What’s the cut and thrust of the rowing stroke? I like the question as the words cut and thrust marry well with the sensation of propelling a rowing vessel through the water. The view I have of rowing is not limited to sitting in the boat and working physically to drive it along, but rather I enjoy the sensations that arise while engaged in the art form of the moving compliment of leverage, forces, responses and intentions.
It is like creating broad-brush strokes, that only when viewed in their entirety over the canvas of water can we, and those involved appreciate the beauty of the discipline and practice. The work we hang out in public at a competitive event is the culmination of hours, days and years of disciplined practice that is only seen for the final display and showing. To some it may be boring and possibly tedious, but when you’re in the thick of it and fully engaged, it is full of life and stimulating.
Those of us who have a close connection to rowing and the sense of skill, focus and motivation required to apply harmonious forces that will lever athlete and craft across vast stretches water are happy to be associated with and caring for our sport. Call me crazy, but I love being able to push myself to a greater capacity and to stay attentive to the purpose of the sport, which is to not only work intensely, but to combine with your team in a way that maximises boat speed. From inside much of the movement feels dynamic, but from outside it can appear slow. To be fully honest at times I have found the viewing of training and races a little on the slow side, and I have even heard myself refer to some races and rowing as similar to watch snails slide across a path on a hot summers evening. Much of the time for spectators involves watching races in hot weather at locations that are not all-together relaxing. Dusty and hot summers were weekends might be better spent at the beach cooling off are traded for rowing courses generally in the middle of nowhere. Then just as things seem like the value of being there competing and watching are at there lowest, a race occurs that captures everyone’s attention. It’s close and athletes are at their limits, hanging on trying to maintain speed with their willingness to fight and surge coming through. It is an absolute pleasure to watch and exhilarating to be part of.
Cut and thrust is an apt description. While the cut can be painful, unbearable and even turn many away. It is through progression and intention to see it though that the rewards of will and determination to hang in there are realised, until finally the thrust of the moment, the stroke and a hotly contested race lay bare the excitement, acceleration and surge of energy. When this is all called upon and brought into play the dynamic action of artist and animal are a spectrum of extremes that if harnessed can and do create a level of sublime relation. In one and many swift moments the intensity, drive and ambitions of all those rowers comes into clear focus. The sequence of cut and thrust, catch and send, place and build, touch and sweep, stroke and flick, bury and push, all speak of a way to describe the cycle and when gathered and moulded together to create the ideal performance. It becomes clear that the intention for each moment flows through to create a style and purpose of a race performance.
If by chance you are somewhat squeamish, or don’t care for art, or don’t tolerate slow pain then you would have already left the event, the river, the course, but if after what you initially experience you choose to stay for more. Then the rewards can be grand and truly amazing. Getting up out of your seat, stopping, quitting or simply walked off in the normal world is some times ok, and often tolerated. To a rower this will be meet with hash judgements of condemnation. Now this is not to strike fear into anyone. It is a message, a message of expectation, obligation and a message about the gut wrenching nature of our sport. It is not for the faint hearted and when it is described as a noble sport, I cringe. Nobleness is nice and honourable, but it won’t help when things become unbearable and when that little voice in your head suggest holding back. Some where in history rowing became confused. In the beginning it was the workers who rowed and the slaves that strained on the oar handles of time. Somewhere along the way an upper class adopted the strain and a toffee like attitude swept in, but at the very heart of rowing nothing has changed. Inside the boat we are workers, toiling away and trying to master our craft. We are slaves to the task of optimal boat speed and we must circum to the reality, physicality and mental struggles that are often whip like. The hitting, stinging and forcing is a personal battle we choose and the questions that keep coming at us head on, challenge our reasons for engaging in this activity.
My hands are blistered and raw, my body aches, my mind has been tested and the experiences I have been exposed too have a flavour that may not be palatable to certain types. We are not soldiers, we do not fight in wars, we do not live in a country of poverty, or climb the highest mountains in the world, or dive to the greatest depth in the sea. It is rare to be killed doing what we do, but what we do take a certain amount of desperate will to push beyond boundaries of the body and mind. Our environment does not force us to learn to survive and find ways to stay alive, we have to be willing to go into those places and zones with a motivation that might be compared to those who have done amazing things in this wonderful world, but these are only slim comparisons. Making these distinctions and separations is meant to show the subtlety of awareness, action and purpose and to serve as acknowledgement of our humbleness at what is possible when all might seem lost.
Any good oars person knows there are tricks to grapping hold of an oar and making it like a magic wand. You wish is it’s every command and with every bubbling, spinning, churning puddle we must not go quietly, we must hold our own and find our way. A rower knows the underling presence that moves a boat, it is quiet simply force and energy. The force needs to be penetrating, and the energy needs to be driving and uninhibited. At a raw connected level cut and thrust is closely linked to forces and energy, which, in turn can be understood as penetrating drive. I find myself gathering these words and as they swing and shift in my mind it reinforces the essence and spirit of rowing for me.
Today on the surface I have used the description that is at the front of my mind, ‘Cut & Thrust, Cut & Thrust, Cut & Thrust’. It has a certain rhythm to it, an edge, and a savagery that when the steamroller is chasing you down, you need an amount of spirit that will do anything to stay out in front. The inspiration that can be drawn from remarkable events and situations in the world motivate, inspire and increase appreciation. The artistic side of rowing needs to been realised and when combined with intent, purpose, inspiration and appreciation the performance and possible transformative qualities of this activity are fulfilling.