Row with the flow

Toni Martinez is barking into a bullhorn across the water at four women who are awkwardly moving backward in a boat. The rowers are sitting on gliding seats in a mix of positions — leaning forward, back or ram-rod straight — and their oar blades are scrambled, too — laying flat, slapping the surface or digging into the water.

This is the first day that new members of the Ashland Rowing Club are in one boat together and there are few moments of synchronized movements. They are trying too hard to propel the boat on Emigrant Lake and they have yet to learn to let go of the fierce grip they have on their oars.

Over the next hour, however, Coach Martinez will reassure them that soon they will be as beautifully in sync as the crew gliding near them. But smoothness is a long way away.

"We can teach anyone to row by the end of summer," says Martinez, a member of the club since it was founded in 2000 and who serves as a coach to novices and the junior rowing team. "It feels really funky for a long time, but after a while, everything feels natural."

The women in the four-person boat, a "quad," already have gone through a boot camp of sorts, three days in the private club's boathouse learning basic techniques on rowing machines (called ergometers) and watching videos on the consequences of falling into cold water and other preventable disasters.

They also have experienced two short sessions on the lake in an eight-person shell, but their newbie skills were matched with rowing veterans, and they were sweep rowing, which means they only had to deal with one 12 1/2-foot-long oar.

On their practice last Saturday, they were put into a quad, each with two 9 1/2-foot-long oars, and set adrift with Coach Martinez circling them in a motorboat, giving them instructions and critiquing their moves to avoid slowing the quad's forward progress, what's called "checking," offsetting it or tipping it over.

As spectators with picnic baskets and fishing poles watched on land, the new members concentrated on correctly executing the stroke.

"Arms away, body over, up the slide. Then push with the legs, swing with the back and arms down," Martinez says, adding a step each time, then starting over again. "If you don't have those six pieces in order, you get clumped up and you have no place to go with the oars and they catch and that's 'the crab,' what throws you into the water."

The new members know to follow the coach's commands and that "weigh enough" means to stop rowing, talking or doing whatever they are doing. But other terms — something like "Bow pair give me a couple strokes" — cause confusion.

Allyson Phelps, 61, of Ashland, is sitting in the hot seat — the bow of the boat — since she has previous rowing experience. When she was 35 and living in Florence, Italy, she tried rowing a single scull on the Arno River, but, she recalls, "I didn't understand anything they were telling me in Italian." She attempted again years later when she was living in Marin County, but she had a baby and couldn't attend the sessions regularly. Now the empty nester is ready to try again.

She assesses her new member group — called "Greens" in this club — optimistically. "We are staying afloat. They say you learn really quick but it takes a long time to be good. There are lots of little things to pull together with other beginners — you can't let your mind wander — but we will make progress each time. It's a perfect opportunity to be on the water if you're not a fisherman or water skier."

On the water, Coach Martinez uses the same patient voice her students at Walker Elementary hear during school days, but her instructions here are more repetitive and woven with humor: "Arms away — wait, Allyson is way ahead of you. Row. Good. Again. Sit up straight. This is a tall girl's sport even if you're short."

Half of the 26 graduates of April's introductory rowing clinic who wanted to continue to row became members, paying $145 dues for three months of thrice-weekly coaching and member privileges that may include reciprocal rights to use equipment owned by other rowing clubs and a chance to meet people here who travel the country with shells on the top of their cars, visiting one rowing club after another.

Rowing is a growing sport, according to FISA, the international rowing federation, because it attracts people from teenagers to octogenarians who enjoy recreational or competitive activities, and who want low-impact exercise.

"People say you have great arms because you row, but it's not about the arms," says Martinez, patting her quads. "These are the muscles you want to use, then you use your second dynamic area, your core."

She then reminds the Greens to relax their hands on the oar handles, to "give up control to get control."

There are a few disbelieving faces. Martinez continues: "Once you swing with the core, the blades come back." To prove her point, she instructs Erin Coke, sitting closest to the stern, to lift her hands after the group completes the drive and the boat glides.

After the group makes it back to the dock, unlocks their oars, lifts the quad out of the water and returns it to the rack, Martinez gives them a pep talk: "If it feels as if you're pulling against it, it's probably wrong. It should feel easy, like you're floating."

That's certainly something to look forward to.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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