ON DAY 6 of my intro to rowing class, I broke a sweat.
I had resisted an open-water rowing class. My list of reasons not to do it was long — the 10-minute float test, the eight-class session, getting up so dang early twice a week.
I sucked it up in the name of fitness. It was the best decision.
I joined the Learn to Row class at the Lake Washington Rowing Club on Lake Union, which starts beginners on sculling, or rowing solo with two oars. The club philosophy is it’s best to learn to row alone first so you understand the dynamics of the boat.
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The beginners use larger boats known as wherries. They are more stable, our coach, Anna, said. Once I got in, that was a little hard to believe.
After we learned boat setup and how to get in and out, Anna had us get in and kept us tethered to the dock with ropes. I had been appropriately terrified by the safety video and was happy to stay leashed.
Also, I realized nothing intuitive was going to help me. I thought I was pretty comfortable on the water, until I sat backward with long oars attached to the boat. Hmm.
We worked first on technique, using our fingers to roll our blades from feathered (flat) to the catch (vertical) and tilting side to side, playing with balance.
By the third class, Anna untethered us to row into the Fremont Cut. She said we might get stuck in the rocks; it would be a good learning experience. Indeed.
I’d say maneuvering is one of the more challenging rowing skills, but all rowing skills baffled me. In the early classes, “catching” the oar in the water and pulling to move the boat backward was hard to do without dipping my oar too deep or too shallow. Going backward and ensuring my boat didn’t crash into fellow classmates wasn’t much better.
Once I figured out the stroke, I practiced using my back rather than my arms to pull. The boat gives constant feedback, tilting every which way every time my oars were slightly off. I understood why the safety video had warnings about getting thrown from the boat.
At every class, Anna gave us an exercise to hone our stroke. We didn’t even discuss using our legs until the fifth class. It took that long for me to keep my oars in roughly the right position and to get any rhythm on the water.
I was excited to include my legs. They add a lot more power to each stroke, which is great unless your technique collapses. I had at least one rough moment in the rocks; Anna zoomed over in her motorboat to coach me out.
We also worked on steering using leg and oar pressure. Steering a boat is like driving a car, with constant adjustments. You get faster the more balanced you stay in the boat and the better your timing is on the “catch,” when the oar blade enters the water.
By the last week, I loved taking off down the Fremont Cut. It is so quiet on the water, and I finally got the meditative aspect as I focused on my stroke technique and the burning intensity in my legs. My entire body, especially my legs, core and upper back, worked hard.
For Learn to Row 2, Anna told us, we go down to faster, narrower boats. I’m nervous — and exhilarated to get going.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.