Rowing The Cut

by W.F. Price on June 17, 2014

[I've been feeling a bit nostalgic lately, so I wrote down one of my memories from the early 90s in Seattle. Some things about the city - or what it was - are worth preserving.]

Each morning the alarm would sound at quarter to five, and each time my eyes would open seconds before it went off. The routine was so steady, so precise, that my internal clock was as accurate as the quartz timekeeper on my bedstand.

When I awoke, the first thing I’d do was pull on my shorts and tank top, then head to the kitchen to eat a couple huge bowls of cereal washed down with a quart of milk. I ate mechanically, devouring the food within minutes, then quickly put on a jacket and pants and grabbed my schoolbooks to head off into the darkness.

After twenty or so minutes, I’d arrive at my destination, park the car and head to the boathouse, which was located in an old warehouse underneath the Aurora bridge. Others arrived like ghosts, pale figures walking into the yellow sodium lamplight of the lot out of the navy blue of the early spring morning.

There wasn’t much time for warmup; after a minute or two of stretching the coach would assign us to our boats and announce the day’s workout, and then we’d haul the boats off the racks, grab our oars and make for the dock. We’d set the boats down in the water, gingerly step in so as to avoid a spill into the cold water, then fasten our oars and shove off.

The eights and fours stayed together like a convoy, but since I was in a pair we had relative freedom. My bow rower and I would set off on our own across the still waters of the early morning, headed east or west depending on instructions. There was a brewery just to the west of our dock, and in the early morning the smell of roasting malt and hops would pour out over the water, lending a thick heaviness to the moist Pacific air. Sometimes, a sea lion who had slipped through the Ballard Locks to poach salmon from the fish ladder would raise his head from the water, give us a look, then quickly dive to reappear elsewhere a minute later.

The light of the city blocked out most of the stars, but the reflections from the surface of Lake Union made up for them. The sights and smells were as rich as at any time of day, and accentuated by the quiet in the midst of the sleeping multitudes. We’d glide across the water, hearing only the distant traffic, the gentle splash of our oars and the occasional horn from a train or freighter off in the distance. If we proceeded east toward Lake Washington, the sounds grew quieter for some time as we made our way to Union Bay. If we went east toward the Locks, we traveled through the narrow cut toward Fisherman’s Terminal and the industrial workyards of lower Ballard. There was often a sheen of oil on the water that gave it the quality of stained glass, and a faint, accompanying smell of diesel fuel.

The best part of these morning excursions was the solitude, and the peace of being on the water. On Lake Union, I’d see the lights in the houseboats flick on as people got up to prepare for work. Sometimes, I could make them out as they sat at their kitchen tables drinking coffee in their bathrobes as I silently swept past in the darkness. Despite the intense physical effort, I felt as though it was a time of spiritual retreat; each stroke of the oar was like a note in a meditative chant.

After a couple of hours of pulling our boats through the water, we’d pack it up and head off to school to shower and change. I’d eat another breakfast to refuel for the day, and then go through the motions until the sun sank low and the day drew to a close. Day after day and week after week I went through this routine, my body and mind becoming a machine that adapted to the effort and discipline. It is the closest I’ve ever come to the monastic lifestyle, and I’ve never been healthier before or since.

I never really took to rowing as a sport, because in truth it isn’t one; there’s a great deal of labor involved and little “fun” about it. However, it taught me that it is not only sport and play that sustains the body and soul, but discipline as well.

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