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Rowing Backwards

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

I am wondering about the fact that rowing occurs backwards. Perhaps there is more to this odd fact than meets the eye. For instance, the constant tug between the mindless reverie which rowing induces, and the nagging worry that this reverie is going to end in a bad collision wherein the boat stops dead, the bow gets holed, and the rower goes from rowing not very fast to swimming slower. This morning coming back across the Sound from Amgansett, Long Island, with the sun in my eyes I found this problem complicated by my tendency to row for long periods with my eyes shut. Reverie looking a lot like sleep while boat prays nothing floats in its path. At some point during these trips, I calculate what it takes to put a hole in the bow, and whether the boat would tip me out if I fell back from the impact from, say, hitting a buoy – normally an aid to navigation but in the case of rowing, just as often a hazard. And in the latter case, just how would I get back in, about which I welcome suggestions. Today I thought it would likely involve strapping life jackets, dry bags, empty water bottles and anything else that would float to the end of one oar and then somehow securing the other end so as to make a rigid outrigger to keep the boat balanced while I haul myself back in. And in the case of October water, how cold would I get before getting it all set. Or November or February. (Yet another reminder to practice some of this soon). I’ve often thought they should put ladders on buoys so that the backwards people could climb up the thing after hitting it in order to get back in the boat. And perhaps paper and pencil or a telephone to vent your anger at the thing being there in the first place.

As you can see, some portion of the reverie is always spent on the act of rowing itself. And this reverie of self preservation helps prime the pump for other reflections on less immediate things as we are reminded of our tenuous state in nature. Moving backwards, afloat on a medium which will kill us if we are not careful, casually tormented by the floating red and green agents of authority, what greater way to exercise the solar plexus of mind and body? Captains of ships don’t face the stern. Yes, our boats are small, but in a one man boat if the one man is facing backward certainly he is an odd Captain.

But there are a few advantages. One is that you don’t get as nervous about big waves ’cause you don’t ever really see them. You do see their backs, but those you needn’t worry about because they’ve passed and you are still floating. Another is that you don’t see what you are heading for until you turn around. This is especially good on long rows because at some point during the row you just wish it were over. In a tired state the destination has a tendency to recede with logarithmic precision the closer you get. Yes, you are moving towards it but there is a widening gap between how close it is to your eye, and how anxious your body is to quit. In a kayak this is a big problem. In a rowboat, you just don’t turn around as frequently and voil‡, destination angst retreats.

Which brings us to the relationship between rowing and time itself. It rolls the clock back in several ways:

First, as a practice, it is a throwback to the nineteenth century or earlier.Second, if your row a lot you get younger.Third, if you row in shallow water and look down through the water to the bottom, that fascination you experience occurs because your soul is reminded of that time a long way back when you were indeed a fish.

Cheers, Louis


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