Growing club promotes rowing as a sport for all ages and skills.
Downtown Winslow is deserted at dawn, but laughter and chatter filter up from Waterfront Park.
Quartets of women balancing heavy rowing shells on their shoulders walk to the water’s edge. Spring rain or autumn darkness notwithstanding, the masters women’s team of the Bainbridge Island Rowing Club is out on the water at 5 a.m. at least three days a week from February to November.
“For that hour and a half, you think of nothing else – life’s worries are just not there,” rower Linda Desrosiers said. “I can’t think of anything (other) than focusing on the next stroke.”
By most accounts, it’s “row once, and hooked for life.” The physical, mental and technical demands, and just being out on the water with like-minded folks, that’s the draw.
In its fourth season, the nonprofit rowing club offers rowing classes for newcomers, recreational rowing and competitive training for juniors age 13-18 and “masters,” adults 27 and older.
To introduce rowing to the wider community, the club holds several “Learn To Row” sessions through the summer. Classes emphasize safety and technique.
Anne Seeley, a masters rower and instructor, says the challenges of just starting without tipping over, can be overwhelming for beginners, so the focus is on going slowly and trying to have some fun.
“(It’s) a sport that seems to draw people in and keep them wanting to stay with it. You can do it at any age,” Seeley said. “You work it to whatever level your age permits.”
The masters women’s team has about 25 members rowing at least three mornings each week, and racing six to eight times a year.
Some members finish rowing and then race for the 7:05 a.m. boat, changing to work clothes on the ferry.
What gets these women out on the water so early?
“We relied solely on our coxes (the pacesetter in each boat), our coach and our own desire to row as one as we waded into the icy water to launch our boats,” club president Myra Hudson said.
Hudson recalls the group starting out three years ago in old boats with built-in, men-sized shoes – barely able to get all eight oars moving in the same direction.
But last season, Grant Dull, who rowed at the national level in college, came aboard as coach, and this season new shells have women-sized shoes.
“As a group they’ve come a long way,” Dull said. “Many started (rowing) last year and used to be last (in races) by a lot, but now when they go to the (starting) line, are competitive and capable of winning a race.”
Although it’s very physically demanding, rowers say it is something a person can do at any age.
“My dream is to row through my 60s,” Hudson said.
Dull said rowing “exploded” 20 years ago, in particular among masters women. With club members ranging in age from 38 to 58, many never played competitive sports in school, having grown up before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 required equal opportunity for both sexes to participate in school sports.
Desrosiers signed up for a Learn to Row class two summers ago based on a one-day rowing experience 20 years ago, and then joined the club. Meeting the friendly group at 5 a.m., she said, “I found my tribe.”
“Other people run or go to the gym, but there’s nothing else that’s a team (exercise),” Desrosiers said.
For many, the attraction is also the technical and mental challenge – perfecting stroke, timing and balance is a continual work in progress.
“We’re all striving for synchronicity in everything we’re doing – including breathing,” Hudson said.
“The fittest and strongest are not necessarily the best rowers,” Seeley added.
With the command of “Row!” from Dull, team members throw all their energy into pulling the oars; each stroke is a full-body effort as they pull back on the oars and slide their seats forward for the next stroke.
The call of “Half, three-quarters…” from coxswain Dee McComb beats out the rhythm.
Seeley says the mental challenge is “keeping your head in the boat.” Loss of concentration can lead to “catching a crab” – literally getting an oar stuck in the water, which can flip the rower out of the boat.
But when all the strokes come together, that’s the reward.
“When it works right, there’s a magical moment,” Seeley said. “When everything’s in sync you can absolutely feel it.”