Until two summers ago, my family knew little about rowing. My husband and I had both watched a few Head of the Charles races when we were younger, but that was the extent of it.
Then my son started high school and decided to try out for the local crew team. He'd been playing soccer since first grade, and although he'd enjoyed the social aspects of that sport, had never really excelled at it.
Crew seemed like a nice idea to me. I'd seen high school kids carrying shells -- those long, skinny boats -- down to the town pond, and they always appeared to be having fun. To my naïve eyes, it looked like a laid-back, social sport; I guess I put it in the same class as badminton, or canoeing.
Boy, Was I Wrong
Crew is hardcore. I quickly found out that our town program (actually a club team comprised of students from two public high schools) is highly competitive, and typically sends a couple of boats each year to the Nationals.
But even for more low-key teams, crew is extremely time-consuming and requires tons of dedication. Most teams practice for several hours every weekday -- sometimes on the water, sometimes on land, sometimes in the erg room -- and many Saturdays. Races (called regattas) are held almost every weekend during spring and fall, and my son's team practices at least four days a week all winter, and for much of the month of August in preparation for fall racing season. On school vacation weeks, they travel someplace warm to get more time on the water, or row on a local river. So if your kid sticks with crew, they'll probably end up in great physical shape.
The Ultimate Team Sport
There are few better ways to learn the value of teamwork than being on a crew team. Every oar-stroke from every rower affects the boat's success. So if a boat does well in a race, everyone shares in the glory. And no matter how strong or skilled one rower may be, he or she's only as good as the rest of the boat. Hence, there are no superstars in crew.
On the flip side, if things don't go well, everyone assumes some responsibility. Occasionally, however, one person will make a serious error; the most common is called catching a crab, and it has nothing to do with crustaceans. When that happens, the boat usually comes to a dead halt. But all rowers understand -- or should anyway -- that catching a crab is part of the game, and can happen to anyone.
Fortunately, unlike in football or baseball -- where a player's error is often very public -- people watching a regatta from the shore can't usually see exactly what happens on the water. Just as there are no heroes in crew, there are no fall guys either. A boat does well or it doesn't. That's teamwork.
Do Coxswains Sit and Shout, "Stroke! Stroke!"?
No. The coxswain is the boat's general. He/she doesn't row during races, and tends to be smaller than most rowers. His/her job is to steer and basically be the boat's on-the-water coach, so maturity and intelligence are important traits in a coxswain. Coxswains also work closely with the team coach, and one of their jobs is to meet with the coach prior to each regatta to discuss things like strategy, water currents, and wind speed.
What to Wear/What Not to Wear
Crew attire is snug. Athletes in most other sports have some fashion options, but rowers must wear Spandex, at least on the bottom. Many kids aren't psyched about that, but all other fabrics get caught in the boat's rigging. So if your child wants to row, they'll need Spandex shorts or pants. When they're out of the water, they can slip on some sweats.
Eating, Drinking and Puking
Yes, it's all part of crew. Nutritious food is obviously critical, as is staying properly hydrated. Luckily, most coaches have participated in the sport themselves, and can advise kids on proper nutrition during training.
Then, on race day, there's the food tent. One of the sport's longstanding traditions, the food tent for most high school teams is transported, stocked, and staffed by parents. It involves serious effort on the part of those parents, but it's nice to have a place where rowers, coxswains, and coaches can get plenty of healthy food and water.
So what about the puking? Well, as a mom with a long history of eating disorders, I was appalled when I first heard about kids vomiting in the erg room. But after doing some research, I learned that it happens sometimes when a person pushes too hard. I still find it upsetting. A good coach will obviously try to keep this to a minimum.
Crew is For People From All Walks of Life
The word crew once evoked images of lock-jawed college boys with names like Bif and Chip. But things are changing. Sure, Ivy League schools still have crew teams, but so do many public high schools, as well as urban and suburban communities. And although it's an expensive sport -- primarily because the boats cost so much -- most good programs offer scholarship/financial aid packages.
Crew May Just be the Sport Your Child (or You!) Has Been Looking For
Like my son, who played soccer in elementary and middle school, many people discover crew a bit later in life.There are several reasons for this. First, if someone's totally dedicated to another sport, they might not bother trying crew. But people who haven't yet "found" their sport are more likely to give it a shot. Also, crew doesn't involve a ball. Some people are intimidated by ball sports because of the pressure associated with controlling the ball, puck, etc. And, although certain attributes like height, strength, and intelligence don't hurt, most physically healthy people can become decent rowers if they're willing to put in the effort.
Finally, because crew is becoming more popular in America, many communities offer fairly inexpensive, learn-to-row programs for people interested in picking up an oar and getting a sense of what the sport's about.
College and Beyond?
Our family's only a couple of years into crew, so I can't offer any retrospective but can say for certain that our son has made some wonderful friends and learned a lot about setting goals, facing adversity, winning, losing, and working as part of a team. People often talk about college rowing, but at the moment, we're just enjoying the ride and taking it one day at a time.