Êtes-vous Prêt?

Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, by Thomas Eakins.
Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, by Thomas Eakins.

All mariners know that when you are in a boat facing the bow, the port side is on your left, starboard on the right.

If however, you are a rower, an oarsperson, you may have spent a considerable amount of time in boats while facing the stern. I haven’t counter-balanced all the miles I spent rowing with a long ocean cruise, or leisure hours water-skiing on the local reservoir. This means whenever someone refers to the port side of a boat, I require an extra micro-thought to remind myself that the port side is not the right side to most people.

I do this as quickly as I can before anyone begins to suspect that left and right are still confusing concepts for me.

I still recall the day before my first race as a novice oarsman, when our coach took us out to practice starts. At the time, the start of a 2000m sprint race involved some mystical combination of stroke lengths designed to get the boat up to speed as quickly as possible while adding confusion to the impending pain.

Something like:

Stroke 1: ¾ length (use ¾ of the sliding seat track you are sitting on)

Stroke 2: ½ length (shorten up that second one)

Stroke 3: ¾ again (but more like 7/8s)

Stroke 4: Panic and lose your count

Stroke 5: Ram your oar handle into the back of the person sitting in front of you.

Strokes 6-12: Try to recover some rhythm from whatever the hell that was you did on the first 5 strokes.

The part of that lesson I thought was really cool though, was finding out that the starting commands for a rowing race were traditionally given in French.

“Êtes-vous prêts?” “Partez!”

Are you ready? Begone! (or “leave, ” or “go away,” if you prefer)

How cool was that?

Sometime between that magical day and now, the race start commands were standardized to the English “Are you ready?” “Row!” The one practicably usable phrase in the five or six French phrases I knew was rendered useless to me.

All that is to say, I’ve returned to the sport of rowing with a somewhat antiquated view of things. And by return, I mean I’ve become the coach of the University of Kansas Crew again. KU Crew is a club sport in its forty-third year on the Kaw. I can’t remember the exact timing, but it’s been something like 30 years since I’ve been out on that river. That’s about ten years longer than most of the current team members have been alive.

The science of sport has progressed along quite a lot without informing me of updates and I will certainly have to address that, but for now, I will be relying on the idea that rowing is a motion approaching a Platonic ideal of how to move oneself across a body of water. You’ve got a twelve-foot lever, and you are using it to pry yourself along the surface as efficiently as possible. Simple right? The boat is just there as a shim.

Also, you have to watch out for sandbars

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