At 6:00am, the water on Houghton Lake hadn’t a ripple on it. The diehard fishermen were already at their favorite spots as the sun climbed off the horizon, and the one or two novices left disturbing the silence with gurgling motors seemed to irritate the rest.
In fact, you could just about feel the impatience as the diehards were surely grumbling, “Hurry up and get in your spot. The fish will be biting any minute!”
Finally, there was silence, and the sun’s rays tickled across the surface in an array of yellows, oranges, and pinks.
Today was the day we would try unlocking the secrets of something new.
After the sun rose fully, I donned a pair of water shoes and stepped out onto the dock. The used Alden Rowing Shell found on Craigslist sat floating elegantly on the water’s surface, making my breath catch.
I had been dreaming of owning one of these sculling boats for years, and here it was!
It was agreed I would board her first and occupy the bow position while my husband would man the power-seat in the stern.
Taking hold of both oar blades and flattening them across the water’s surface as trained in the manual, I positioned my right foot into the center of the hull taking care not to shift my weight too quickly, then gingerly positioned my butt into the rowing seat.
“Okay, I’m in,” I said, the excitement ratcheting up another notch. Would we flip the sucker over right close to shore for the neighbor’s entertainment, or would we actually be able to get into the sleek streamer and keep it upright throughout our beginner’s attempt?
Pushing the bow out into the water, my husband then proceeded to give me a heads up on every move made so I could compensate where needed.
“Okay, I’m stepping in,” he said.
Still holding the blades flat onto the water, I braced for his weight as he climbed into the stern. It had been years since we last sat in a canoe or on a motorcycle together, but balance had never been a problem so far. Surely we could do this.
I felt the boat’s balance change. Feeling comfortable with the shift, he put his full weight into the hull and carefully lowered his body down into the power seat.
Ready for blast off, he had to reign-in my excitement before I flipped us both. “Hang on a sec,” he said. “Let’s just see if we can balance.”
"Piece of cake!"I boasted.
Pushing us away from the dock, the nimble craft quivered slightly at the two beginners sitting at her controls.
“Whoa!” my husband yelped as the boat tipped from side-to-side in quick fashion.
It appeared she was pretty slippery in the water, so we’d have to be cautious.
Taking a few practice strokes, we yanked and pulled trying to find a rhythm while smashing knuckles, knees and elbows. Frustration intensified as we clobbered the water’s surface like a couple of cavemen while pissing off nearby fisherman, and amusing the neighbor sitting at the end of her dock in search of Zen. Having both rowed boats, you’d think this would be easy… but a rowing shell is NOT the same as a canoe.
“Why don’t we try one person at a time until we get the hang of it?” my husband suggested.
Making a spectacle trying to get back to the dock, I’m surprised we didn’t flip it at the dismount. But we didn’t and I was pretty happy that our balance wasn’t so bad after all.
Taking one of the seats out and repositioning the remaining seat in the middle of the boat, I jumped in and gave her another go.
Clunk, bang, clobber, thunk… I manned the oars trying to find the right timing of the seat sliding and oars moving without smashing into my knees or skinning my knuckles. It seemed the biggest confusion was which hand stayed on the bottom when the oar grips overlapped, but when a smooth sequence was accomplished, that shell could haul ass!
“This sucker’s going to be fast if we can ever get it figured out!” I laughed, enjoying the feel of the craft cutting through the water.
It wasn’t long before the calluses were raised up on my hands and my back started aching from sculling. For accuracy’s sake, what I was doing could never be considered sculling. It was more like thrashing through the water for a half an hour.
Needing a break before I broke something on the boat or myself, I gave up the blades to my husband’s sure hands to see if he could figure it out.
He did a fair job himself, digging in deep and rocketing the vessel across the water's surface. When he got back to shore, I asked, "Ready to try two?"
"I don't think so," he said as the sweat dripped off his brow. "I think we need to practice some more."
Surprisingly, neither of us flipped at our beginner's attempt, and it must have looked like fun because our meditating neighbor decided to drag one of their kayaks out.
After parking the shell up on the grass, we went back inside to do a little more research. We needed to know so much more.
First we watched some Steven Walker videos on “How to Scull,” which helped us to understand there was a right and wrong way to lock the blades into the cradle. Get them in the wrong way and you'll be yanking on those paddles twice as hard as you need to, and your strokes won't be smooth, either!
His videos also taught us that the right hand is always held in the lower position during the pull. That's the point where your grips cross over one another. We actually thought the grips needed to be positioned further out so they didn't smash into one another, so it's a good thing we figured this out before changing the distance from grips to blade locks.
Basically after watching several videos, we determined there’s a whole lot of technique involved in sculling.
If you’ve never been in a rowing shell, the Beginner’s Guide to the Joy of Sculling gives a fair explanation of each step required to accomplish one stroke.
“The catch is the start of each stroke and it is the moment when you place your oar into water.
The drive: As you begin to push with your legs, you are entering the drive of the stroke.
The pull: Once the legs are fully extended, you begin to pull the oar in with your arms and swing your shoulders backward, bringing yourself to the finish position.
The recovery: The entire process is repeated, each movement flowing into the next, forming another stroke.”
Now that you understand each position, the next step is making each stroke a fluid motion, one rolling smoothly into the next.
If you’re slouching during the pull, you will not be in the right position to feather the blades for recovery, and you will probably bang your hands together or smash your knees with the grips.
Having practiced on a rowing machine for months the wrong way, it is only now that I am trying to correct the bad habit of moving the baton up over my knees to make the motion fluid during recovery. If you try and lift the blade grips up over your knees in the rowing shell, your blades dig into the water too deep. Compensate too quickly and you smash your hands and knees together when they all get bunched up.
Indeed sculling can be a frustrating endeavor, but I plan to conquer it by the end of summer. So practice, practice, and more practice it is.
Wish me luck… and if you’ve ever experienced sculling, please feel free to add your helpful tips below.
Thanks so much for reading!
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Oeffner.net, April 10, 2001, Simple Guide to Sculling Without Tears, http://www.oeffner.net/sculling.htm
Walker, Steven, November 7, 2013, How to Scull, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msJn3xIq7oc