It was my senior year in college, and it was our first crew race of the season. I was ready to tackle the competition on behalf of our school’s storied rowing tradition. For some reason, there was no team bus to take us to the race, so my friend Brian found an abandoned fire truck for us to go in. You know the kind: the one you might find displayed in your local fire department as a tribute to days gone by, the one with no engine in front and an open-air cab, probably towed by a team of horses. We must have gone separately, because I don’t remember anyone else riding with us.
When we got to the race venue, we didn’t see the rest of our varsity team there, but only our freshman, who showed up in a dilapidated 30-foot long VW bus that was about 50 years old. For some reason, most of the bus was filled with their parents, who naturally had no idea what rowing was about. Two of them were chattering and had a bunch of cameras hanging around their necks.
I was starting to have my doubts about this race, but I decided to put them aside and focus on our team’s strong heritage of winning. As I approached, I took in the surroundings: a clearing in a forest with an old warehouse in the middle. I looked at Brian. “Where is the course?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was from outer space. “In there,” he pointed to the warehouse. I frowned, because most of the windows were broken and there was a thick layer of grime on the outside. Brian went in, though, so with a shrug I followed.
We went inside and found ourselves knee-deep in water. Most of the warehouse was flooded, but for various elevated platforms upon which all the teams and participants stood. I was confused, but it seemed like everyone else had been expecting this. ‘Oh well,’ I thought. I couldn’t let these circumstances get in the way of a great start to my last year.
By some miracle I found our assistant coach in the middle of the crowd. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pointed to a sort of a canal running the length of the warehouse. “We’ve been looking for you. Your race is just lining up now!”
Normally, a crew meets before the race to focus and discuss strategy. Then they grab their boat and under the direction of the coxswain (the little person who doesn’t row) put their boat in the water. This is followed by 30-40 minutes of warming up on the water before the actual start.
I frowned. “Where are the others?”
My coach looked at me like I had shrimp falling out of my ears. “There is no one else.” Seeing my look of utter confusion, he said, “you’re racing a single today.”
Now back in real life, I was used to sweep rowing (two hands on one oar), and in the relative steadiness of a wider four- or eight-man boat. This was totally different: handling two oars (sculls, to be precise) in a very tippy shell.
Again, I put my doubts aside and focused on my own competitive experience to help me through this. I heard the race organizers call my name on a bullhorn, so I ran to the dock and found my shell sitting there. It seemed the other boats were already lining up in their appropriate lanes and the organizers were taking a lot of heat for delaying the race for me. I reasoned I was getting the extra courtesy because of my team’s winning history; nonetheless, I didn’t want to be late. I was steeped in anxiety and was rushing to get in my lane, but then I realized I didn’t have my racing gloves. (There are no such things in real life, but again, why let reality and logic intrude?)
I quickly made my way back to the dock and rushed into the crowd to find my gloves. Normally each team has a dedicated area where their boats are stored, as well as racks where their oars are stood upright. Not so here. Participants and observers alike were milling about and totally uninterested in my plight. Didn’t they understand that I needed my racing gloves and that I was holding up a race?!
Out of nowhere came the two parents I had seen on the VW bus. Because of the constant din inside the warehouse from the hordes of people, I had to shout into their ears. I explained that my gloves were red and blue leather with white stripes all over them. They nodded their understanding and found an ankle-deep pile of shoes and gloves on the floor. My stomach churned in dismay as they threw shoes and gloves about in a struggle to find them. Somehow, the noise was getting louder. After oh, say, another thirty minutes, they found my gloves! At least, I was pretty sure they were my gloves. They were blue and red and I grabbed them and pushed through the crowd.
By this time I was crippled with dread and fear that my head coach would find out how unprepared I was and how this was a complete boondoggle. I got back into my shell and turned the corner to see for the first time the actual race course: mildewy green sunlight poured through the broken windows and onto the dirty water of the warehouse. The course was roughly 12 feet across and was strewn with broken crates and pallets floating around. It looked like a typhoon swamped Chinatown.
Keep in mind that sculling oars can be 9 feet long or longer. And everyone needs two. And there were about twenty people in this race.
Nonetheless, I was here and ready to race! I made my way to the starting line amongst the murmuring and grumbling of the other rowers who had been waiting for me for almost an hour at this point. Actually, only some of them were rowers because only some of them had racing shells. There were other vessels, too. I spotted a few dragon boats, with extremely large serpent heads jutting out from the bow. A couple people had regular rowboats. The guy next to me was in a paddleboat.
Now that I made it to the starting line, I tried to put on my gloves but something didn’t feel quite right. I looked down and realized to my horror that the freshman parents who helped me out earlier handed me not my racing gloves but two oven mitts instead. And they were both right-handed. I cursed under my breath – I couldn’t let the others see how rattled I was. I quickly stuffed them inside my boat and took ahold of my oars.
Again, something didn’t feel right. Only then did I realize how I didn’t have much trouble maneuvering in the crowded mass of racers: in my rush to get into my boat, instead of grabbing my oars I had grabbed two steak knives instead.
I barely had time to register this before the race started with a bang. All around me, the crowd of boats pushed forward in one mangled mass. I was rowing furiously, if only to keep up the charade so that my coach wouldn’t notice I forgot my oars. After about ten seconds, the organizers stopped the race because one of them said “something was wrong.” I looked around me in wonder, for what was right about this?
No matter. The organizers said that because the race was too crowded, we would continue it on foot. We were all given a paperback bird-watching book to keep our spot in the water while we stowed our boats. I put mine down on the water and it immediately floated backward. I tried to keep it still but realized there was no chance of that since I had to get out and put my racing shell back. I returned with the others and listened to the impromptu rules: we would start wherever our books were, and we would have three 10-second intervals to wade through the water as fast as we could.
After that, there was more grumbling and disagreement because the race organizers in their stupidity gave everyone the same bird book so that no one knew where their proper starting place was.
At this point I woke up, wondering how I could get myself into such an impossible situation. When I realized it was just a dream, I sighed with relief. I think I’ll forego the chocolate bar tonight.