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Jeffrey M. Bowen: Rowing has brought purpose, passion to my life

Rowing your boat gently down the stream, merrily finding that life is but a dream, suggests that oars offer lessons about life as much as propulsion. I have learned that pulling your weight by rowing is truly one of the best ways to go. Motor craft make a racket, and you cannot always count on sails to move your boat.

As a kid I used to spend summer vacation time on Chebeague Island in Maine, where fishing boats had to be moored offshore so they wouldn’t go aground on low tide. Getting out to the anchored boat required rowing there in a dinghy. My Dad knew it would benefit him to teach me to master the oars at an early age.

I loved it and learned to pull forward, push backward and even pull one oar and push the other to turn around. Later I earned a Boy Scout merit badge by learning how to paddle a canoe every which way, and how to scull from the stern when you had only one oar. Out on the water, urgent paddling and sculling became necessary when Dad’s outboard motor died, which it frequently did.

On Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Harvard and Yale reportedly rowed against each other in 1853. This was one of the earliest American intercollegiate crew races of its kind. Nearby, more than a century later, I, too, became fascinated by an amazing craft designed for competition and speed.

My brother-in-law purchased a used single shell from Harvard and launched it at the family’s Lake Winnesquam cottage. Constructed of beautifully varnished laminated wood, the craft acted like a slippery knitting needle in the water. Your seat moved on a track as you stroked with your arms and pushed with your legs. I had to learn certain things fast.

First, to avoid tipping over, hold the oars locked together and submerged while you inch into the tipsy craft; second, pull the oars evenly or you will catch a crab – that is, catch one oar in the water and get punched in the stomach with its handle; third, feather the oars, which means rotate the oars flat when you pull them out of the water to reduce wind resistance. Finally, it helps to have calm water and about half a mile to turn around.

The rhythm of quietly shooting across the water while stretching every muscle created an indelible memory. When a team of eight rowers achieves the coordination and power to move the craft in flawless synchrony, it becomes a heavenly experience.

My son experienced this sort of passion in the 1990s on crew at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. He also discovered the agony of training. Hours were spent on a rowing machine called an ergometer. I was reminded of this recently when The Buffalo News described an “ergatta” in which athletes competed on ergometers at the West Side Rowing Club while their rates were measured by computer.

Meanwhile, I keep in shape on a more traditional rowing machine. To date I have pulled more than 50,000 strokes. Although I have never moved forward an inch, I daydream about rowing on Lake Winnesquam.

Often the dream is not about racing shells, but about the night I rowed my girlfriend out on the lake under a canopy of stars, and told her why it was the perfect time to kiss me. She agreed. Many years later, we are still rowing gently downstream.