Dougu no koto wo mousukoshi
Rowing Ruminations Part 13
When I rowed (you know, when dinosaurs walked the earth, OK, maybe not that long ago, but in a previous millennium,) there were no cox boxes. Stroke rate was measured by a hand-held meter by yours truly. Time was also kept by yours truly. I had the rudder cord toggles hooked between my fourth and fifth fingers, and the buttons of the stroke rate meter/ stopwatch under my first and second fingers (stroke rate meter in my right hand, stopwatch in my left), but because my hands were so small, I kept pressing buttons I didn’t want to press and getting wrong numbers and times. This drove my boat to seriously consider a mid-practice coxswain toss more than once. (Traditionally, coxswains are thrown into the water when you win a race. Talk about gratitude.) No microphones either. You projected with a head voice using your diaphragm and abs, even on a rare day you were coxing an eight. I think that was the one thing I did better than anyone on the squad and most coxswains in other schools as well. However, in this age of cox boxes and microphones and speakers, this skill is probably about as useful as my ability to sharpen pencils with a kitchen knife.
When I addressed individual rowers on the water, I always called them by seat (“Bow, watch that handle height.” “Two, you’re missing water.”). The issue was practical more than anything. Japanese culture demands that you use honorifics on those older than you. I would have to call my two seat “Tanaka-san.” (If I ever rowed with a Tanaka, that is. I never did.) That’s an extra syllable that could have been used to say something else.
Apparel-wise, I think this was kind of the transition period between natural fibers and man-made fibers in Japanese athletics. My first year, we got cotton regatta tees with snap fronts or cotton tank tops. I think I still have mine somewhere in my parents’ house (the tee, that is. I didn’t get the tank). The rowers wore black spandex rowing trousers with padded bottoms, but I opted for plain black running shorts. The season I rowed, I had knee-length running shorts (I would have gone for the rowing trousers but none of the other rowers wanted to, so I decided to be cooperative) and a high-tech synthetic fiber tank that was supposed to wick away moisture and be breathable but still got wet in the summer heat and humidity. We got the women’s version that had bra strap holders. Sports bras were still very expensive and not very good back then.
For practice, the rowers would wear their spandex rowing trousers or plain running shorts with cotton T-shirts. The running shorts were sometimes distracting, especially when they were worn with boxers. I’d look at the stroke’s seat or knees to see when they began their slides, and, well, I’d see male anatomy that I didn’t mean to see, but couldn’t unsee. The first time I saw a rowing unitard was some time in my fourth year, in Toda. I pondered the logistical aspects of nature calling and decided it wasn’t something I would be interested in, but that it would solve the problem of seeing things other than the edge of the stroke’s seat when coxing.
Fleece was only beginning to be a thing in Japan, and there was only LL Bean and Patagonia, which were marketed as luxury brands. I wore a wool sweater under a nylon windbreaker, and when it rained, I wore a plastic rain poncho over that. Raindrops and lake water would get on my glasses and bother me, but this problem was solved when I got contacts shortly before my third season. I never wore sunglasses because no one I knew wore them during races and I wanted to get used to seeing through glare.