Monday, August 16, 2010
I took two weeks off from rowing recently. Coming back to the river today for the first time, my technique was a bit rusty, my hands a bit tender, having lost almost all of their hard-earned calluses. Still, everything was familiar, as it would be after fifteen years at this sport. But I did notice the language we rowers use to communicate about our sport. It’s not the kind of stuff you get to say around the house, the office, or the grocery store. “Weigh enough.” “Hold water.” Huh?
A few years ago, I wrote something up to explain why I cherish these strange words, and why it would never occur to me not to use them, if I had the choice. Here’s that piece, dated by the ages of the children, but still true in many ways.
“Let’s have Laces Tied at 3:00. And Ball Kicked at 3:15.” This is my son the soccer player, sixteen years old and a wise guy, mocking the language of his mother’s sport. “‘Hands On!’” he scoffs. “Why can’t you just say ‘Get the boat’?” I try to explain it to him—the need for choreographed movement, the need for economy—but he brings his father into the game, and now there are two of them doing a call and response of phony rowing commands as we get ready for dinner. “Let’s have Table Set. In Two,” my son says, capturing the coxswain’s beat. “And Forks Raised at 7:00,” adds his father. My daughter mercifully, being thirteen, refuses to join in.
Once we sit down, I take up the challenge again, and try to convey to my resistant family the necessity of using such language in rowing. Of course, isn’t it obvious? That a coxswain who needs her crew to act quickly would rather say “Weigh ‘nough” than “Everybody stop now”? Or that the same cox, perhaps just as breathless with excitement as her crew is with effort, will choose to say “Up two in two” instead of the much sillier “In two strokes, we’ll take the rate up by two strokes per minute”? My family grants me this, though they balk at “weigh enough” which, for them, conjures up images of Admiral Nelson. Their objection lies, most of all, with “Hands On”. There is no need for such a phrase, they argue—no need for such economy or specificity when everyone’s standing by the boat rack or talking on the phone about the plan for race day.
And on one level they’re right. As long as the coxswain bellows loud and clear, the crew will understand that they have to get their hands on the boat and prepare to move it out of the rack. But there is more to it than that, and I lose the thread of the dinner conversation as I prepare a more thorough response. Economy makes rowers adopt this abbreviated language, but beauty makes us hold onto it and use it even when we could get away with what my family would call normal speech. Not the beauty of the words themselves, but the grace of the movements that the words call into being. I am not a military-minded person, nor have I ever worked on an assembly line. But on my very first day at a boathouse, I was seduced by the litany of phrases punched out in rhythm, and the rowers’ synchronized response to these commands. As a novice, I couldn’t yet feel the swing of the boat, but I could already participate in the elegance of the sport by reaching for the gunwales in unison with everyone else, in a perfectly choreographed lift.
Maybe I don’t have to tell my rowing partner “We’ll have hands on” at a certain time. Maybe I could just say “Let’s be ready to go.” After all, that’s what my son’s soccer coach says, and the players all know exactly what he means. But I can’t help it. The speech patterns of rowing, with their unique cadence and lilt, are too much a part of the sport for me to let them go. Here in the Northeast, we spend enough time off the water as it is. Why not bring the poetry of rowing into our lives whenever we can, even if we don’t need to?