to shore with an outboard for their Starbucks fix. It’s the nautical equivalent of driving on a beautiful day with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on high. They have no idea what they are missing.