Life’s Funny

This Oar That?

Rowing with a crew cut from plebes


By Maria Johnson

The guy at the back of the boat was shouting instructions to us, a motley crew of mostly first-timers at the sport of rowing.

It was sunset on Lake Brandt. Two other sweep boats — almost 60 feet long and as thin as reeds — were brimming with beginners, too.

We’d assembled at the invitation of the Greensboro Crew rowing team, which was recruiting new members for its masters squad.

“Masters,” incidentally, is an athletic way of saying you live somewhere between a dormitory and a nursing home.

Anyway, I took my place in the middle of the eight-person boat, my feet tucked loosely into a pair of way-too-big sneakers bolted to a board in front of my sliding seat. My hands steadied an oar that stuck out 12 feet to my right; the blade kept sinking — not a recommended position for moving forward.

Meanwhile, the guy at the back of the boat (there’s a proper name for him, but I’ll get to that later) yelled instructions to us.

To the untrained ear, he sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

“Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah,” he said.

“What did he say?” I wondered aloud.

“I have no idea,” said someone.

“Wah-wah,” said the guy.

“Did you get that?” I said.


“Wah-WAH-wah-wah-wah,” the guy insisted.

There was an awkward silence on the water. So I did what I usually do in situations like this. I focused on something totally unrelated.

“Ooooo, look at the pretty geese,” I said as a couple of longnecks skimmed the water beside us.

The two other boats lurched at speeds that seemed appropriate to novices.

Our boat seemed to be — what’s the nautical term? Dead in the water?

The confusion stemmed from language. Rowers have their own lingo, which we newbies were struggling to pick up.

Here’s a crash course:

The person who sits at the back of the boat, giving orders, is the coxswain, or cox for short.

The eight rowers — who sit backward in the boat, facing the cox — are called by their seat numbers. Their oars are staggered, half jutting to one side, half to the other.

Most people know that port is left and starboard is right. But if you’re rowing, and your oar sticks out to your right, it’s a port oar because everything is defined from the cox’s point of view. It’s like stage right and stage left.

Then there’s the whole bow-stern, front-back thing.

So when the cox yells, “Stern pair, row,” what he means is, “Y’all two right in front of me, get on it!” but he can’t say that because, you know, rowing.

While we newcomers decoded all of this, our boat flailed around like a doped-up Jesus bug on the water. Some legs were working, some weren’t.

It’s a wonder we weren’t swirling in a circle.

Why, you might ask, was I there?

Well, it’s like this: An old tennis friend called me one night to say how much fun she was having rowing. It seems that youth rowing got going in Greensboro about two years ago, as an offshoot of a sister crew at Oak Hollow Lake in High Point.

The Greensboro masters team started about the same time.

My friend went on to explain how rowing is a great, no-impact workout.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

She explained how, during the winter, the Greensboro crew works out with rowing machines called ergs (short for ergometers).

“Uh-huh,” I said

She explained how rowing on the water is thrilling except for when your oar catches the water wrong — which is called “catching a crab” — and how that can eject you from the boat — but don’t worry, hahaha, because it happens to everyone. And, oh, by the way, you can swim, right?

“Uhhhh-huhhhh,” I said.

Then she mentioned cookouts and good times.

“I’m in,” I said.

And that is how I found myself bird watching from Seat Four.

You’ll be happy to know that our boat eventually got the hang of it. The head instructor, Mary Hollingsworth  — who’d assured us that we’d be completely lost the first three times we rowed — motored out in a launch and talked to us, via megaphone, as if we were kindergartners. It worked.

Pretty soon, we were rowing somewhat in synch, moving semifast, and catching only small crabs.

No one was ejected from the boat, although one rower pulled so hard, she came clean out of her shoes and rocketed backward on her rail. She thought it was pretty damn funny. I did, too.

I suppose this would be a good place to say that no cursing is allowed while rowing for the Greensboro and High Point crews.

Good thing I’m writing.

The point is, for a few brief, shining moments, we did it right. We worked as a team, learned something entirely new, felt the humility of being awful at first and the satisfaction of grasping it — something we “masters” don’t subject ourselves to very much.

All around us, the water shimmered in the pink robe of dusk. Purple martins chattered and swerved in the breeze. Blue heron waded in the shallows.

And yes, the geese were so pretty flying in their instinctive V’s, lined up in a way that got them, efficiently and beautifully, where they needed to go.

It was #$@!* glorious.  OH

Maria Johnson can be reached at Learn more about rowing at