Pulling as One

Beginner rowing at Aloha Camp for girls
Beginners get one-on-one coaching on the Aloha crew dock

Aloha Camp was in full summer swing last week, one perfect day following another. On Tuesday afternoon, the sun beamed down full, adding sparkle to Lake Morey’s brilliant blue. Four campers walked down to the lake past the ARC (Aloha Rowing Club), where Aloha Crew counselors Emma and Arielle waited for them on a short dock.

Among the colorful beach towels draped over dock posts and the boisterous splashing of swimmers, the girls gathered around a sleek, gray, metal rowing machine. Harper settled into its sliding seat. The rowing machine, a Concept 2 ergometer, mimics the action of rowing. Olympic and collegiate crews train on Concept 2 ergometers year-round. While other campers watched, Arielle talked Harper through the sequence. Harper grasped a handle connected to a coiled chain inside the flywheel of the “erg” and pushed her hands away from her body — “as if they’re going across a little tabletop and then coming back underneath it,” said Arielle, impressing upon Harper the importance of keeping her hands level. “We don’t want any divots in the table.” Next Harper leaned her upper body forward, maintaining the extension of her arms. Finally, Arielle asked Harper to add legs to the sequence. The camper slid all the way to the front of her slide until her body was tightly compressed at what rowers call “the catch.” On Arielle’s command, Harper uncoiled in the reverse sequence, pushing down her legs, unfolding her back, and pulling her arms and the handle in above her waist. The flywheel whirred.

The lakeside scene on this perfect summer day was, in some ways, at odds with the classic imagery of summer camp. Rowing is a complicated sport, best taught by experienced coaches, best learned on expensive equipment that in turn needs to be treated with extra care. A teenager interested in learning to row can find youth programs in the few places with the right combination of demographics and location, in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Seattle. It’s rare to find crew at a summer camp, and rarer still to find a camp, like Aloha, where rowing has a long tradition.

Beginners learn the stroke on an ergometer
Beginners learn the stroke on an ergometer

A quarter-century ago, before women’s crew swept through colleges around the country and began trickling down into high schools, a former canoeing counselor and lifelong friend of Aloha, Alice Jones (Jonesie), donated a single rowing shell to the camp. The single was kept at canoeing, where it was particularly appreciated by counselor Jan Fulton, who found a way to share her delight in rowing with Aloha campers. She recommended to then-Aloha director Nancy Pennell, that the camp direct a family donation toward the purchase of two, four-person rowing shells from Harvard. Pennell set up Aloha Crew as a department in 1997, with Fulton its first head.

In recent years, as crew has worked its way into the country’s mainstream, the sport at Aloha has followed a steep growth curve of its own. Overseeing the program today is Laura Gillespie, a former collegiate rower at Dartmouth, experienced youth coach, and a current national-level masters’ rower. Three weeks into the 2011 summer session, 60 campers had already signed up for crew. Some, like Heather, followed the example of mothers who rowed in college; others had heard about it from sisters, cousins, and friends. Some, like Harper, had simply been curious.

Harper and Heather and the other campers on the dock stood on the bottom rung of the Aloha crew teaching ladder. Each needed to show a command of the three basic rowing-motion techniques on the erg and in a boat anchored at the dock before she could progress to the novice level, rowing by pairs on the lake.

Arielle looked on, offering tips and encouragement. She was a counselor in the crew department this year, after serving an apprenticeship in 2010. She’d learned to row at Aloha, had taken that interest back to her home in the Boston area and joined a junior program on the Charles River. But her days during the school year were too full to include rowing. She was grateful that she didn’t have to give up rowing entirely, but that she could return to Lake Morey and teach rowing four periods a day, six days a week, to Aloha campers.

After several minutes watching the erg workout, Arielle sent Harper over to Emma and Gillespie, who were holding a four-person Vespoli racing shell in place next to the dock. The Vespoli four was also new to Aloha. Aloha parent Loretta Leatherwood had made her local high school crew team an offer: She’d purchase them a new racing shell if they’d donate the one they were currently using, along with its high-performance oars, to Aloha. Harper gingerly lowered her body into the boat. With Emma and Gillespie coaching her, Harper practiced the stroke she’d learned on the erg, now holding an actual oar in her hand.

On Wednesday afternoon, Harper again walked down to the crew dock, and was again met by Emma, Arielle, and Gillespie. This time, she stepped into the bow seat of the Vespoli four as a novice rower. The stroke and second seats were occupied by two of the department’s advanced rowers, as was the coxswain’s seat, facing the stroke; another novice took the third seat. The four pushed out from the dock. Gillespie and Arielle followed close behind in a launch.

The rowers pulled past the sound of swimmers splashing and yelling. Singing voices — practice in the Hale for the upcoming musical — carried over the water behind them. Out on the lake, bright white sails of a regatta between Aloha and Lanakila floated on the blue. A cooling breeze tagged along below puffy white clouds like a child running along behind big white kites. Harper chewed on her lower lip, concentrating on each stroke.

Arielle called from the launch, “How does it feel?” Harper replied first with a shake of the head and a sideways smile. “It’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard to follow another person.”

Later, Harper would say she was glad she had started with the erg. “It wouldn’t have worked to row on the water first,” she said. “I’m not the most coordinated person.” With the erg experience in her mind’s eye, she found she could focus on the sequence — arms out, then body, then legs up the slide — and do it with a heavy oar in a tippy boat. Out there on the water, the coaches saw it taking hold, saw her falling into a rhythm, maybe falling under rowing’s spell.

Harper appreciated something else, too. “It isn’t necessarily a sport that everyone gets introduced to,” she said. “Here, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or if you’ve ever seen anyone row before. Everyone gets a chance to try it. We’re all starting from the same place.”

Before leaving the dock, girls are confident of the rowing stroke
Before leaving the dock, girls are confident of the rowing stroke

Rowing is taught at Aloha in the Aloha way. In a typical rowing club or team, the focus is on refining skills and preparing for competition. At Aloha, the point of every activity, crew included, is to further a young woman’s understanding of herself. The focus is on making good use of opportunities, of consciously making choices. That means, Gillespie says, that some girls come down to the crew dock every day, and that other girls come down once or twice and don’t return. They all learn something about themselves in the process.

For the campers who chose to make crew a focus of their time at Aloha, a special opportunity awaited. The morning after Harper rowed into the middle of Lake Morey for the first time, the two experienced rowers and coxswain from her boat and several other advanced Aloha rowers traveled to the Connecticut River. There they practiced in an eight-person shell, rowing in the same boat with experienced master’s level athletes — one of them Loretta Leatherwood — and coached by a former Dartmouth coach.

Yet even with that kind of opportunity, even the opportunity to experience a featherweight Vespoli racing shell and high-performance oars, crew is unusually hard. And as hard as individual rowers must work, crew requires an equally intense group effort. It’s extremely difficult for four or eight rowers to pull absolutely in synch. When all that physics and energy come together, though, rowers experience the paradox of effortless intensity — and the boat feels like it’s flying. That magic, transcendent moment is called “swing.” All rowers strive for the moment. Once they experience it, they never want it to end, and they never forget it.

Four move as one
Four move as one

Back on Lake Morey, Harper and the other rowers steadied their boat as they went, slowly and deliberately, then faster. The sun shone. Perhaps there was more than rowing going on: four girls pulling together, feeling the reward of something hard done well, individually and together, a metaphor for Aloha, the rowers in full swing, the camp in full swing, gliding across the sparkling blue of a perfect summer afternoon.

Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors.  After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor.  Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.