Pacific Northwest | August 3, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 3, 2003seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER

Cutting Into Morning: Calm comes in the catch, drive and feather
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Coach Susan Parkman shouts instructions and encouragement to members of the Classic Ancient Mariners rowing club between drills.

 
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Helen Mandley, 56, came to rowing relatively late but has quickly become a respected sculler. She's bringing the same discipline and outlook to her fight with breast cancer.
It's a great art, is rowing.
It's the finest art there is.
It's a symphony of motion
And when you're rowing well,
Why, it's nearing perfection.

— George Pocock,
legendary shell-builder

ART, TO SAY nothing of perfection, takes practice and sacrifice. And when you practice in the middle of an urban waterway, like the one that wends from the Ballard Locks to Lake Washington, it requires rising before the sun does so you can avoid boat traffic and rough water. While most of us are stepping out of the shower, rowers from all over the city and beyond are already hefting dripping shells back onto their storage racks.

The morning calm hones focus, tying rower to shell, shell to water, technique to pace, pace to rhythm. Seattle this early on this stretch of water is a different place. The hush makes it both eerie and comforting, like an empty gymnasium.
 
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Lake Union Crew has an indoor rowing tank that allows teams to warm up and beginners to learn the basics.
The rowers — young and old, men and women, neophytes and veterans, the recreation-minded and competition-absorbed — glide on a century of tradition that helped define this region yet is overlooked by most of us. The University of Washington Husky crews have been racing here since the early 1900s. George Pocock and his son, Stan, made some of the world's finest shells on its shores, helping local crews win Olympic gold and add glitter to the sport's aura.

Today, the Pacific Northwest sustains 44 rowing organizations, and three major rowing centers are operating between the Fremont and University bridges. With some 900 members, they're at or near capacity. Seattle, in fact, is considered a wellspring of "masters" rowing (anyone 27 or older) because it offers the luxury of year-round training. But that means wind, rain, short days, frost and choppy water, too. On any given morning, if you rise early enough, you will see teams of eight, four and two or single scullers either training for a regatta, being part of a club or simply staying fit.
 
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A master's foursome rows below the Montlake Bridge, combining exercise with tranquility.
Rowers speak their own language. The "catch" describes how the blade attacks the water and begins the "drive" that propels the boat. The "feather" is when the oar is out of the water, sliding back horizontal to the surface and preparing for the next catch. The aerodynamic shells are sleek, long and narrow — built for speed, not balance. If one rower in a crew catches a blade at the wrong moment, the boat can be sent rocking. One turn of the head can force a single sculler off rhythm.

It looks easy, the way the vessels slice through water. Husky rowers can make it look as if they are being pulled and pushed with the same string. But it demands strong legs, backs and will. Technique is critical for power, efficiency and balance. The blades must enter at the right angles at the right moment to reach the critical mass every crew craves — that perfect stroke.

Perfection is a rare thing, and in rowing at the masters or other recreational levels, it is somewhere out there on the watery horizon, a lonely, moving finish line.
 
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Coxswain Peggy Newsom keeps the cadence and steers the boat while (from left to right) Nancy Richards, Cosette Harms, Annemarie Klinke and Julie Smith try to match strokes. The women belong to a large rowing club known as Martha's Moms, based out of the Lake Washington Rowing Club.
THE GEORGE POCOCK Memorial Rowing Center's dock floats directly below the Interstate 5 express lanes, so the whoosh of early-bird commuters hurtling to work at 5:30 washes over rowers taking their positions. Eighteen rowers and coxswains belonging to the Classic Ancient Mariners (known as the CLAMS) shove off in two 60-foot shells, sweep-rowing with two hands on one oar through dead-calm water toward Lake Washington.

To be a member of the CLAM clan, which began in 1988, you have to be . . . mature, let's say, as well as an early riser and dependable in bad weather the same as good. Crawling out of bed at 4:30, the theory goes, is easier if you know the crew is waiting for you.
 
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The elements of a stroke

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Four movements involved in sculling.
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The CLAMS slide beneath the University Bridge, down Portage Bay, past marine businesses and a dormant UW campus, through the Montlake Cut with its painted yearbook-like signs from various crews, by houseboat neighborhoods and slips. The Mariners keep to the right, as dictated by rules, and row in silence, except for the coxswain's instructions. He speaks through a headset, and members of the crew hear him over a tiny PA system by their feet.

Rowers in the middle are considered the engine room, supplying much of the power. The "stroke," who sits closest to the coxswain, sets the pace. The "bow" sits at the back of the other rowers but at the leading edge of where the boat actually goes. They all move on sliding seats, pushing with their legs while sweeping the blades of their 12-foot oars forward through the water.
 
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Rod Johnson, who rowed for the UW Huskies more than half a century ago, still competes at age 74. Here he finishes a stroke as club teammate Dale Wright-Lonheim takes a break from coxswain duties.
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In 1941, Life magazine ran a photograph of Johnson showing off his form on the Husky team.
Coach Susan Parkman follows them in a launch. She has a megaphone at her feet, a stopwatch around her neck, and though calluses cover the inside of her fingers from a 99-mile row down Oregon's Willamette River, her palms are clear of abrasions. Anyone who wears out the palms isn't rowing right.

A veteran competitive rower who also coaches young women, Parkman holds a tight bond with these men. She has coached them as they've weathered divorces, heart surgeries, ailing spouses, retirement and other life changes. Rowing is the constant. Their ranks include a former Blue Angel, two sub commanders, a physics professor, an Episcopal preacher who is also a Marine, and two former Husky rowers who, at past 70, still compete as a pair in international regattas.

"I'm amazed these guys listen to me," Parkman says as she eyes them churning through the water. But she can tell from a look or a body angle when she needs to ease the pace. The men pull and bend and push in sync. It looks like a hypnotic jog through the park, but as they follow the stroke's pace and the coxswain's call, their expressions are frozen with intent.

As Seattle groggily wakes, life ashore stirs; traffic builds on the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, birds scavenge. Other crews are spreading across the waterscape.

MARTHA'S MOMS row out of the Lake Washington Rowing Club's main shell house in Fremont and under the Aurora Bridge. By 5:20, the shell house is busier than a Starbucks. The Moms meet in their own little back corner, gather around a bulletin board touting successes, listing agendas and displaying pithy encouragement like, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
 
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George Pocock in his shell house workshop in 1938. His boats were used all over the world.
Nearly all of them took up organized sports late because they pre-date Title IX, the federal law requiring equal athletic access for both genders. One, in her early 40s, competed for the University of Washington. Another thought the rules disqualified someone of her age so she lied about how old she was for almost 20 years. Turns out she is 79, not 77.

The Moms began 19 years ago when women who had kids rowing at Lakeside High School asked the coach if she would teach them, too. The coach, Martha Beattie, agreed. Karen Bolin, still a member of the club after all these years, says that after the first four or five lessons, Beattie asked the women, "You're not going away, are you?"

Now, their children root for them and offer the same advice — sometimes sarcastically — that the mothers once gave them. The Moms not only hung around, but still travel to regattas and often win. They are only one of several masters women's teams here (nationally, about 43 percent of rowers are women), but they are the largest. With a catchy name, some success and staying power, they've built cachet.

After getting their instructions, each team takes a carbon-fiber shell from the racks, flips it upside down, carries it at shoulder-height across a road, down an inclined walkway and to the dock. Each coach takes an aluminum motor boat. One accepts a guest, the mom of one of the Moms, who keeps saying, "She wasn't the least bit athletic."

Facing opposite of where they are going, each rower drives from her legs, pulling the oar handle with her, shoving water forward and propelling the boat. The coxswain steers, guides, watches for obstacles, keeps stroke count and calls instructions over her headset.
 
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Longtime pair teammates Rod Johnson and Bill Cameron warm up inside the Pocock Center.
The Moms head west in choppy water toward the Ballard Locks, opposite from the Mariners' path. In two 8's and two 4's, the Moms go through interval training while making their way past Seattle Pacific University, marine shops and rusting work ships.

Rowing looks gentle, but there is a certain violence or at least an immediacy signaled as oars bang against oarlocks. While head coach Denni Nessler tends to the 8's, assistant coach Margaret Christopher pays attention to the 4's, especially a team that seems to be fighting the chop. "You're all alpha dogs," she says. "I want to see this boat meld. Work on catch and finish together."

THEIR WORKOUT over, some of the Moms who didn't have to rush to work or family are meeting at a nearby coffeehouse. By 7:30, while most customers shuffle in, the Moms are talking loudly and fast. Neal Johnson, this year's captain, marvels how two or three times a week she gets her exercise, a taste of outdoors and time with friends, all before 8 a.m.

So what's the hardest part of this ritual? The women chime in: "Carrying the boats." "Carrying a wet boat." "Winter, when it's dark." "Winter when you're soaking wet." "Getting up." "No nightlife, because I have to get my sleep."
 
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Ancient Mariner team member Terry Goodwin catches his breath.
Yet, they still show up. Johnson, a wiry woman, says the group is so tight and focused in the boat that she considers it "the ultimate nonverbal communication."

Down the lake, where the marine businesses meet the west side of the UW campus, six of the Classic Ancient Mariners assemble at Voula's Offshore Cafe. George Pocock ate breakfast and held court in the diner. The club sits at a back corner table. On the wall above it are clippings, a logo, memorabilia and a framed color picture of their last major victory — a decade ago in San Diego.

Guy Harper, known for his woodcarvings, is considered the one who led the effort to put the team together in the late '80s. His list of "expenses" is framed on the wall:

1) Alarm clock to get up. $5.95

2) Racing shirts and warm-ups. $9.95

3) Gas to drive to shell house. $4.87

4) Breakfast Voula's with CLAM racing group. PRICELESS!

Rod Johnson and Bill Cameron sit at one end. Both are dressed in red windbreakers and caps, unofficial Mariners garb. Johnson's physique and sweeping form were highlighted in a 1941 issue of Life magazine. Now he's 74, gray and a bit paunchy; he's been through several heart procedures. Cameron, 71, another former Husky, is his pairs partner. He's a placid man with an exceptionally low heart rate and gentle humor. The two row six mornings a week. They won their category in the Czech Republic last year, and are headed to a regatta in France next month.

The Mariners' elder statesman is Paul Brown, known as Brownie. A coxswain, he's appropriately talkative. "Our guys were tired," he says in the midst of a college story, "and the stroke — he was a baby. Then I started screaming and yelling, and they started going like crazy . . . I couldn't talk for days after that."

WHILE ROWING as a group requires teamwork, the single sculler needs exceptional stamina, balance and focus. A sculler pulls two oars, faces away from the direction she or he is heading and perches atop a raised sliding seat. To watch someone skilled, like Helen Mandley, is to miss how tippy the vessels are. A single scull is about 30 feet long and only a foot wide. It weighs 30 to 34 pounds, so even turning your 10-pound head to see where you're going requires balance adjustment.

Mandley came along too late to compete in college, but she has an innate aptitude for sports. Her father was a sportsman and mountaineer who helped teach her young how to hit a baseball, throw a pass and compete with neighborhood boys. She skied and swam competitively and eventually ran seven marathons and a 50-mile ultra-marathon. She learned how to row in 1988 when she took a class at the Seattle Yacht Club and met Stan Pocock.

Mandley, 56, has won races, mentored girls to row and is considered one of the most dedicated Lake Washington rowers. "I am driven by the search for the perfect catch," she says. "Last week I spent two hours on the water, and just five minutes before docking, I linked three nearly perfect strokes together. That was a good morning!"

She qualified for an international competition this fall in Boston that essentially is a race on rowing machines. Now, that's dedication. Her trip and other plans were shelved just before summer when a routine mammogram detected the early stages of breast cancer. She's decided to apply her training and tough-mindedness toward tending to her health.

"During a regatta, situations occur that are out of our control," she says. "We can face strong head winds, rough water, tough competition, and the only way to get through it is to enter the arena with a calm focused on knowing that there is but one goal, to give full attention and intention to each and every stroke until we cross the finish line."

THIS YEAR MARKS the 100th anniversary of the UW's first official race — a three-length victory over the University of California — and the start of a defining sports legacy.

In 1936, a UW varsity team in a Pocock-built boat beat Italy for an Olympic gold medal. The program became so successful and synonymous with Seattle that names like Pocock, Conibear and Erickson will live forever. Yet, to many who live here, rowing seems too expensive, too hard, too inaccessible. A single scull can run as high as $5,000; an 8 can cost $30,000. Many club members defray costs by renting.

So the rowing centers work hard to change attitudes and expand the sport. They hold classes, camps for disadvantaged kids and corporate seminars that use rowing as the three-dimensional metaphor for teamwork. The tiny Moss Bay Rowing Club on South Lake Union offers newcomers a chance to test the waters in a single shell for $35 an hour.

The Lake Union Crew, just south of Pocock, has devoted the entire bottom of one of its two floating barge-buildings to a broad pool outfitted with a stationary boat. Starting in a stable environment allows beginners to learn technique without worry about balance, too, says Rome Ventura, director of the center.

While Bruce Beall, an Olympian and rowing director of the Pocock Foundation, directed beginners, Stan Pocock stood under a shade tree and talked roots. Like his father, Stan is a world-class shell builder, coach and rower. In the years following his father's death in 1976, he helped guide the establishment of the George Pocock Memorial Foundation, with a mission of growing the sport. Directly across the waterway from where he stood, Stan could see glass-artist Dale Chihuly's studio-residence, called "The Boathouse." That's where the Pococks spent decades building boats.

"I remember Dad saying, 'I couldn't build boats if I couldn't see the water,' " Stan says. At 79, Stan still looks like a rower, tall and trim. He wrote a lengthy book on the early days with his father, titled "Way Enough!" which means "stop" in the rowing lexicon, something neither he nor his father ever did.

Some see rowing as Ivy League but miss Seattle's place in the sport. "Rowing doesn't have a promotions division," he says. "Way back before professional sports, it had a big following. But boring is the word for watching rowing. It's a participant sport."

IN MORNING'S pastel light, Tyler Peterson and Anna Noble seem to have a wide swath of Lake Union to themselves. Both move so smoothly it looks like lolling, but they are working hard.

They're in the midst of training drills, going easy then hard, continually progressing up a pyramid workout. They are counting strokes, keeping balance, focusing on form and the feel of the water. Each rows six mornings and two afternoons a week. They work on the rowing machines and run stairs.

"Attention to detail is the secret," says Peterson, who recently qualified for the Pan-Am Games. "The little details, a bobble here, a slip there, add up. I've lost in a 6.5-minute race by a few seconds."

It is more than sport to Peterson, who moved here from Humbolt State University for the year-round rowing. It's a lifestyle that dictates when he goes to sleep each night. He is getting married this year and says he's fortunate to have found a mate who will endure his dedication to the sport.

Noble, a 26-year-old second-grade teacher, went to college on the East Coast and joined a crew. She realized that each call home, when she would assure her parents of how she learned something or navigated around some obstacle, she was applying what she learned on the water. Now, she is concerned with balancing her life as well as she does a scull. As she prepared for the past Head of the Charles Regatta she was thinking it could be her last. Then, she won her category and decided to keep going.

By the time they finish the workout, the sweep of the skyline is at their backs, a single person stands atop the hump at Gas Works Park, the Lake Union neighborhood is rustling. It's serene, but nothing like winter mornings, when it's so dark their shells require pilot lights. They stroke on, grateful for the quiet.

"When I sleep, my body rests," says Noble, "but when I row, my mind rests."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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