Messing about in boats

Photography by Tim Marsh, WSU University Relations

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

That’s a line from the classic children’s book, “The Wind in the Willows.” I’m sure it was in the back of my mind when I signed up for the WSU Learn to Row program last summer.

Like Mole, a main character in the story, I was looking to get out more and messing about in boats seemed just the ticket.

I’ve now been rowing on the Snake River for two seasons, but there’s one thing I learned very quickly. People who row crew don’t mess about. At least not in the boat.

If you want to glide gracefully through the water, you need balance, timing, technique and focus. You don’t get that if you’re messing about.

As Coach Arthur Ericsson explained to us on that first afternoon at the Ken Abbey boat house at Wawawai Landing, the rowing stroke is simple to learn and nearly impossible to master.

Palouse Rowers
Regatta Aug. 14

Palouse Rowers are hosting Coeur d’Alene rowers at an end-of-season regatta at Wawawai Landing on Aug. 14. Spectators welcome. For information about Palouse Rowers or the regatta at Wawawai Landing, contact Rick Conrey.

Read more

about the Learn to Row and master’s rowing program at or visit the
WSU Men’s Crew website

at for more information.
There are four components: the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery. The catch is when your body is compressed around your knees like a spring and you drop the blade in the water. During the drive you push with your legs, stretch out your body and pry the oar through the water.  At the finish you pull your arms to your body and lift the blade out of the water. The recovery is when you move back into the compressed position and get ready for the catch.

In theory, it is one seamless motion.  Most anyone can do it, but doing it well is difficult and doing it well consistently can be a lifelong aspiration. If I manage five or six strong strokes in synch with the other seven rowers during a 90 minute practice, I’ve accomplished something.

Late in the season, when the pace is faster and our timed sets are longer, I’m happy if I can just stay in the boat.  With so much force propelling the boat through the water, if you fail to get your blade out at the same time as everyone else, your oar can go ballistic. I’ve never been ejected, but I have been knocked off my seat.  It’s called catching a crab and it’s a jarring consequence of not keeping up.

For elite rowers, crew is much more than keeping up. For them, it’s about strength and endurance. It’s about pushing yourself to your limit, and then some, and doing so in perfect unison with every other person in the boat. For me, it’s enough to keep up, improve my technique one stroke at a time and enjoy the beauty and solitude of the Snake River as it winds its way through the Palouse.

Palouse Rowers, the team name for the masters rowing program, welcomes rowers of all ages and ability levels. Some people in the boat have been rowing for many years, others rowed during college many years ago. Every year there are rowers who are current college students and row for their college teams. And then there are people like me who took up the sport mid-life because it sounded like a fun thing to do on a summer afternoon.

But, for 90 minutes three times a week we are all focused on perfecting one simple stroke. Some days it’s harder than others. Rather than a swan gliding across the water, there are days when our boat has looked more like an overweight duck trying to fly.

But, eventually we come right. We keep at it and it gets better.  With balance, timing, technique and focus, we keep at it and we go farther and faster than some of us thought we could.

And that, my young friend, is even more satisfying than simply messing about.