May 6, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - James Strawson had two words of advice to one of the most novice rowers to ever join Cambridge University's famed program.
"Don't tip the boat," the postgraduate third seat in Cambridge's eight-man boat said Wednesday, three days before one of the founders of intercollegiate rowing dating to 1856 becomes the latest headliner in UW's 25th Windermere Cup.
"And," Strawson added, "don't jab me in the back with the oar."
Strawson was the unlucky one. He was rowing directly in front of me as we paddled one of the Huskies' boats - Cambridge left their hulls at home because they are expensive to ship across the Atlantic. We were edging away from Conibear Shellhouse on a picture perfect early afternoon of gliding across Lake Washington.
"What is that?" Strawson asked me, pointing to the giant, snow-packed peak rising through the clear above the lake to the southeast.
"That's Mount Rainer," I told him.
That turned out to be my biggest contribution to the voyage.
As we headed toward the Montlake Cut, the unique, tunnel-like water raceway that will be bracketed by as many as 40,000 people Saturday morning, I quickly grasped the lessons Strawson and Cambridge assistant coach Mark Beer tried giving me on the "erg" machine inside the shellhouse a few minutes earlier.
It's all about rhythm and timing.
"Draw in with your hands. Tamp down. Cock the wrist down."
"Hands, back, legs out. Legs, back, hands back."
"Square the oar. Now feather."
I thought maybe since I've done some kayaking I would have an inkling of what it takes to be crank out some speed with one of the world's top crews.
"It's nothing like kayaking," Coach Beer told me.
I was so preoccupied with keeping my oar in time with that of Strawson immediately in front of me, I kept clanking the oar inside its collar, not pushing with enough pressure with my outside hand. I was forgetting to feather the oar, leaving it squared and clanking off the water as I stroked it back.
"You are making it a lot harder on yourself," Strawson said, more gently than he could have.
"You are looking choppy. Like an Oxford crew," Beer chided from the coaches' boat, invoking the name of Cambridge's ultra rival in England's annual, legendary Boat Race.
Finally, about 10 minutes into the ride, I figured out the rhythm, the feathering, the flow. We were following the commands of coxswain Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, a Ph. D. student in land economy from Vancouver, British Columbia, and the only non-British rower on Cambridge's varsity boat here for the Windermere Cup. We were actually clipping along at a pace that even Beer approved of, through the megaphone a few yards - make that meters with this crew - away.
"All right, let's get after it. Let's get some race speed!" Beer commanded.
The Cambridge guys perked up at that. Except the coach didn't mean instantly, as I thought. I immediately put the oar in the water and cranked, while the rest of the boat waited for Kingdon-Bebb's commands.
The hull tipped to my oar's side as I clubbed Strawson in the middle of the back with the butt of it. He grabbed the edge of the shell to steady himself.
I had violated both of his pieces of advices in one, overeager swoop.
The rest of the boat roared. "I thought we were going in!" one yelped.
Finally, I got with the program of following Kingdon-Bebb's command. And off we went toward the cut. We took off like a shot. I could feel the speed and the teamwork making a difference, and I thought, "This is how this works."
Hence, the lesson from this introduction in crew: You are nothing if you are not in complete synchronization and in equal exertion with your teammates.
Strawson and his coach seemed almost stunned that we got up to a pace of 36 strokes per minute. That's just below what Cambridge wants to be at over a longer distance race.
"I was actually surprised," the 29-year-old Beer said, upon on our return to the dock. "You got your blade in every second stroke."
I don't think that's the way it's supposed to work, but I'll take it.
"I think the boys set up to tip the boat with you in it, but it was actually pretty awesome," Beer said.
Being Cambridge, these guys aren't dummies. Five in the boat's lineup are postgraduates like Strawson, who is studying computational biology. Stroke Joel Jennings is in biophysics.
And they say they hope to give Washington "a go" in Saturday's feature race on Seattle's opening day of the boating season.
Stanford and, on the women's side, Oklahoma are also here, a year after Oxford came. Tens of thousands lining the cut will great those teams in what everyone from Huskies longtime coach Bob Ernst to former UW two-time national champion Jenni Hogan call the most unique rowing venue they've come across in the world.
"It is unique. It is great," said Beer, a native of Australia. "That fact you have yachts pretty close to the race is pretty rare. At The Boat Race, we have hundreds of thousands of people on the Thames, but the Thames is so much wider than this.
"Forty thousand locals lining the cut? It's going to be an amazing atmosphere."
And one that isn't just going to be a spectacle for UW, the nation's top-ranked men's team. The Huskies are a week away from the Pac-10 championships, so this Windermere Cup is a crucial test to get right for that.
"This is an important prep race for us," Huskies men's coach Michael Callahan said.
Besides this, as Ernst said, is "the greatest free show in town."
"There is not getting around the fact that there are hundreds of yachts are going to be there tied up to the log boom," said Ernst, now the women's coach. "And Seattle people like to party.
"It's made to order for the Northwest."