First published on Medium
In seventh grade, I began a brief career as a coxswain for our school crew team. I had hardly been on the water in my youth, and yet the spectacle of an endurance sport on a river appealed to me. I was encouraged to coxswain, as I was not particularly endowed with size or musculature. It was an amazing experience. I learned to count strokes, call for surges, and most importantly, steer the boat.
Steering the boat was relatively simple at first. Beginners used the thickest boats, with heavy, wooden hulls and a big rudder. Pull the cord, and the boat would instantly swerve in the desired direction. It was an easy way to get started. I just had to keep the boat on the right side of the river and steer clear of collisions and clashes of oars with the other boats. Occasionally, the boat would run aground due to shallow water, but the team would quickly push oars into the mud and free the boat without much fuss.
The next year, in addition to coxswaining eighth grade boats, we began to sub for the junior varsity when needed. Leading the older boys felt a great honor and responsibility. And the shell! It weighed much less, shone brilliantly in the sunlight, and cut sleekly through the water. However, I gulped when I realized that the rudder was similarly sleek … and small.
The first time I saw a curve coming, I pulled lightly on the rudder as usual. Nothing seemed to happen. I pulled harder, and the boat started to turn, but too gently. Desperate not to hit the bank, I called for a hard left-hand pull from the rowers. When we ran aground, the older boys voices their displeasure, and I was embarrassed. This scene repeated itself over the course of the week, as I struggled to master the tiny rudder. I steered the boat through a series of emergency maneuvers, constantly interrupting the rowers’ efforts to pull us through the water.
Over time, I began to pay more attention to the shape of the river, anticipate upcoming curves, and plot gentle turns for our shell. I learned that the sleek boat went faster when guided in this more gentle manner. Our rowers’ energy propelled the boat forward efficiently, instead of fighting the lateral resistance of water against a turning hull. I learned to steer with a small rudder, to thoughtfully exert tiny pulls that added up to grand, sweeping curves and a fast boat.