Karl Zinsmeister on Rowing

In the neon world of sport, rowing is a softly glowing candle. It offers little glamor for participants, and hardly any rewards at all to spectators. But from my first moments on the water I knew I had stumbled onto something pure and arresting.

To begin, the bare mechanics are quite interesting. My Yale crews averaged around 6’4″ and more than 200 pounds, and eight such people plus one coxswain (who, with a body weighing about half as much, steers and orchestrates) must be stuffed into an exceedingly frail craft whose total heft is barely more than a single one of the men riding in it.

When I began racing, the lightness that made fine racing shells so coveted was achieved through meticulous hand building in thin-shaved woods and stretched fabric. Later, the best boats were made from costly carbon fibres and other products of aeronautic engineering. Always, designers struggled to reconcile the demands for lightness and speed with the requirement that the boats not be wrenched apart by the throbbing exertions of their occupants. Keel-less, bewinged by whistling 12-foot oars, aimed by a rudder the size of a credit card, powered by three-quarters of a ton of human engine oscillating rapidly on sliding seats, a racing shell is a taut 60-foot missile, ever seemingly on the verge of explosion.

Then there are the physical demands of rowing. A highly conditioned human body is capable of tremendous bursts of adrenalized exertion for up to about three minutes (at that point, its stored oxygen reserves are exhausted). Or it can function in a reduced “marathon” state for longer periods of time. Rowing’s strenuousness derives from the fact that it combines these two modes.

Each race starts out as a fierce anaerobic burst (with much more oxygen being consumed by your muscles and brain than your lungs can possibly replace). Then, to avoid passing out, each rower must shift down to an aerobic mode (where effort expended matches oxygen taken in). Exactly when this happens is dictated largely by your genetically determined metabolic rates; aerobic “freaks” with large, efficient lungs and hearts have an advantage. Finally, the race ends with a mad kick back into the anaerobic mode. The goal is to cross the finish line just before the resulting oxygen deficit shuts you down.

Cyclists, speed skaters, Nordic ski racers, and other athletes who straddle the territory between endurance and “sprint” sports face harsh individual demands similar to those of rowing. But unlike most other conditioning-intensive sports, rowing is a team undertaking. Indeed, eight-oared rowing may be the ultimate team sport. While each oarsman must face the personal pain of the race absolutely alone, he must do so in perfect synchronization with a clutch of other men. One small failure by any of the individuals involved will doom the entire effort. (A shell manned by seven world champions and one poor performer may not beat a good high-school crew.)

The final attraction of rowing is the happy fact that these mighty exertions, in these brittle boats, are made on the water, in the pastoral silence of very early mornings and late afternoons. I have skimmed lightly over canals, rivers, lakes, and saltwater bays, as well as the mammoth man-made pools of international race courses. I have rowed through the hearts of cities, I have rowed with black porpoises leaping around me, I have rowed through ice floes, and past ancient religious temples at sunset. I have even sunk a few times (not a great feeling considering you are tied into the boat). And consistently there was a loveliness to being afloat under graceful human propulsion.

With its complicated mix of sensory pleasure, raw power, personal tests, and collective interdependence, rowing soon had me in its grip. My freshman crew was the first in recent memory to beat Harvard (rowing’s superpower). That earned us a 3,000-mile trip to the sport’s mecca—the Henley Regatta in England—and eventually the finals of our event. My sophomore year I ended up in the heavyweight varsity boat, and that July I again journeyed to Henley, to race for the event’s highest prize.

But somewhere in the course of that sophomore year, a shift in the relative positions of my academic and athletic lives took place. I was uncomfortable in the social environment at Yale, and had lacked direction in my academic work. Originally, it was rowing that saved me. With its heavy year-round physical and mental demands the sport kept me challenged, and I put most of my energy into training. In the beginning, rowing was pure inspiration for me. Our dawn practices were an adventure, success an unexpected gift. Every day on the water brought new possibilities.

But once I made the transformation from striving novitiate to established member of a crew engaged in the sometimes grim job of winning a national championship (we did), rowing lost a measure of its joy. I began to feel ground down, caught in a giant machine. Almost simultaneously, I began to pull together the threads of my academic career. Soon I had laid out a large research project that would bring me to Dublin’s Trinity College for a year, and then back to Ireland’s National Library the following summer to write a thesis I could be proud of. One fever waxed as another waned, and I set off permanently down the path toward a life of the mind.

As I stepped into Trinity’s historic courtyard to attend my first class in Dublin the following fall, rowing was the last thing on my mind. But as I was tripping along the waxy cobblestones I suddenly had company: a fireplug of a man from the Trinity rowing team. He had recognized me from my races at Henley, and I was being recruited, hard. As I listened to his sweet Irish patter I thought to myself, “Man, this guy could sell vacation homes in Lebanon.” By the time I had crossed the wide courtyard I found myself telling him, like a lost adolescent encountering his first Hare Krishna in La Guardia Airport, that, okay, maybe I would row a little bit with the boat club.

My promise to myself to take a break from the sport was broken. But surely I could idle along just for the pleasure of it. I wouldn’t have to engage as I had the two previous years.

My recollections of early training in Ireland are a blur: Surging through spongy mists which seemed to suck at my exposed skin. The coal-caked banks of mouldering Newry Canal. Incredible safari-portages to transport our fragile craft around concrete weirs (vestiges of Victorian organization and restraint that crisscross Ireland’s waterways). And lots of weightlifting and group runs.

Notwithstanding its epic stature in the works of James Joyce, the Liffey is a narrow, tortured snake of a river. In places it is little more than a stream, thick with marshy grasses and dangerously protective mother swans. Racing 60-foot-long shells on such a watercourse was often a hair-raising adventure.

My Irish teammates, however, were imperturbable. Session after session was rescued from anarchy at the last minute by arrival of the missing body, or missing tool, or missing boat. I could never quite tell who was in charge, but the hard sweaty work of training did get done. The contrast with the Yale crew—where we had professional riggers as well as coaches, large motor launches, indoor circulating rowing tanks, dozens of eight-oared boats, a training trip to Florida when the ice froze, buses, food service, straight rivers—was, shall we say, sharp. Amused and impressed by the ad hoc energy of my Irish comrades, I was increasingly drawn into our joint enterprise.

Racing season began memorably when we represented Ireland at the spectacular Nile Regatta held annually in Egypt. Two days after Christmas we had a fine row in Cairo, dodging floating donkey carcasses and other debris and finishing second, bow to stern behind a massive American crew from the University of Washington. The Huskies are infamous even in the U.S. for their virtually paramilitary training—complete with group living quarters, jarhead haircuts, and single-minded lifestyles. I couldn’t fault their prudence when they broke out peanut butter and other imported “safe” food at regatta banquets, but I sure did get a few snickers out of seeing these athlete-warriors from the land of rugged individualism quizzing their guardians: “Hey coach, can I eat this?”

Motley and frayed as we Paddies were, we gave them a stiff race (and stiffed the rest of the crews, including England’s Leander Club, entirely). I was thrilled with our performance, fuelled though it was by unspeakable edibles purchased in the stalls of the Egyptian markets.

I began to realize how far our crew might go in the months to come. But breakthrough was not achieved easily. We sifted through myriad lineups, several coaches, a gaggle of controversies over strategies, boat rigging, personal sleeping patterns, and religious philosophies. It still was not clear to me who was in charge, but it began to matter less and less. There was too much raw talent and determination in our little conspiracy for it to stagnate.

Meanwhile, I was rediscovering how much fun rowing could be, and how strong a cement shared purpose was. I had developed a deep respect and fondness for my adopted crew mates. Where American college rowing teams are official, professionally administered functions of the university, Irish boat clubs are just that—clubs, run by the members. They have long and sentimental histories, informed by heaps of crumpled mementoes and generations of club minutes, with their own annual dinners and drinking sessions, even an original repertoire of startling carousing songs.

I was an outsider to much of the mythology and ritual that supported the boat club’s social structure, but I revelled in its purposeful close-knittedness. There were many training expeditions full of taletelling and potent humour. I spent a cosy Easter idling in the country house of one teammate, hiking Ireland’s Bens amidst the birth-sticky lambs. Boat mates escorted me on loving pilgrimages to Bewley’s and the Long Room. I feasted on home-raised mutton with one comrade, and wiped my feet on its fleece on the way out his door.

When it came to our racing, we were deadly serious. Our season really began in earnest at Trinity Regatta. In what I recall as our first taste of end-of-season racing form, we rowed a sharp, rising performance, losing to the Neptune Rowing Club by three-quarters of a length but still leaving the water with some feeling of accomplishment.

Looking back, it’s clear that one of the important bits of good fortune which made 1980 the remarkable time it was for us was located on the opposite bank of the Liffey. Archrival Neptune had a superb crew that year, and—happily—they were good right from the beginning of the season. The sound lashings they administered us early were, I believe, helpful in pulling ourselves up to an international competitive standard. Week after week we measured ourselves against our green-clad nemeses. Time after time we came up wanting, but by less on each occasion. A powerful momentum was building.

The four weeks following Trinity Regatta were among the most exciting of my athletic life. I have been in crews that were undefeated from February to July, but I tell you that is nothing as compared to being in a boat that starts out unsuccessfully then suddenly gels. One of our volunteer coaches that year once compared getting a boat to “swing,” as oarsmen say, to eight men trying to throw a single javelin. He might have said eight men trying to throw a single javelin while effectively blindfolded, under the direction of a ninth, non-exerting person—the coxswain.

But rowing is more even than finesse. It is controlled violence. My own attempt to analogize what’s necessary for good rowing would be something like this: at medium power and speed, rowing is pure rhythm and fluidity. Eight hearts beating in time. But at full tilt it is as if some quirky aeronautical engineer had invented a human-powered helicopter which, given sufficiently frantic efforts by an octet of bulky men, was occasionally capable of short bursts of wild, careering, high-speed flight—just along the treetops. But subject to instantaneous crash given the slightest let-up.

Flight is not easily achieved, but it provides unspeakable exhilaration on those rare occasions when it is. June 7, 1980, was one such day. At Blessington Lake we synchronized all those ineffable inputs and achieved a magnificent, singing, 1 1/4 length victory over our worthy Neptune foes.

Over the next month, we would row many such pieces, and win many races. Dreamlike, our season was resolving into everything we could have hoped for. We were very, very fast; and we were going to Henley.

When we arrived in England, I learned something interesting. My old Yale teammates had had another fine season, and in pursuit of the world’s most famous regatta medal they too had journeyed to Henley. A true surprise meeting from across the ocean. Then my Trinity boatmates and I settled into encompassing quarters with the local dentist and his family in quaint Henley town. Our real business was at last at hand.

Over the next few days, I began to float, dazed by concentration. The world seemed increasingly empty, even as it filled to overflowing with close-pressing flesh. Relatives vanished. Coaches disappeared. The universe shrank until it contained only myself and eight other men.

At this point we were racing, like all championship crews, on capital we had banked long before. Our long year of difficult training capped by the brilliant June workouts stood us well, and we won our first three Henley races easily, going faster each time. We had made it to Sunday, Henley’s final day. And our opponent was…Yale. It was obvious to everyone at the regatta that the winner of our semifinal would take home the prize that evening.

It was, I believe, not until then that I finally took stock of my position. Only once before, on a lonely run many months earlier, had I seriously considered the possibility that now faced me. When I fled Yale the previous summer I could never have guessed that I would be facing old teammates, coaches, memories both sour and dear, at the end of the next season—from a seat in a superb crew occupying an opposing lane. It was a bittersweet, almost shocking little trick of history that had brought together these two poles of my life.

In the course of my splendid year at Trinity I’d forgotten the complications and frustrations I had left behind in New Haven, and I’d nearly forgotten it was to Yale that I would return in two months. I longed to show my old teammates what a proud, spirited world I had moved into. I felt a ferocious loyalty to my adopted comrades, and ached to translate my private admiration into public acclaim. I was by then a Trinity oarsman, heart and soul.

Yale’s 1980 Henley entry had crushed all of its American competition that year. Pale and comparatively undersized, we must have seemed improbable behemoth-slayers. But I knew—in the most intimate way possible, namely months of communal life in both camps—that there was little categorical difference in talent between our crews. And surprise would be on our side. Never before, never again, would I feel so flushed before a race. My Irish teammates were every bit as hungry. They had been eliminated in previous years’ competition by Yale crews.

Surprise was indeed ours. At 12:25 on July 6, 1980, we rocketed off our starting platform. In what I still remember as one of the most sublime half minutes of my life, we took nearly a length lead on the start. It was the only time they were headed that entire year.

We were careering. We were way above the treetops. Our coxswain was screaming for us to pass their bowsprit, but our relative positions seemed to freeze. Like two great stags with intermeshed antlers, we were locked. We stayed that way for a mile—five agonizing minutes.

As we approached the public enclosure, I am told there was an avalanche of primal noise from the huge crowd. Yale began to creep closer. I felt as if my temples were flexing, fibrillating to the alternate pressures of blood from the inside and sound without. They were drawing within a few seats. Our stroke rating was in the clouds. Some later claimed there was a choppy stroke in the mix. I have no recollection.

There is a mountain of hyperbolic melodrama attached to sport today. But I tell you: when that race was finished, I was paralyzed. I didn’t know who won, I wouldn’t for several minutes. My first concern at that moment was to regain control of my body, to clear my head, to force down the hysteria I felt choking me. I was afraid to swallow for fear I’d gag. Every millilitre of oxygen was precious.

As I slumped—gasping, drooling, knees locked—I listened to our stroke, Gerry Macken, suffering in front of me. We drifted. It was very quiet. It came to me: that beautiful, floodlit, musical race. We had lost!

Later, a teammate seated near the front of the shell would tell me that “if the lead didn’t change hands on the last stroke, then it was no earlier than one of the last three strokes.” Our times, by human standards, were identical.

After we put the boat away for the last time, I realized how little I had understood what was happening to me during the course of that year. I spent the last 40 minutes of my season of “disengagement” from rowing sobbing violently into a towel.

Karl Zinsmeister is editor in chief of The American Enterprise and a former national champion in college rowing in both the U.S. and Ireland.