Saturday, November 14, 2015

Can't tell the difference between r's and l's

Aaru to eru no chigai ga wakaranai

(This post is triggered by but does not contain spoilers for the book Flat Water Tuesday.)

I was really surprised that Annie Cat did not know I’d rowed until she read my previous post, but I guess that’s what I get for shutting down my brain the way I have.

So, here goes.

Rowing Ruminations Part 1, by Pumpkinmommy

I was in crew when I was in university. I mostly coxed (steered) men’s fours (four male rowers each using a single oar, and one coxswain to steer and give instructions), but one season I rowed in a women’s four. I was unusual among my squadmates that I knew what rowing and coxing were long before I circled it on the activities questionnaire form on registration day. My mom worked for a big insurance company in Tokyo before she married my dad, and one of her friends there coxed for the company-sponsored rowing club. My mom said that her friend Y was small, loud and smart. I thought I too was all of the above, and fantasized about this sport that was (in my mind) perfect for me. I’d never been very athletic. I had the slowest time on the 50 m dash in my class in high school, and I could not play ball sports if someone were holding my firstborn hostage. Rowing, this wonderful sport, would give me a chance to excel in sports. I yearned for the opportunity.

Fast forward to university. I told the crew captain that I wanted to cox. He looked at me funny. They must have held a meeting to discuss whether they should let me join them or to gently nudge me to do something else like swim or play badminton. There was only one other girl on the squad who was a few years ahead of me and ended up not competing that year. There had been another, but she had committed crewcest with one of the rowers and left the squad as a couple. A quick visual assessment would easily clarify I was not a crewcest liability. I was short and dumpy and plain and had coke bottle glasses and short hair cut in a cereal bowl (seriously, 18 year-old Ayako, what were you thinking?). I don’t know if my looks (or rather, lack thereof) were the reason, but they let me join. There were five other freshmen who joined crew that year, all guys. Four of them were put in a novice boat with a second year guy as the coxswain, and the fifth freshman was assigned to row a single scull.

My seat (position on a boat) was coxswain of what they called the “varsity knuckle.” A “knuckle” is probably unique to the Japanese rowing community. It looked like a long fishing boat, but was fitted with sliding seats and riggers like a racing boat, which meant you could row it using the same technique, but it was much more stable and wouldn’t flip over, making it easier to row for beginners. You usually graduated from a knuckle to a standard racing boat in about a year or so, but our league had a “varsity knuckle” category. (There was also a novice knuckle category, and my classmates were in that.) It made of wood and was really really heavy.

The other thing about the knuckle was that there was enough space and stability for a coach or other rider to sit behind the coxswain. The varsity knuckle coach was a student in his final year of school (nobody rowed their final year of school). Because I was so, well, new, our coach would come sit behind me every practice the first month or so, even though he had a really intense course schedule. The joke (observation?) was that the varsity knuckle went faster when we had the 65+ kg of extra weight in the boat, and that we should race with him sitting behind me the way he did during practice. (“Don’t mind him, he’s dead weight!”)

The most interesting thing about a knuckle was that it was a standardized boat. All knuckles were, in theory, identical in size, shape, weight, seat size, rail length, rigger width, everything. You could go to a boathouse anywhere in Japan, and the knuckles would all be the same. Boathouses hosting regattas would have a reasonably sized fleet of knuckles, and the rowers would just show up with their oars and toolboxes, rig the knuckles to their liking (you could only change oarlock angle anyway) and be ready to race.

We didn’t have a launch (small boat that the coaches ride to watch practice, or referees ride to follow races) or a proper course with buoys. We knew that if you rowed straight from this point to this point, it would be 1000 m (the standard distance of races in our league), but we were a little fuzzy on other distances, so we mostly practiced by deciding how long we would row as opposed to how far. Our coaches were final year students, not paid coaches who were certified on knowledge about sports medicine and psychology and learning process. And, of course, it was the coxswain’s job to act as coach most of the time. (Which, of course, was not happening on my boat because I didn’t have a clue.)

Practice was on a lake (I hesitate to call it a lake in English, because it’s the size of a pond) about an hour from campus. We’d meet in the parking lot at five (that’s in the morning), and pile into each other’s cars, one car per boat, and be on the water shortly after six. The “boathouse” was nothing but a shed with a roof and three walls (the door was the fourth wall) with light fixtures and a water tap. There was no dock. We carried the boats from the boathouse to the shore of the lake, and pushed it into the water from the beach. The lake was about 1500 m at its widest point, so that was the longest we could row before we had to turn the boat around (or “spin” it) and go back in the other direction. We’d practice for a little more than an hour, then pile back in our cars and go back to campus. Some of us (like me) would actually go to class, but quite a few would cut and head to Denny’s for breakfast.

We’d meet again at around 4:30 after classes and go running and do circuit training, or sometimes we’d work on the rowing machines called ergometers. We didn’t have a special erg room. They were in a storage room we shared with the cycling club, and when we needed them, we’d carry the four ergs we had out of the storage room and line them up on the judo tatami mats, and prop a big mirror up against the wall. The other clubs thought watching us erg was funny, and that it was even funnier when a short dumpy plain first year girl was yelling at four upperclassmen much bigger than her to make a bigger racket than they already were. (“And isn’t there any way to use all that energy for something, like power the AC?”)

The first thing I had to do was to learn all of the calls. For example, if I wanted everyone to start rowing slowly and easily, I would have to say 「両舷ノーワーク用意、用意、ロー」(Ryougen no waaku youi, youi, roo All hands, ready for no work, ready, row) And if I wanted them to stop rowing, I would say 「ラストロー、イージーオール」(Rasuto roo, iijii ooru) I didn’t know if I was supposed to be saying “easy all” or “easy oar” because the Japanese language doesn’t differentiate between r’s and l’s. I went with “oar” and I don’t think anyone could tell the difference. (Apparently both are used in the UK.)

Another thing I had to do was keep time on a stopwatch and measure stroke rate (number of strokes per minute) using a stopwatch with a stroke rate function. (There was more to learn, but these were the things I had to learn first so that we could practice without our coach when he had other stuff to do. Like school.) None of us used microphones or megaphones or any type of amplifier. The one thing that I could do just as well as any the senior coxswains was project. The joke (observation?) back then was that you could hear me from the other side of the lake, almost a mile away.

The coddled kids these days have $500 contraptions called “cox boxes” that not only act as amplifiers but also measure time, stroke rate and split time (estimated time taken to row 500 meters) automatically. When I was a coxswain, we took split times on a stopwatch. And I kept deleting the times by mistake, which made the rowers super mad. And did I mention that there were no course buoys or markers so you didn't know where 500 meters was beyond "when you cross the line between that tree on this side of the lake and the inlet on the other side of the lake?" And you kids get off my lawn. Where are my reading glasses and cane?

(OK this is getting a lot longer than I expected. And I'm turning into a rowing blog, which I don't want to do. Maybe more on this some other time.)


Annie Crow said...

No, this is fascinating. More, more! I love using ergometers (my dream is to someday have one in the basement), and there are rowing teams here in Chicago - I've thought occasionally of picking it up.

pumpkinmommy said...

I'm really surprised at how long this is getting and it's kind of scary. I guess rowing is a much bigger part of me than I care to admit. I do have more to tell and I plan on telling it, just not today :) If you're interested, go for it! I'm sure the good-sized clubs have learn to row classes.