Confessions of a New Rower

by Deborah Clearman

From 2013-09-27

So maybe I was a little desperate. I’d recently left my dream job. A knee injury forced me to give up the thrice-weekly jogging habit that got me outdoors and maintained my tenuous grasp on mental health. My life was full of holes—a sinking ship. Running past Pier 40 on the Hudson I’d often noticed a sign for FREE ROWING.

I’d seen those lunatics in rowboats and kayaks bouncing around in the middle of the harbor as speedboats, water taxis, Circle Lines, jet skis, tankers, tugs, ocean liners, fireboats, and the Beast roared by. They looked like toddlers on tricycles playing on the Jersey Turnpike. Nevertheless, I decided to give rowing a try.

I showed up on a Sunday at noon for my first Community Row. At orientation inside the Boathouse I lifted a 9-foot oar—surprisingly light—and felt the planks of a Whitehall gig—surprisingly thin. I signed a waiver (gulp!), donned a life jacket (whew!), and went outside where the bright sun of a beautiful September afternoon sparkled on the river.

The first step to rowing, it turned out, was a complicated process of lowering a 25-foot wooden boat fifteen feet down from the pier to the water. By the time the crew was assembled in the gig, my pin and ring set, my oar tossed, I felt I’d already received an advanced degree in nautical language. We pulled away from the pier and took a turn around the “cove,” the protected water between the hulking mass of Pier 40 (gently crumbling into the river) and the iconic ventilation stack of the Holland Tunnel.

Having mastered the basics of port and starboard, hold water and stroke, Coxswain Frank gave a blast on his horn and we headed out across the river. I bent my back and heaved at my oar, breathing hard, heart pounding, to keep in time with the stroke. I was the only member of the crew over sixty. The others were random German and American tourists, all strapping and athletic looking and under thirty. “Can I do this?” I thought.

Bounding over wakes and waves, Frank steered us straight for New Jersey, just daring the traffic in the shipping lanes to get between us and our goal. I felt the power of the wind and tide, great forces of nature sweeping through the heart of megalopolis. Twenty minutes later we pulled into a cove in Jersey City to rest. “I can do this forever!” I thought, flooded with exhilaration.

That was a year ago. I’ve been back every Sunday I could since then. I’ve made a new community of friends— the volunteers who keep Village Community Boathouse going.
In Community Rows I’ve met people from 14 to 80— a young African- American woman from the Bronx studying to be a fire fighter, a Russian computer tech, an official photographer for the NYC Sanitation Department, a group of Asian alumni from a high school in Brooklyn, waiters, actors, nurses, college professors, yoga instructors, retirees, people passing through, native New Yorkers, people who have never rowed and others who’ve been around boats all their lives. Some try it once. Others like me get hooked. In the spring I trained to become a coxswain so that I can help spread the joy of rowing to anyone who shows up at Pier 40 with a spirit of adventure and maybe a bit of a hole in their life.

From 2013-09-27

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