Boats were racing on Lake Washington last Sunday, but the only roar came from human voices. The vessels set off from the Stan Sayres Pits...

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Boats were racing on Lake Washington last Sunday, but the only roar came from human voices. The vessels set off from the Stan Sayres Pits just like the hydros, but these boats sliced quietly through the water, propelled by arms and legs and backs.

Clumps of people planted along the shore, dripping wet in a steady rain, yelled, “Go Baker!” when the boats were close enough to see. I was out there because my son was in one of the boats, something I would not have imagined until it happened. Crew is a sport I associate with prep schools and Ivy League colleges on the East Coast — ascots, blue blood, old money, crew.

But just a short walk from my house, the sport is thriving. People from around the region come to the Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center for sailing or rowing classes, or to participate in competitive rowing.

About 130 13- to 18-year-olds from 30 area high schools participate in junior crew, yet the sport is nearly invisible to most people. I certainly never paid much attention to it until my son joined the Mount Baker Rowing Club last year.

It’s a demanding sport with long, grueling practices, sometimes starting before the sun is up.

Physically demanding

They run, they work out on ergometers, do exercises and row. Crew requires muscles and endurance. It taxes the whole body, and folks in the sport like to say it requires more of an athlete than almost any sport; sometimes they don’t include the almost.

Like most sports, crew has its own culture, including its own language.

“Beast” was the word we kept hearing from our son last year when he was a novice and he’d tell us about that day’s practice. “Those varsity girls are beasts,” he’d say. Or, “See that guy. He’s a real beast” — a beast being someone who demonstrated exceptional power and skill.

One day they raced some adults, and he reported, “Those old ladies were beasts.” When a teenager volunteers to talk about something with his parents, it has to be exciting.

Parents are always saying what good kids crew athletes are.

Crew takes a lot of time, so athletes have to learn to organize the rest of their responsibilities and be efficient. Crew is physically challenging, so they have to take care of their bodies. And, they’re probably too tired to get into much trouble.

The kids bond, and so do the parents who face our own challenges.

Early starts

Races tend to be held at times when the water will be calmest, which often means really early in the morning, which means we often show up before dawn. And the races proceed in unfriendly weather as long as the water isn’t too choppy, so a parent has to get used to being wet and cold.

The boats, or shells, are long and narrow and barely clear the surface. They always get water in them, so the kids get wet, too. Between races there are lots of sopping wet, shivering kids, but don’t try to give them a jacket. They’re tough.

Sounds awful, but they love it, partly because it is so challenging. They get a great sense of accomplishment from it, and not just the physical part. My son loves to talk about the technical aspects of the sport and to correct his parents when we don’t get the language right.

Sunday, he was stroke on his boat, which means he had the seat closest to the stern and set the rhythm for the rest of his crew. He was in an 8+ coxed shell. That’s eight rowers plus a coxswain. The cox doesn’t row, but sits facing the direction of travel, steers the boat and gives commands.

Rich heritage

I was curious about the origins of the sport, so I looked up some stuff that confirms my early impression of it.

The sport got its start with boys from the famous English prep school Eton. They took it with them to Oxford and Cambridge universities, which had their first competition in 1829.

Yale and Harvard staged a regatta in 1852 that is considered the oldest intercollegiate competition in the United States.

But crew has grown a lot since then. Seattle is a crew powerhouse, and the University of Washington has produced lots of top rowers.

Mount Baker’s girls varsity won nationals three years in a row in the ’90s, and one of the boys’ teams was third this year at the National Youth Championships. And there are several clubs and programs around, including ones at Green Lake and Lake Union.

There were no Buffies or Biffs at Mount Baker Sunday, but crew clearly isn’t drawing from as broad a pool as possible. The stereotype I held of it probably keeps other people from considering it, which is too bad. They’re rowing down in the ‘hood, and new blood is always welcome.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com