OUTSIDE MAGAZINE, OCTOBER 2011
TUESDAY, AUGUST 30, 2011
By: MICHAEL ROBERTS
On wind-blasted San Francisco Bay, a crew of hardcore rowers dodges freighters and fog banks for kicks. They are mostly women over 40. And they will destroy you.
THIS IS A STORY OF ADVENTURE that ends with a gold medal and glory. Along the way there is the hubris of youth, friendly porpoises, and a moment of true terror.
It begins on a commuter ferry one morning last summer in the middle of San Francisco Bay, where I spotted two rowers gliding past Alcatraz in what looked like collegiate racing shells. My first reaction: Holy crap!The bay is a wicked place for boating, with swirling currents, menacing fog banks, and winds that regularly blow 20 to 30 knots. The water temperature hovers around 55 degrees. There are great white sharks. It’s not a place for small open-cockpit craft—or so I wrongly assumed. A minute of smartphone Googling led me to the site of the Open Water Rowing Center (OWRC) in Sausalito, just north of the city. Apparently, folks there have been charging around in modified shells for 25 years.
Really, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The Bay Area has long been a magnet for adventure-sports pioneers. America’s oldest trail-running race, the Dipsea, has been held on Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais since 1905. Gary Fisher and crew invented mountain biking on the same slopes in the 1970s. Today, San Francisco and its surrounding burbs are loaded with kitesurfers, paragliders, and big-wave surfers. Growing up here, I’d often felt insufficiently gnarly.
Rowing struck me as an easier pathway into the local fraternity of badasses, especially when I discovered that many of the 100-plus OWRC regulars were at least 50 years old and a good number qualified for Social Security. They were at that stage in life—kids grown up, wealth accumulated—where they had the time to row and the resources to buy a boat ($4,000 and up) and pay for storage ($1,500 per year). Plus, most of the really serious members were women.
For about $475, I signed up for two novice lessons and a three-month fall membership, which included unlimited use of the 11 club shells. Once I got the basics down, I could join group workouts. There was also a three-hour rough-water clinic involving a row under the Golden Gate Bridge. In November, I’d be welcome to race in the annual 8.4-nautical-mile regatta around Angel Island. The way I saw it, at just 36 years old and moderately fit, I’d be the club stud by Thanksgiving.
Then I met the two Marys.
LIKE CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING, rowing is 95 percent technique—a series of sequential motions, each critically important. Imagine trying to shoot a basketball using giant chopsticks while running backward. Unlike, say, learning to ride a bicycle, you never just “get it.” Even veterans work on the mechanics constantly.
And so it was that I found myself bobbing nervously among eight other rowers at the start of a group row on a clear September morning. Since my lessons, I’d completed a handful of frustrating solo outings. I was so eager for speed that I was constantly digging my oars too deep or barely skimming the surface. Several times, I’d nearly pitched headlong into the drink.