THE SKY WAS PALE at 8 on a chilly morning in January as a crowd of giggling women burst out of the Lake Union Crew boathouse, red-faced and energetic after a spirited predawn workout. Inside, rowing coaches, up since long before sunrise and jonesing for a midmorning pick-me-up, brewed coffee in the kitchen. They needed that caffeine kick because they were about to try to school me on rowing a boat without dumping yourself into the drink.
Rowers pilot long, slender skiffs called shells that seem impossibly easy to roll—LUC has 70, and some are as narrow as 10 inches—but as my instructor, James Rawson, led me to the 570-acre watery playground that spills out in front of the LUC boathouse, he assured me that tipping one of those boats takes work, despite how wobbly it feels. Good to know, but it’s cold comfort: While longtime crew members effortlessly hopped in and out of their boats wearing shorts and T-shirts in the 30-degree weather, I shivered in my ski gear and winter cap and took 15 minutes just to get into my little one-woman craft as it rocked and pitched under my shaky feet. But then I was in—and still dry. Next step: Get the boat moving.
My quads burned, my heart thumped, and when I found my rhythm, the ride was smooth and quiet. My body and the oars worked like one machine.
The typical newbie at LUC learns how to row with rhythm inside the boathouse, on one of the 17 state-of-the-art erg machines that simulate water resistance and calculate strokes per minute. With a little luck, it’s possible to sneak in some practice time in an indoor rowing tank (a stationary, 16-seat, 36-foot-long boat in a jet-powered pool typically found in Division I collegiate and Olympic rowing facilities; LUC’s is one of only three on the West Coast), but only when the competitive rowers haven’t snagged it for training.
I, on the other hand, dove straight into the water to practice sculling (rowing with an oar in each hand), and sweeping (rowing with one oar in both hands as a team). With Rawson riding alongside in a launch boat, I shoved off and started with just my upper body, dipping the blades in the water on the catch, pulling them through, and releasing them on the recovery. Every 10 strokes, I stopped to take a breath, straighten my course, and talk technique with Rawson, who taught me to flick my oars with my wrists—called “rowing on the feather”—to keep them from dipping into the water on the way back. And then something happened: I started to get the hang of it. I engaged my legs, abs, back, and shoulders to complete full, strong strokes that moved me through the open water with surprising speed. My quads burned, my heart thumped, and, when I found my rhythm, the ride was smooth and quiet. My body and the oars worked like one machine. And I still hadn’t fallen in.
By the time I showed up for my third outing, I was ready to join a sculling group with three other women for an hour-long session. (I had, by the way, finally figured out that wearing a winter coat and hat guaranteed I’d be sweating within five minutes of stepping into the shell.) We set off from the northeastern corner of Lake Union and slipped under the University Bridge, into Portage Bay, and around the arboretum. By the time we returned to the boathouse, my body slumped with exhaustion, but it was only a beginner’s romp: Some LUC members cruise into Lake Washington, around to Sand Point, and as far as Kenmore—all before breakfast.
And they come back for more at night. On warm spring evenings, you’ll find dozens of LUC members washing away a long workday with a sunset session. When I-5 traffic has dwindled and the sun hangs low over the Space Needle, the rowers gather for their version of an aquatic happy hour, settling into their boats, wrapping their hands tightly around the oars, and setting off onto the lake in perfect unison. (Okay, maybe not perfect unison; when one of them slips up—called “catching a crab”—they laugh and quickly fall back into rhythm.) Some row in boats of two or four, stopping occasionally to admire an eagle or a great blue heron that dips over the water in flight. Some row alone, savoring the silence and solitude.
Above everything else, though, beginners and experts learn to take the good strokes with the bad, says Rawson, who’s also the Northwest regional coordinator for USRowing. “It’s a very forgiving sport,” he says. “If you have a bad stroke, you have 8 million more to get it right.” And whether or not you eventually do get it right, it’s a hard habit to break. Rawson tried rowing in college “on a whim,” and he was hooked from the first stroke. “The really cool thing about rowing,” he beams, “is that it’s always there. It’s something I can do until I’m 90.”