Rowing: Follow The Leader

“Oh god. We’re so going to be on YouTube tonight,” Stroke seat tells me. Huh?  There were gapers on the bridge behind us? Gleefully brandishing cellphones? Sorry, was too busy WHITE KNUCKLING THE SIDE OF THIS BOAT TO HAVE OBSERVED THAT. As coxswain I sit facing the direction of travel, which a moment ago was backwards and sideways in a swift-ass current from hell.

It happened way fast. We were coming through an extremely tight turn under a bridge on the North branch of the Chicago. It would’ve been tricky under calm circumstances, but there had been strong currents all day. Just as we were maneuvering through the worst part, a witchy one suddenly grabbed the ass of our boat and swung us hard port side… straight towards a menacing hulk of construction debris. Oh this isn’t good. Port oars started getting stuck deep and the starboards flailed, causing the boat to rock and falter as the current sucked us deeper off course. This isn’t going to be good for anybody. 

Stern pair kept looking at me expectantly, which is natural, since the cox is supposed to know what to do in these situations. But I’m a novice. I had no fucking clue. “Push your oar against the thing!!!!” was about as helpful as I could be. With no cues from me, each rower began doing something different. If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the crew does not turn into a drunken octopus with 8 independent arms. Ever.

The rowers started looking grim and I started silently cursing myself for being such a useless turd. Then, like magic, a voice began to register. It wasn’t the sound of YouTubers from above laughing. It was my coach’s commands, amplified over the rushing water. “STARBOARD HOLD! STERN FOUR, ROW!” And so on. The crew snapped to attention and executed her calls in perfect unison, until we broke free from the debris, rounded the corner and pulled ourselves into calmer water.

Sitting at ease, we rested for a minute then picked up practice where we left off. Like no big. The crew relaxed but my teeth stayed clenched until we were back to the boathouse. Oh hi, nice safe immobile dock.

You can see the moral of this story coming a few hundred meters away, but it’s a good one. It’s about listening. Working together. When the current is strong, your team gets stronger. Like, literally.