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 Chapter 2


Let's now fast forward some decades with the same main character. You have, in the course of this time, realized a good many of your mother's hopes, often in ways that she found off-putting. Still, through booms and busts, both economic and moral, you've continued to row a variety of boats. Among the prettiest was a round-bottomed wooden rowboat, one of few survivors from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These used to swarm over the Atlantic coast, and there are pictures of scores of ladies and gentlemen out rowing on summer days and evenings. That is, the gentlemen rowed. The ladies, favoring frills and big hats, sat erectly on the large stern seats, one hand behind them as they steered with little varnished tillers. Most of the boats had two rowing positions, and ladies with more complex relationships would have two men rowing in front of them, thus enabling them to pass by their sisters mired in less enterprising situations.

It's generally thought that the best day of your life is the one on which your dog dies and your children leave home. Not so in your case. It turned out that almost all the things you thought you owned actually belonged to one or another child. "Your" rowboat went with one of them, and later left the family in a divorce action.

It was back to skiffs for you, much like the one of your boyhood. Now in your forties, the skiffs still tended to collect trash, but a different sort of trash. Instead of being picked up out of the water, it was bought expensively in outdoor outfitting stores, usually with a major voyage in mind. Some people objected to the jumble of equipment, which made cleaning impossible, but you recall that, in Maine, it was nothing against a man to say of him, "he jes ain't fussy."

As always, a skiff blows and slides sideways, and waves will sometimes pop over the sides, particularly at the angle where the sides meet the square stern. But the skiff, with its pointed bow, is far superior to the execrable john-boat (a fresh water craft with square bow and stern), and it can be rown in surprising rough water. With your mother no longer there to watch and limit your scope, you could row directly out to sea against the wind, and then come back directly before it. As with many other small boats, the important thing is not to broach to, or be spun by a following sea. That, in most cases, leads to a capsize.

Over many years, you've had an interesting and varied experience of tipping over in small boats. Sometimes, particularly in kayaks, it's very quick. Suddenly you're under water. It's generally just possible to reconstruct what happened as you either roll up or wet exit. In the latter case, you swim, gurgling up the water you've swallowed, as your friends jeer at you.

More often, there's a slow inevitability to the process. Despite your best efforts, a following sea lifts the stern of your skiff and twists you sideways. You fall to leeward as the boat slides down the wave at an ever increasing angle. One oar is buried deep and the other flails in the air. "Oh shit", you think to yourself, "I'm going over."

The consequences of tipping over vary. You've recently returned to Maine in winter. The northern ocean utterly changes its personality at that time of year. The dawns are glorious with every wave reflecting bright light in a cumulative overwhelming way. The islands look as if they're lifted above the surface of the water, and strong winds sweep the whole empty ocean. Maneuvers that are commonplace in summer suddenly become dangerous. The beauty is unmatched, particularly if you're alone and undistracted, but it isn't easy to stay dry and reasonably warm, even if you don't tip over. It's still harder if you do capsize.

At the other extreme, you may be in the middle of a warm-water bay with a light breeze and no swell in August. One might wonder what piece of buffoonery could lead to a capsize in such circumstances. Just now, at age seventy, you've managed it.

A strong need to urinate was to blame. There are young bucks who eject a stream sufficient to knock down bowling pins at ten paces, and whose pride in their luxurient manhood overcomes all inhibitions. Even if there are boats all around him loaded with nuclear family groupings, such a gentleman will stand up and let fly.

Unfortunately, your bloated prostate gland allows only a thin stream. You also suspected that there wasn't anyone within thousands of miles who wanted to view your equipment. The urge, on the other hand, mounted noticeably.

You began by pretending to be fishing over the side of the skiff, and then discovered that you could get closer to the water if you were fascinated by a fictive jellyfish just under the surface. Even so, it was hard to get the old whatsit close enough to the rail to get anything over it. A final effort, combined with a surge of modesty, did get you quite close. So close that you started to fall out of the boat altogether. You instinctively grabbed for the rowing seat, and the boat came over on top of you.

The other boats, on seeing this, all headed for you at best speed in order to render aid. But you knew better. They really wanted to laugh at you. This wasn't paranoia. Even though you are one who believes that the men who work on golf courses follow you in order to laugh at you, you are sure of your ground in this instance. All people in boats laugh at people who've tipped over, run aground, or messed up attempts to land at docks.

Since most yachtspeople are fairly well-bred, they don't laugh out loud. But their expressions give them away. You, having relieved yourself underwater, had to invent a story. It's never easy when you're looking up from the water at people with solicitous faces to find the right thing to say. A feigned heart attack or illness would have caused the Coast Guard to convey you to an emergency room without the option. But just how did you manage to tip over? On a sudden inspiration, you called out,

"No spika da Ingliss."

Women don't have this sort of problem. There are very few who are willing to stick their naked rear ends over the side of a boat in a crowded harbor. If a woman can't get her companions to stop fishing, and becomes truly desperate, she simply wets herself. You now do the same thing in such circumstances. It's an odd, warm, but really not unpleasant, sensation. You also have a simple and elegant solution to the potentially embarrassing problem of arriving on shore wet from a dry boat. You simply maneuver toward the beach, and, when the water is waist deep, you jump out. People hardly notice this minor eccentricity, and the salt water dilutes the urine remaining in your knickers to the point of insignificance.

The other main problem with small rowboats, particularly skiffs, is being blown further out to sea than you want to go. In Maine, there are strong northwest winds which seem to want to blow you to Morocco, and, in California, there are the easterly Santa Anas which seem to have Japan in mind. There are, however, some mitigating factors. A wind that comes off the land doesn't have as much chance to kick up waves as one from seaward. The chop can be a driving force, but it doesn't pick you up and fling you. You have personally never encountered a land breeze that you couldn't overcome in over sixty years in various rowboats. But you've been very nearly stymied by winds of some thirty-five or forty knots. If it's stronger than that, you either have to stay inshore or keep a good-sized island to leeward to fetch up on as a last resort. Even better is to keep an anchor with some three hundred feet of line in your boat.

This particular situation is worse if you're in a skiff. The bow sticks up enough to be blown off course, and there's nothing more frustrating when rowing hard than to have to constantly adjust your course. In addition, the skiff is slower than most other rowboats, and speed is here of the essence.

When rowing against a strong breeze, you have to go virtually full out for hours until you get back. If you row only hard enough to maintain your position, you'll be blown offshore when you wear out. You have to gain significantly with each stroke. But, since you're usually out beyond lobster pots and buoys, there's no way of measuring progress. It's necessary just to remember that you've overcome such situations in the past and keep rowing.

You have found one partial preventative against both tipping over and being blown out to sea. It consists in having a good seat.

In most rowboats there is what amounts to a plank amidships for the rower. This is all right for rowing across the cove, but there isn't anything to keep you from sliding sideways when the boat tips. By contrast, the whitewater kayaker pads his boat so that it fits him to the point that he has to "screw" himself into it. This gives him the control which is essential for rolling, and also for edging the boat in many required maneuvers. However, the more an ordinary rowboat tips, the more the rower is thrown down to leeward, thus accentuating the tip, perhaps to the point of capsizing. Your first attempted solution was simple: You just tied in place padding which kept you in the middle of the seat. Inflatables are best, since it's possible to inflate them just the right amount. You generally used the very expensive air bags and paddle floats available in kayak shops.

Nevertheless, a small boat in a considerable cross sea (with waves coming from more than one direction) rolls awfully fast and throws its occupant dangerously around. No amount of inflated padding was found to be fully satisfactory. More recently, you've tied yourself in place. All it takes is a fanny pack around your mid-section and ropes connecting it to the gunwales on each side. S-hooks can be used on the belt of the pack, and are easy to remove in an emergency.

Once stabilized laterally, there is then the question of what to sit on. In a rowing shell with a sliding seat, a great part of the thrust comes from the legs as they coordinate with the back and arms. However, the legs are still important with a supposedly fixed seat rowboat. Even if your bottom doesn't move, the action of the back and arms, which would otherwise push you off the seat toward the stern, is balanced by the legs and feet pushing against something solid. That something can be either the stern seat or a brace rigged across the boat.

This is well and good, but you have found that your thrust is greatly increased if your rear end can move a little, even if only a few inches. This is accomplished with a rather large inflatable cushion, and the ones that come with the Sevylor inlatable kayak are ideal.

Finally, it's important, not only to brace the feet, but to arrange something to hold them in place. It should be just loose enough to allow you to get out of the boat. The result is that, on the backstroke, you can do what amounts to an abdominal exercise bringing your arms and shoulders forward and thrusting out strongly. The more force you put into the backstroke, the better you are set up for a powerful forward stroke.

The upshot of these arrangements is speed. And speed is what keeps you from being blown out to sea. Still, apart from a good basic stroke, there is another point to be observed in such circumstances.

When rowing against head seas, or even a strong current, you've sometimes found yourself digging in deep with the oars and straining against them. This is connected with a false image of rowing. In that image the oar is a lever, the oarlock the fulcrum, and the blade something that is relatively fixed in a resisting medium. You than pry yourself forward, one stroke at a time. You have read that this is wrong, and have yourself found it to be a mistake. It is, in fact, a good way to break an oar.

The current thinking is that oar blades function rather like a propellor. They generate a stream of water moving aft which, in turn, pushes you forward. The faster that stream, the faster you go. Thus, instead of digging deep and slowing the blades down, you keep them moving fast near the surface, no matter what conditions you may be encountering.

You haven't always found this easy to do in practice. The oar blades are entering the water behind you where you can't easily see them, and, in rough water, you can miss the surface altogether and get only air. This is even more likely to happen if you're trying to keep them shallow. The only solution in such conditions is to feel the water against the blades an instant before pulling. There is a slight hesitation which disrupts the stroke, but it can't be helped. It's still better than digging deep.

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