At Long Last – The Epic Rowing Road Trip Post Mortem

Also published on on August 19, 2014. Please check out my column “Row ’til You Die” on row2k. Thank you!


People say I’m chronically late. I kind of am. I’m usually late for pieces on Tuesdays and Saturdays – or just barely in time. I took a train to NYC a few weeks ago and they shut the door right after I got on. Maybe I was born late.

I promised this last article to Ed Hewitt in the weeks after my trip ended, but as life unfolded, things got in the way and it never got emailed. I did, however, write stuff down, and, reading it over, it’s fun to look back. I’m glad I did a final accounting – and even more glad I saved it. Besides, I promised Ed the article. A good rower never breaks his (or her) promise.

So here it is, sports fans: Some interesting tidbits from The Epic Rowing Road Trip. Which, if you by any chance purged it from your memory, took place from October 27 to December 8, 2012.

In no particular order, the highlights and factoids are as follows:

Number of states in which I was physically located: 26, or half the number in the Union. Not bad for six weeks. In order, they were:

On the way out, starting in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

On the way back, starting in Newport Beach, California: Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. (Then back home through New York and into Massachusetts, already counted.

Miles traveled: almost 11,000. And other than a headlight replacement and an oil change, the VW Passat Wagon required nothing but gas and lots of TLC.

Number of speeding tickets: “Only” four. New Mexico, California, and two (he says, shamefaced), on my LAST day – yes, two in one day – in New York State. They’re not too crazy about people speeding in the Empire state (those cops are mean). In California, on the other hand, they encourage it. At $600 a pop, it’s the one thing keeping that ill-budgeted, overspending state from going completely under

Items lost:

  • Left my beloved Tempurpedic pillow in the Quality Inn in Roanoke, Virginia on the second night of my trip. Never should have brought it with me.
  • I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, but I left my slings at Johnny Cash’s lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Improvised for the rest of the trip. You don’t really need slings.
  • Closet full of clothes, left at the Cobblestone Inn in Carmel, California. They graciously mailed them back to me (waiting on my porch in Cambridge when I returned). I should have figured out this strategy earlier – a good way to lighten my load.
  • Nuts holding down the right-rear U-bolt on my Van Dusen car rack – loosened and jiggled off, somewhere in The Great Plains on the way home. Drove another 1,500 miles or so with only three U-bolts. Never even noticed, and the boat held steady.

Things I never used:

Ten paperback novels. Never touched them. Many evenings, I would read a few pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Heart of the Buddah’s Teaching” before crashing. Also brought Tim Riley’s biography of John Lennon – half read – which I didn’t open, but having Lennon looking at me during the entire trip somehow gave me comfort. Also never used the $30 Walmart tent I bought inphoto2 San Antonio. Nice tent though. Gave it to my son for Christmas.

Things I’m really glad I brought:

  • Cereal bowl, silverware, butane stove, saucepan for boiling water, 2 lbs of Peet’s coffee (ground for French press) and, most of all, the French press. I could, and did, make a cup of gourmet coffee in the middle of nowhere many a time.
  • Butane stove, on which to boil water for coffee.
  • I could, and did, keep milk and cream cold for days and days. I could, and did, have my obligatory bowl of cereal any time I wanted, anywhere I wanted.
  • Dansk sugar bowl and teaspoon – kept in large Ziplock bag. For the obligatory bowl of cereal.

Number of times slept in car: Three. Northern Virginia campground (never make a fire before bed – everything smells like smoke for days); truck stop, 30 miles east of Houston; Morro Bay campground. Morro Bay was by far the best. It was like waking up in heaven.

State with the nicest people: So many. People are nice everywhere you go, as long as you’re nice to them.

State where random people were mean for no particular reason: Texas.

State with the stupidest people, based on drivers and random people encountered: Iowa – no question. But then again, I was in a hurry and in a bad mood.

State with the best drivers: California – Southern. Hands down. They drive fast (so do I), but they know what they’re doing.

State with the worst drivers: Iowa. No question. Illinois truckers a close second.

Bane of my existence on the road: Truckers. God how I hated them. I’m convinced that they are bored and like to mess with you. A line of 4-6 trucks are moving along in the right-hand lane. As you approach, the one farthest back moves over to pass the rest of them, and takes forever doing so. He sees you coming, and he waits until you get there before moving over to pass. Then you watch as your $10,000 carbon-fiber boat gets whipped (“bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap…!!!!!”) from side to side as a result of the crazy wind from being behind the truck at 80 mph (er, I mean 65). Yes, people, this happened dozens and dozens of times. Over, and over and over. How I hate truckers. And my boat survived. Van Dusen makes a great single scull.

photo5Comments about boat on car: Way too many to count. Every stop, every fill-up, almost every person in sight. “Wow. What is that thing? Is that a boat? I told my wife it was a boat. Tell me something, how do you keep from tipping over in that thing? Wow that is one long canoe. Is that a kayak? It looks like a kayak. Kinda long though.”

Best comment about the boat: Driving through New Mexico, just after dusk, near El Paso, U.S. Border Patrol had a routine road block – stopping every car on the highway, drug-sniffing dogs, cops, guns, the whole thing. Big deal. When I got up there, the two armed, uniformed guards looked at me, the boat, the car with Massachusetts plates – the whole package. One of them cracks a half smile and says, “You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out with that thing!” The other one, half smiling, says, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” I said yes. “Go on…” He smiled. “Get outta here.”

photo3Best rows: too many to count. So many highlights: Nashville, Sarasota, canal in New Orleans (complete with alligators), Austin, Newport Beach, Morro Bay, San Francisco Bay.

Scariest row: Lake Kaweah outside of Vasalia, California. Storm moving in. Lots of rocks. Big waves and strong, gusty wind. Scary. The alligators were a close second, but I wasn’t really scared until I gave it some thought later that night.

Coolest human encounters: Again, too many to count. But meeting and hanging out (however briefly) with two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Susan Francia, who let me take several selfies with her, was pretty damn cool. Another top contender was Tulane Coach Bob Jaugstetter, who, upon insisting that he take me to dinner AND show me around the French Quarter after already being so gracious about letting me store my boat and row out of his facilities, said, “You don’t understand – this is New Orleans. THIS IS WHAT WE DO.”

Races: This wasn’t a racing trip, and it certainly wasn’t a training trip, but it was somehow fitting that the first thing I did on the journey was to race at the Head of the Schuykill in Philly, and the last thing I did was to race at the Christmas Regatta in Long Beach. I highly recommend both.

photo4Worst part of the trip: Coming home. After the wonderful “Heroes Welcome” I got at my beloved boat club (Riverside) wore off, I realized that I was still unemployed, still broken up with my girlfriend, and that I could no longer live the dream of driving around the country with a single scull on my car saying to random strangers, “Hey, can I put in here?”


Too much way back in the lay back

Some people have described me as being laid back. Others would strongly dispute this claim. But on one point there is little argument – in my rowing technique, I have wayyyy too much layback at the finish. It’s as though the former great Red Sox radio announcer, Jerry Trupiano, was calling a home run: “Way back! Way back!” Sigh.

For the uninitiated (non-rowers), this means that when I take my blades out of the water, I am leaning too far back from sitting vertically upright. This bad habit has several unfortunate effects: it causes the bow of the boat to plunge into the water, slowing it down; it actually makes it harder to get the blades out of the water (and I’ve crabbed a few times – even in races); it reduces or even eliminates the ability to “send” the boat faster off of the finish, which apparently is the idea (I wouldn’t know); it causes you to be less prepared for a proper recovery, since your body position is all wrong; and it just looks stupid.

Look at this photo from 2003, during one of the Head of the Kevin races:

’03 was a decent year for me – I won a silver medal in the light 2x at club nationals, had a lifetime PR in a Head of the Kevin practice race for the Charles with a time of 18:07 and won the my event in the Head of the Charles. With this layback in a wooden boat. What in the happy holy Hell is THAT all about. I’ll tell you one thing – as I got older and weaker through my latter 40s (I was 43 in this picture), I slowed down. I have two theories: first, my crappy layback was catching up with me big time, and I didn’t have the strength/conditioning to make up for the massive inefficiency at the finish; and second, I was rowing in a King, which is one of the best-designed boats on the planet. It turns on a dime and runs like the wind. I have no idea how Graeme does it. Had I been rowing in a less forgiving Van Dusen or Empacher, I suspect things could have been different. (I now row a Van Dusen Advantage, which I love.)

Now look at how it should be done – this is the final of the 2011 Men’s heavyweight singles at the world championships in Bled, Slovenia.

Most of the guys have little to no layback – it’s all legs, and the finish is perfectly coordinated. The timing is impeccable – when they’re done, they’re done – the oars are out of the water. It’s a marvel for me to watch. Focus especially on Ondrej Synek from the Czech Republic (lane 5). He’s a machine (well, they’re all machines). Interestingly, the guy who won, New Zealand’s Mahe Drysdale, has a little bit of layback. They even comment on it, saying that maybe he’s getting a bit more on his stroke than the rest (Mahe, you are my hero!!). So that gives me some comfort, but not much. He’s the exception, not the rule, and his speed is likely due to a whole host of factors, as is usually the case – that elusive combination of strength, conditioning, guts, mental toughness, etc. that winners possess.

In any case, for me, I know I need to sit up more at the finish and figure this out. 20 years of bad habits are very hard to break. I’m not so worried about the other elements…my catch and recovery seem to be ok. But many a coach over the past few years has been aghast at the inefficient finish that is literally dragging me down. Everyone on the river sees it and several have made comments. Ugh. The truth hurts, but you have to hear it.

So with a new attitude and a new coach at Riverside, not to mention a renewed commitment to actually start TRAINING in 2012, after slacking off most of the year, I hereby commit myself to trying to improve this situation.

Hope springs eternal – especially for masters rowers, the most stubborn and slow-to-change of all.