A stiff breeze whipped off the rippling, inky water of the Port of West Sacramento, making me shiver in my thin workout shirt and leggings. Eight of us, each with a portion of the gunwale wedged on a shoulder, shuffled down the dock by starlight and swung the boat around.
“Toes to edge,” called the coxswain, who directs the crew through an entire rowing session, starting with taking the unwieldy 60-foot shell out of the boathouse.
We inched closer to the white line edging the slippery, floating dock. I concentrated very, very hard on not falling in.
I was the most novice of the novice rowers carrying the boat on this recent Monday morning. I didn’t tell anyone I didn’t know the difference between port and starboard when I started, but the coxswain quickly figured out I had no idea what was happening and kindly clued me in.
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“Up and overhead,” the coxswain commanded. We hoisted the boat above our heads.
“On my call, roll it down into the water.” The eight of us eased the boat – a shell weighs more than 200 pounds – into the river, taking care not to scrape the riggings – triangular metal frames that jut out to hold the oars – on the dock.
It was 5:20 a.m., pitch dark. We put long sweep oars in the oarlocks and pushed out into the calm waters of the deep Industrial Channel. A hulking container ship in dock loomed to port. (That’s the right side of the boat when you’re sitting in it facing backward, as I learned on my first day.) To starboard, across the wide basin, marshy ground and tall cottonwoods held herons, cranes and honking geese.
That morning, I got into a rowing shell for the second time, trying to figure out the unfamiliar lingo and motion of propelling one of these elegant, knife-thin boats while staying in time with seven teammates. Luckily for me, rowing is a true team sport, giving me the opportunity to learn (and learn fast) by watching the other rowers closely and mimicking their technique for moving the long oars through the water. It was harder than it looked, but on the occasions when I managed a semi-decent stroke, the resistance of the water, and the synchronicity with my teammates, felt deeply satisfying.
I was out there in the dark because, despite my total lack of experience with rowing, I recently had joined the coed novice crew of River City Rowing Club. One that practices twice a week at 5 a.m. (Saturdays, at 6, are sleep-in days.)
“On purpose?” a friend asked when she heard the schedule.
“Actually, it was kind of accidental,” I replied.
I had been intrigued by rowing since college, when I chickened out of joining the intramural crew. I was never a team-sports person growing up: I’m not fast, and I preferred books to chasing balls. But I’m strong, and I love being outside on or in water. That college coach did an excellent job of scaring off the less committed with horror stories of grueling training and crack-of-dawn practices. Nowadays, as a middle-aged mom, I’m firmly a morning person, and “the erg” (what people who row in actual water call rowing machines) long has been my favorite gym machine. Over the years, it has occurred to me that I should finally try rowing for real.
So when I saw fall recruitment signs for River City Rowing Club (RCRC) around town, I went to the website of the homegrown club – a scrappy, grass-roots nonprofit started by dedicated ex-UC Davis rowers in 1983 – and sent an email asking how one might learn more about rowing. (The Sacramento State Aquatic Center at Lake Natoma also offers adult and junior rowing programs, with a strong emphasis on competitive rowing for adults.)
The answer, from novice-team coach George Myring, arrived the same day: Come Saturday before dawn and get in a boat. They would be glad to have me on the team.
I showed up, and within half an hour, was in a boat, trying to figure out how to handle a 12-foot-long sweep oar. For the uninitiated, in sweeping, you row with a single oar; in sculling, you hold two shorter oars.
This welcoming, come-one-come-all approach is a guiding principle of RCRC.
“My main priority is to make sure as many people (as possible) who live in this region know that rowing is available to them,” says Arthur Ericsson, who became the executive director of RCRC in July. “It’s not something you can only do in college, or you don’t have to be 6-foot-4. You don’t have to be in great shape to get started. We want people to know we’re here. Because a very small percentage of the population is going to happen across the Industrial Bridge and during that split second look and see rowing shells.”
Indeed, the club is tucked at the end of a winding dirt road that bumps down to the working industrial port. The channel “goes all the way to Antioch and the Bay,” says Ericsson. “That’s where those big ships come from. There’s basically infinite water to row on.” Or for wildlife to swim in: Rowers recently spotted a frolicking sea lion.
Ericsson, 51, grew up in Southern California and did not start rowing until after college, when he was living in Portland, Ore. He coached with RCRC for several years before leaving 13 years ago to become the rowing coach at Washington State University. RCRC’s board reached out to him to return as executive director, as well as head coach of RCRC’s competitive junior rowing program. In September, an RCRC junior rower, Alex Sobrato, represented the southwest U.S. junior men in the World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Fla., placing third in quad sculling.
Fall is the main season for recruiting youth rowers, from middle school through high school age. During summer, RCRC offers adult “learn to row” classes for newbies, though as my experience shows, interested adults can still sneak onto the team even though the official learn-to-row season is over. Currently, according to Ericsson, RCRC has about 50 junior rowers and counting, and about 130 adult masters members. The summer learn-to-row class series costs $150; for those who join a crew, club membership for the year is $725, plus a $647 coaching fee. (Fees are prorated for those joining later in the year.)
New adult rowers progress through a novice year, then may join more advanced recreational teams. “The vast majority of new members have never rowed before,” Ericsson says. “Some might think because they did kayaking or canoeing that they have rowing experience, but it’s totally different.”
For starters, in a shell or scull, you’re facing the back of the boat. And unless you’re rowing a single scull, you’re part of a team. In rowing, there is a convention and a precise choreography for everything: handling the oars, getting in the boat, moving together to warm up by rowing with arms only, then arms and body, then gradually sliding the seat to get the full range of motion in a stroke.
If you’re not exactly in sync with your teammates, you’re doing it wrong. Not surprisingly, team camaraderie develops fast – as do sore muscles all over after the two-hour practices. The good news is, skills develop fast too, says Ericsson: “For a new person coming in, the growth curve is like off the charts. You start knowing virtually nothing and by the end of a three-week class it’s light years ahead.”
“For all of us who have found rowing, it’s special,” Ericsson says. “It’s considered by many to be the ultimate team sport. You achieve whatever success you have as a group or you fall short together. You need the timing, the balance, the focus that’s necessary to row well.”
For those interested in seeing that impressive synchronicity play out on the water, RCRC hosts its major fall race, the Head of the Port, on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 15 – a chance to come out to West Sacramento to see rowing in action. Head races (such as Boston’s famous Head of the Charles, where a group of RCRC masters men are rowing this year) are 5,000 meters and take place in fall; spring races are 1,000-meter sprints.
Rowing, however, also rewards those with more modest ambitions. Sure, you start in the dark – but glorious sunrises over the port’s calm waters make up for it. “I love when the sun is rising and you’re out on the water,” Ericsson says. “It is one of those things where when you’re leaving the boathouse that morning after practice, you already have a really big sense of accomplishment.”
It’s not just the scenic beauty that keeps rowers coming back to River City Rowing Club, however early the hour. The satisfying slice and pull of an oar in the water, the glassy skim of a flat feathered oar setting the boat (that’s rowing lingo for keeping it level), the perfect glide of the shell when everyone pulls in time: I’m hooked. And I still haven’t fallen in.
For more information, go to rivercityrowing.org.
Head of the Port
What: A rowing regatta in the Port of West Sacramento
When: Beginning at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 15
Where: Parking is located at 3771 Channel Drive, West Sacramento (shuttles to the port run constantly throughout the day).