Rowing Ruminations Part Six
That year, we had six boats. We started out with two coxed fours, a varsity “knuckle,” a novice “knuckle” and two singles. For our league, that was a pretty big squad. Mid-season, the second varsity coxed four decided they wanted to compete as a knuckle because it was going to be their stroke’s last year rowing and they’d have a better chance of winning a gold medal that way.
The league our school was in had about a dozen or so schools competing in crew, but we also raced outside of our league sometimes. One such race was the National Sports Festival qualifiers. This was the first time I fully understood the interesting position I was in. In the US and UK, a woman coxing a men’s collegiate team was (and is) business as usual. By the time I started coxing, both Sue Brown (first woman to cox for Oxford and win The Boat Race against Cambridge, in 1981 and 1982. Also competed in the 1980 Olympics) and Devin Mahony (first woman to cox the Harvard Heavyweight varsity eight) had completed their respective undergraduate programs. (Sue Brown taught English in Japan for a while! How cool is that?) (BTW girlfriends be crazy steering under bridges on snaking rivers, I can barely pull a straight line) In Japan, ours was one of the few leagues that allowed women to cox men’s boats. The National Sports Festival did not. In fact, the National Sports Festival specifically forbade senior level boats consisting entirely of a single school or club (junior events could have athletes all from a single school). One person in the boat had to be from a different school or club. The coxswain was the most frequently exchanged.
The National Sports Festival rowing events were 1000 meter races, just like our league’s races and high school races. You never took your own boat to the race. The venue would have a fleet of standard boats called “kikakutei (規格艇).” (Around when I started rowing, most standard boats were wood. Around when I finished rowing, most standard boats were carbon fiber.) The premise of the National Sports Festival (and high school rowing) was that all Japanese citizens should participate in sports, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status (this logic is flawed, but discussing this is beyond the scope of a blog about Japanese phrases). The ability to own, maintain and transport an Empacher would depend on socioeconomic status, so they did away with that advantage by requiring everyone to compete on a standard boat. The teams would show up with just their oars and toolboxes, draw lots for lane and boat assignments, have a set amount of time for rigging the boats, get on the water, warm up and race. (Junior high and high school races are held on standard boats as well, for the same reason.)
Senior men’s knuckle wasn't an event at the National Sports Festival. We got to row our 1000 meters as an exhibition event. The qualifies race was held on a river, and it was a popular jet skiing spot. There was a strong current, the jet skis caused wakes, I got stressed and distracted, and I lost count of strokes during the start. My stroke started counting strokes for me, a loser moment if there ever was one.
Still, we were better off than the first varsity boat. They were actually in a proper qualifier event as a four, and were eligible to go to the National Sports Festival if they won. They couldn’t find an experienced mercenary coxswain, so they decided to go with a club alumnus. The man was a former middle pair rower (the biggest, strongest rowers are put in the middle to give the boat power and stability) who’d quit rowing but kept his rower eating habits (rowers consume around 4000 calories a day).
That was the closest I’d ever seen the waterline get to the gunwales of the coxswain seat, before, or since.
He apparently didn’t have very much experience in steering either.