Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Great Grachtenrace

Last Saturday, in the very cold, cold, wind-driven rain, Ed and I spectated Amsterdam's Grachtenrace.

*Flashback!*  I rowed once.  I mean, I rowed several times, over the course of one year in college.  Look: here is a picture of my friend Ali rowing bow in a faster boat, to prove it.  Ali likes rowing more than I do.

Crew was hard.  I have never been colder, nor wetter, nor more tired, than during those late fall/early spring mornings on Lake Washington, Portage Bay, and Lake Union.  The dock was frosty.  The goose poop on the dock was frozen.  My hands were numb.  My feet were numb.  My butt was numb.  Sometimes the bottom of the boat collects rain.  Everyone has to empty their water bottles to bail, otherwise the sloshing movement of the water will screw up the forward progress of the boat.  There are no bathroom breaks, nor hope for a bathroom in a dire bladder moment.  My hands were raw.  My shoulders and hips hurt.  These were the lesser joys and pleasures of university crew.

Rowing novice, and second boat to boot, I had things comparatively easy.  We did 2k and 6k erg tests, whereas 10k tests were pretty standard for the JV and varsity teams.  The longest "long" row I ever did was around 8 miles, slowly, and I don't think I was ever on the water longer than 2 hours at a time.

In contrast, the mighty Grachtenrace is 24 km long, almost 15 miles.  Unlike crew races, which are traditionally a 2 km more-or-less straight line, the Grachtenrace course features 90-degree and 180-degree turns, and captains have to navigate canal bridges, other boats, and houseboats using a traditional wooden rudder, while also fulfilling the normal coxswain-style duties of calling commands, counting strokes, and motivating.  The rowers don't "slide" on their seats as they do in crew, which means most of the power for the stroke comes from the back muscles, with the legs braced against the crewing equivalent of "foot stretchers."  The shaft of the oar, rather than being nearly parallel to the surface of the water during a stroke, exits the water surface at about a 45-degree angle, which means that the rowers shoulder extend to 90 degrees or more in order to reach the oar's handle and pull it back toward their chests.

The above is 100% based on observing one hour of Grachtenrace.  Conclusion: It looked painful.

There were over 100 teams in the race this year.  From what we could tell, there seemed to be none-too-strict standardization in terms of boat size, numbers of rowers in each boat, numbers of freeloading passengers in the bows of the boats, gender and/or age of rowers in the boat, or whether the boat was wooden or metal.  Most boats had 8 rowers seated in four rows of two.  I know a girl who was rowing with a men's team, so we stood a long time at the bridge by our apartment, waiting to see if we could spot her. 

Rowing east along the Prinsengracht, en route to the wide open Amstel.

This poor captain was having a little trouble holding her line:

They finally peeled themselves away, and wobbled across the canal, where they again became stuck going under the bridge.  This provided the boats behind them with an opportunity to snag a quick bite of banana and bagel from the gunwhale.

I hope they survived the second half of the race and didn't end up in Belgium.  Or wherever the Amstel meanders.

As cold and wet as it was, watching the teams in the silvery-blue light reminded me of what I enjoyed about rowing.  Those "best-of-the-best" mornings when the water was was satin-smooth and misty, the dip of the oars, the pink-and-blue streaks of sky, crystalline Mt. Rainier on the horizon, herons and ducks and bald eagles, the houseboats on Portage Bay and Lake Union... such pure beauty.

I didn't spot my friend's boat, but maybe one of our cameras managed to catch her.  With over a hundred boats, it's hard to say, but I hope that we did.  There are fewer photographs more appealing than a good shot of someone in a race, be it running, rowing, or otherwise.

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