Scull and Cross Oars, not Skull and Cross Bones


Sisters sculling.
Sisters sculling.

My younger sister has long romanticized boats and water and getting to be one of those lucky ones in the boats and water. I can understand the sentiment. We grew up in New Mexico, where dreams of water are realized with mirages on desert highways and rainfall is measured in fractions, even hundredths, of an inch. Unlike my sister who went to college in Albuquerque, though, I went to college on Lake Superior where dreams of water came true in sea kayaking and canoe classes and a few excursions sprinkled throughout my college years and six years working in the Twin Cities. Now, we both live in northern Colorado where our dreams of water still run as high as the surrounding horizon mountain peaks.

In late spring, my sister asked me if I’d be interested in taking a sculling or rowing class. Not really knowing the difference, I said yes, but tell me more. It turns out there is a local sculling club with classes, events, and boat storage right on Union Reservoir, only minutes from our place. After a little research, we decided to join one of the Longmont Sculling Club‘s learn-to-scull classes in June. When we registered, the last session was already full, but the instructor  offered a shorter lesson for us, promising we would receive just as much instruction as the regular class. The main difference between sculling and rowing is pretty simple. Rowing involves one oar per person with both hands on one oar, while sculling requires two oars per person.

We met Deb, the sculling club’s coach and all-around instructor, at 8 in the morning, immediately following her early morning intermediate class. She showed us our borrowed boat built for two. We talked about the parts of the boat and the anatomy of the oars, using sculling vocabulary. I am hopelessly bad with left and right, much less with starboard and port, but I understand why the terms are useful. We got the oars out (with my little bit of canoeing and kayaking background they’re still paddles in my mind) and they reminded me of backwards and upside down kayak paddles, although the shaft of a sculling oar is much thicker.

We worked on the fundamentals of rowing, isolating the movements so we could understand how they all fit together. Plus, there’s moving back and forth in the seat and keeping the oars from colliding in those movements. What I loved most was that we spent our entire class on the water. While we were out in the boat, Deb would work with either Kelly or me on our strokes while the other would brace the boat by keeping her oars flat and wide, barely in the water. I was surprised most by how “tippy” the boat felt. Canoes are big and sturdy and sit a bit in the water and sea kayaks are designed to be fairly steady and to withstand waves, while a sculling boat sits right on the surface to glide across the water. I almost tipped us twice, but luckily Kelly responded well to balance us again.

We each took turns practicing our techniques until we put them together as a two-person team. It was fun to try and pull it all together, but it also gave me a headache in the best sense. Learning something new takes a different part of the brain than what is used to just keep going through the motions. Learning something new, that also involves survival (the threat of tipping and falling into the water), takes more work, I think, than learning a language, or at least a different kind of work. The older I get, the more I realize this, and while it’s exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. I feel most alive when my brain hurts in the most beautiful way, when I am cracking open my mind to possibility, when I am being challenged. Learning to drive a stick shift at 27, picking up new Spanish words throughout my life, taking a new job, moving across the country, making new friends, but also learning to challenge myself while in the midst of sameness are some of those beautiful times.

Kelly and I had a few strokes of unity and then we turned the boat around. To get back to shore, we alternated between bracing the boat for each other and practicing our strokes. Slowly and surely, but strongly we returned to land. We grabbed our shoes and then struggled to put them back on in the shallow, rocky waves. We hefted the boat to shoulder height, while being careful not to scratch or damage the hull, walking as a team back to the boat shed.

The ritual of sculling ended with cleaning and storing the boat. We wiped off and put away the paddles, while Deb locked up the club’s shed. It was past high noon and it was time to go. I brushed the sand off my pants and felt the midday sun burn on my neck. Kelly looked at me and smiled.

Unity and bracing for the other is a wonderful lesson for sculling. Wonderful lessons for life and sisterhood as well.

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