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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle » Blog Archive » Longer Boats Are Coming To Win Us

Longer Boats Are Coming To Win Us   

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In May, Bob Gannon updated his Facebook status.  It said “Bob rows in the morning and mows in the evening.”  Bob was referring to rowing on his Concept2 rowing machine.  I thought he was rowing an actual boat, so I asked where he rows.  During my Brigantine days, I would watch members of the Brigantine Rowing Club coming and going from the boathouse next to the public boat ramp.  Rowing looked fun.  I wished we had a crew at TCNJ (NB: It appears that a club crew team was founded in 2003 at TCNJ.  I can’t find a lot of information, but I did find race results indicating they were active in 2007, but nothing for 2007-2008 and their web page defunct.  A lot of what I did find indicates they spent more time doing typical club athletic activities than actual rowing (it always seemed like the club sport teams were basically party fraternities without greek letters) so I probably wouldn’t have like it anyway).  I fantasized about getting up early in the morning and going out for a row before work.  I had even at some point investigated joining the Upper Merion Boat Club but they weren’t offering any beginner clinics that year and I have never heard from them since.  I have not picked up a paddle since my parents left the beach and I have missed being on the water in any capacity.

The coolness of social networking kicked in almost immediately.  Eric P chimed in shortly after to state that while he doesn’t know much about rowing, he does help out with dragon boating and that he could get me in touch with someone if I really wanted to try it.  I did not hesitate to take him up on his offer.  While I awaited his response, I did a bit of research on dragon boating…I had heard of it, but for some reason I thought it was sort of a joke sport like Cardboard Regatta.  Like people got together and dressed up in ridiculous costumes and along with the racing there’s a lot of partying and socializing.  Sort of like a bonspiel now that I think about it.  But nobody does it as a “sport” or “workout scheme.”  And there are festivals that are more fun/party than serious racing but, just like curling, there are also serious races (and by serious I mean no ridiculous costumes, but still partying and socializing, I think).  But there are actually serious dragon boat teams.  And the serious teams practice a few times a week.  Some twice a week.  Some 6 times a week!  In my research I came across the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association website which had a contact for people interested in paddling, so I figured I’d drop them a line as well.

I got some responses from a variety of corporate/festival teams, some practicing 2-3 times a week, some just practicing once/month for three months for the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival in October.  The trouble was almost all of them practice in the evenings which has the benefit of not getting up early, but at the same time evenings are always so busy as it is.

I also got a response from Jim at PDBA asking if I could come to practice the coming Sunday at 7AM.  Yikes.  I don’t want to get up at 7AM.  Why?  Fear of failure, maybe?  I told Jim I’d go.  And I did.  When I arrived at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Strawberry Mansion, I was told my a friendly police woman (that might sound sarcastic, but she really was very nice and apologetic) that there was a regatta going on and no one told her about any dragon boat practice so she could not let me through.  I drove to the downriver roadblock and the cop there recommended I go back to the other side.  When I told him I was already there he told me I was pretty much out of luck.  I turned around and drove home.  A nagging bit of my brain kept telling me that this was also “fear of failure” but I convinced myself there was nothing more I could do - by the time I got back to the other side of the roadblock, I’d have literally missed the boat, so I went home, e-mailed my contact with my apologies and went back to bed.

By Monday I had arranged to try again on Tuesday.  Actually I told Jim from PDBA I wanted to go on Thursday (I was not mentally prepared to wake up at 5AM the next day) but he said there was another rookie starting Tuesday, so it would be convenient since the coach could give both of us an overview that day, so I agreed to go on Tuesday.  “I might as well start getting used to getting up at 5AM” I told him.

5AM on Tuesday…I woke before the sun was even up.  It was pretty cold…in the 40s.  Knowing that I was going to be completely groggy in the morning, I made sure to pack everything I needed the night before.  I got dressed, grabbed my lunch and ran out the door.  I got to the dock side a little before 5:30.  I was pretty sure I was in the right place, but the parking lot was completely deserted (I had to come a little bit early for some instruction).  I walked around the boathouse trying to figure out where people would meet and after a few minutes a car pulled into the lot and waited.  I walked over and asked the driver if he knew anything about a dragon boat practice and he said that he was there for practice and invited me to hop into his car while we waited for the others to arrive.  He did not offer me a candy bar so I swallowed all of my “stranger danger” instincts and got in. 

Here I met my first PDBA team member.  Cliff fell into the game somewhat by accident.  His son was going to join but was not sure where the boathouse was so Cliff led him to practice one morning and was told there were some empty seats and he was welcome to give it a try if he wanted to.  He’s been coming back ever since.  As we chatted more and more cars pulled in.  I told Cliff I was supposed to meet the coach for some general instruction.  He pointed the coach out to me and I thanked him and got out of the car and walked over and introduced myself.

Bob the coach gave me and another rookie a brief overview of the paddle stroke which seemed pretty sensible and perhaps even intuitive, but it’s actually more complex than you might think.  I’m pretty sure I forgot all about it the second I got in the boat.  After this brief overview I was handed a paddle and walked down the ramp to the dock where other paddlers were loading up into the boats.  Someone told us to just hop in, but I was a little leery of stepping on someone’s toes.  With my luck I’d sit in the seat of the team’s best paddler and end up looking like a total ass.  I waited until most people were seated and then shoehorned myself into the rear seat of one of the boats.  The rear seat is not quite large enough for someone of my size to share with pretty much anyone else.  But they try to put newbies in the back so that there are less people behind them to screw up and so that the helmsman can keep an eye on them and provide some assistance.

On the boat, I did my best just to keep up.  I was met with a variety of commands that made little sense to me.  We were doing an interval drill that consisted of 6 minutes of hard paddling with 2 minutes of light paddling/rest in between.  I pretty much set out to just keep the paddle moving through the water.  I allowed myself to stop paddling early a couple of times during the light paddle periods, as I was really getting fatigued.  All the while, a guy named Pete was at the helm behind me offering me encouragement and advice, primarily reminders that I don’t worry about paddling “hard” but just think about doing the proper technique.

After awhile, the boats pulled up to the dock and a lot of people including the other rookie got out and began walking toward the parking lot.  I had no idea what was going on, so I followed them thinking they were going to do some sort of land-based exercise.  Nope.  At the top of the ramp, people were chatting and/or getting in their cars to leave.  I asked what was going on and they said these people had to leave for work but those who could stay were going to go paddle for another 15-20 minutes.  Interesting.  I felt like *someone* should give me some sort of debriefing after my first day, so even though Pete (who had also been the one to give me a paddle) told me I could leave the paddle on the dock, I went back down to the dock to await the return of the boats just to see what happened.  I figured someone would say “How did you like it?  Do you want to come back?” or at least “You definitely don’t have what it takes, so please don’t come back.”  It was 6:45AM…not like I had anything better to do…

This turned out to be a great decision.  When Pete saw me standing on the dock, he immediately came over to give me some more instruction.  He actually put me in a boat and spent a good 20-30 minutes working with me on the proper stroke (which, I might add, I was doing completely wrong).  He told me to look for him before any practice and I was welcome to borrow one of his paddles.  I did not see the coach after practice, but I decided that if I was a lost cause Pete (who seems to be one of the respected longtime members) would not have wasted a half hour of his time trying to teach me good technique, so this must mean that I at least did well enough that I could come back and keep working.  I felt a the same feeling of accomplishment I felt when I finally made it to the top of the multipitch climb in the Gunks.  I could hear Vince in my mind…”When you get to the top of this thing, you’re gonna thank me.”

I got to work and was so sore I could barely lift my arms up to my keyboard to type!  I spent most of the day in the beanbag chairs where I don’t really have to raise my arms to reach my laptop cradled in my lap.

That night, I debated whether I should go back to practice.  I definitely had a good time, but I was still not sold on having to wake up at 5AM and I was so sore that taking a day to recover didn’t seem like a bad idea.  At the time I was also rehearsing for Footloose on weeknights which meant dancing at rehearsals and not getting to bed early. 

In retrospect, I think the second day is the make-or-break.  I repeated my mantra.  I told myself that in reality my hesitation had NOTHING to do with sore muscles or lack or sleep.  I told myself that my hesitation was pure fear of failure - that I would be told not to come back.  That I would completely tire and sit as dead weight on the boat for the remainder of practice.  I packed my bag and resolved to go to practice the second day. 

The other rookie that started the previous day did not show up that day.  I waited on the dock for Pete who had offered me the use of his paddle, but he must have been running late.  I was nervous that he wasn’t coming to practice that day so I rousted up a heavy wooden paddle from someone else.  Gingerly, I got in the boat.  I nervously awaited the order to begin paddling, afraid that I would not even be able to move the paddle through the water.  When the order came, though, I found that I could move my paddle just fine!  I resolved at this point to keep paddling through the entire practice, never stopping unless given a command to stop paddling.  There had to be a reason the coach and steersmen kept saying to “paddle it out” the day before after the hard paddling segment was finished.  It helped somewhat that the day’s drill featured 90 seconds of hard paddling followed by a rest/light paddle period.  While my endurance has waned since my days as a swimmer, one of the side effects of curling is that still have pretty solid recovery - I can drive really hard for short bursts and then quickly get my breathing and heartrate back to something fairly reasonable.  I survived the practice.  When they docked at 6:45 I even stayed in the boat for the extra half hour.  My arms were REALLY killing me now, but I had accomplished my goal of paddling continuously unless told to stop.  At the end of practice, no one told me quit.  A few people did ask me how I was liking it.  I noted that the other rookie did not come that second day.

As I said, day 2 was make-or-break.  After surviving the second day of practice I was pretty much cured of all fear and uncertainty.  There wasn’t even any question in my mind about going on the third day.  I decided that I would keep going to practice until someone told me to stop going to practice.

During my second week, I caught the attention of the women’s coach.  She was steering and noticed my ridiculously bad paddling technique.  Everything I always did in the kayak was pretty much wrong.  Maybe it’s not wrong for kayaking but it’s dead-wrong for dragon boat.  I was using way too much of my arms and not nearly enough of the much stronger core muscle groups.  After making the 6:45 dropoff, she sat behind me and really helped me make a breakthrough in my technique.  She also let me know that prior to forming up the National teams, men were welcome at the Friday morning women’s practices in which she focuses heavily on technique since everyone trains for stamina, etc at mixed practices.  I began going to these practices as well.

It has now been two months.  I’ve missed few practices since I started.  I’ve lost nearly 10 pounds.  I’ve gained a ton of endurance.  Nobody has told me to pack it up and quit, but a lot of people have offered words of encouragement and great tips for training and paddling better.  The rookie that started the same day as me has not returned since, but I am starting to really feel like I’m a part of something big.  I could go to the national or world championships!

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