Portland Community Rowing Association Brings Crew to Casco Bay.
From June through August, members of the Portland Community Rowing Association (PCRA) rise at 4 a.m. to meet at East End Beach, where they practice the synchronized, artful sport of crew.
It was a frigid morning in February 2016 when Mo Nichols attended a practice event with PCRA for the first time. But they had some trouble getting there (Nichols prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns). Ice had formed a half-inch-thick sheet over the sidewalks, and ice glazed over their car door. “It didn’t occur to me that this would deter anyone from going to rowing club,” they said. Nichols had been wanting to row for years after learning about the sport from a college roommate. This was their chance to finally join up with a group of rowers. “So I said, not today, Satan. I’m going to rowing club no matter what. I waited too long for this,” Nichols remembers.
But when Nichols got to the Crossfit Casco Bay facility, there were not many people taking out the ergometers (rowing-training machines, called ergs for short). They asked for PCRA president, Jennifer Southard, who usually leads the early morning winter practice sessions. That’s when they learned that practice had been “technically canceled.”
“That just goes to show you what rowing is all about,” Nichols says. “I didn’t know it was canceled because I wasn’t on the email list yet. But these people—they knew. They showed up anyway.” That day, Nichols began rowing on an erg and training with PCRA. Even though rowing on an ergometer—which has a sliding seat to mimic the boats and a handle that pulls a flywheel—is viewed by many rowers as the “most hellish part of the sport,” according to Nichols, they were “in heaven.”
Fast forward six months and Nichols is on the water of Casco Bay, gliding along in an eight- person rowing shell, working in tandem with seven other rowers and following the directions of the coxswain, Maggie Broughton. It’s a warm August morning, and the sun is still in the process of rising. The sky is a pale pink, and the water is glassy and calm. The boat cuts through the water swiftly as the rowers complete the series of motions required to propel the needle- shaped vessel.
I’m sitting in a small aluminum motorboat alongside coach Kate Suslovic and rower Steve Birmingham, who is ferrying us around the bay. Although the four-person and eight-person boats are nearly impossible to capsize, PCRA never goes out without a motorboat ready to rescue any stranded members. From my vantage point, the rowing shell looks like some strange, many-legged beast, one that runs with machine-like precision and impeccable rhythm.
Suslovic sees things slightly differently. “They’re a little bit off,” she says to Birmingham, who agrees. We motor up alongside the boat and the rowers glide to a stop, their oars resting on top of the water. Suslovic shouts out a few quick instructions, and the rowers (including Nichols) smile and joke. A few stretch their arms before getting ready to cruise again.
While the “eights” are amazing to watch, PCRA doesn’t always train in these particular craft. The boats they take out each morning vary depending on how many people show up to practice. Some days, they take out four- person boats. When there are an odd number of rowers, someone ends up in a single-person “scull,” which necessitates a different type of rowing. Instead of each person controlling a single oar (sweeping), one-person sculls require a rower to work two oars at once (sculling). While many sweep rowers have a side they prefer—port or starboard— some, like Suslovic, are comfortable with rowing on either side. “I’m ‘bi-sweptual,’” she jokes.
Although it looks like rowers are using their arm muscles to propel the boat, pulling the oars toward them on each stroke, the real power comes from below the waterline, where eight pairs of legs are working to push eight bodies backward. The stroke starts with the rowers sitting straight up, legs outstretched, their feet laced into permanently affixed shoes called stretchers. They roll forward on sliding seats, arms outstretched holding the oars, to the “catch,” when they drop the blades into the water. Pushing back against the stretchers with their legs, they pull the oars into their torsos, pressing down on the handle and rotating it to lift the blade out of the water before rolling forward again. “Rowing is all about technique,” says Suslovic. “It is an amazing full-body workout, but you have to know how to use the right muscles in the right order. Often, when people first start, they want to yank the oar with their arms. At PCRA we teach them to go from their strongest to their weakest muscle groups, starting with your legs, then your abs and back muscles, than using your arms last.”
In addition to running training sessions on the water, PCRA uses the ergs to train new rowers, and as practice tools to keep rowers fit between Maine’s short summer months. Suslovic also recommends using the ergs as a way to perfect technique, since the machines allow rowers to slow down the motions and analyze each muscular shift.
While she watches her rowers’ torsos and arms, Suslovic keeps a close eye on the oars as they dip in and out of the water. Immediately after the oar’s blade exits the water, the rower rotates the handle 90 degrees so that the blade is parallel with the surface of the water. This is a process known as “feathering,” and it allows the vessel to go much faster over the water. “If you are rowing into the wind, like they are right now, feathering can make a huge difference,” explains Birmingham. He adds that it can also help rowers get into sync, providing a visual cue to help standardize their motions.
While many of the PCRA members train individually in sculls, everyone I spoke with agreed that teamwork is an essential part of the sport. For some, it’s a numbers game. “I like to be in the boat with the most people,” says Suslovic. “I think eight is the most fun number to row with. I really like the team bond.” Nichols, who is the principal harpist with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, likens the process of rowing to playing music, and cites the moment when the group becomes one, moving in perfect harmony, as their favorite part of the sport. “You all become one being,” Nichols says. “Rowing can take you beyond the natural world.”
Rowing, Nichols says, has changed their life. “I’m an amateur rower, and even I get really emotional about the sport, because it’s such a unique bonding experience.” Nichols says the first time they got into a boat was “one of the happiest days of my life. I read this perfect quote from George Yeoman Pocock [the legendary early designer and builder of wooden rowing shells]: ‘It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion.’ I think that’s true.”