Eight Oars in the Water

“Rowing isn’t a huge thing for most high schools, so we mainly get kids with no experience at all,” says head coach of the University of California San Diego men’s crew, Zach Johnson. “UCSD just this year started handing out scholarships, spread equally across all athletes, for $500 a year. Most of my kids are engineers or in physics, so that’s really not much at all — probably two books. It’s a little bit of an incentive program.”

On Saturday, April 5, Johnson’s team will compete for the Copley Cup in the 35th Annual San Diego Crew Classic. “The Copley has everybody, all the top teams, and UCSD was invited to participate in that this year because we won [Cal Cup] last year. Harvard, Yale, Princeton — eight of the top ten teams from last year are coming. My guys are feeling a little bit overwhelmed, but I think we have a good crew. They can really move a boat.”

The race will be held in west Mission Bay. “The starting line is right underneath the SeaWorld gondola ride and goes to Crown Point Shores,” Johnson explains. All crew races are 2000 meters, which, Johnson says, the best crews can cover in under six minutes. “Last year we had a three-way photo finish. There was four-tenths of a second between the first- and third-place teams.”

The university has seven eight-man boats (or sculls), each costing between $30,000 and $40,000. “That would be a really nice car, but [the boat] doesn’t have cup holders, and you have to supply the engine,” Johnson quips. Individual oars cost between $300 and $400.

Johnson says manning the eight-oared scull takes as much skill as it does endurance and that, unlike many other sports, teamwork eclipses individual performance. Each scull is 55 feet long and a foot and a half wide at the center. Eight men operate the oars, and a coxswain (the oarless team leader) sits at the stern.

“You can put the best rower in the world into the boat, and it doesn’t make that much of a difference. It’s really about all eight guys and how they lock onto each other,” says Johnson. “There is so much technique. It’s like teaching figure skaters to be endurance athletes and to do the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one person makes a different hand movement, the entire boat goes off.”

The most common mistake crewmembers make is to “catch a crab.” As Johnson explains, occasionally a rower will fail to release his oar in time with the rest of his crew and, because more water passes over the top of the blade than under, the oar gets stuck. “Then the handle that was coming back keeps coming back like a big lever and catches you in the chest — with the boat going 15 to 20 miles an hour in one direction and the handle going the other, you’re going to lose.”

Rowers make between 35 and 40 strokes per minute. “When it happens,” Johnson says, referring to catching a crab, “it happens fast and violently.” It’s not uncommon for rowers to be ejected from the boat by the force of the out-of-control oar handle, though Johnson says it has been over two years since he has seen this happen.

Most upper-level rowers are tall and lean. “The taller you are, the more leverage you have.” Of course, a tall crew does not guarantee a win. “Last year the winning boat had two kids over six feet tall, and the rest were all six feet or under and 170 pounds — all very scrappy and light.” Johnson says cross-country runners, water-polo players, and swimmers tend to be the best rowers. “They do a lot of laps and are used to pushing themselves really hard and constantly moving.”

Members of Johnson’s crew each have about 5 percent body fat. “We lean them down. I had a kid who literally lost 50 pounds just from the season.” This despite taking in between 4500 and 5000 calories a day. The rowers train in Mission Bay three to four hours a day, six days a week, putting in as much as 20 miles of rowing per day.

“You find that collegiate rowers spend almost all their time together,” says Johnson. Because they start practice as early as 5 a.m., “most college kids, if they want to get any sleep, have to be in bed by 10 o’clock. You don’t find many college kids who go to bed by 10. My kids, by their third or fourth year, are all living together. I’ve got six guys in one house, three or four in another.”

Though he doesn’t see a lot of interaction between the men’s and women’s crews at UCSD, which he attributes to the teams’ different schedules, Johnson has been to three rower-marriage weddings in the past two years.

— Barbarella

35th Annual San Diego Crew Classic
Saturday, April 5
7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 6
7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Crown Point Shores Park
Mission Bay
Cost: $7, under 13 and military are free
Info: 619-225-0300 or www.crewclassic.org

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