September 2, 2010


Row row row your boat

It would have been a lovely visit as it was.

The plan was to meet Sandy at his house in Lake Orion, MI, and to maybe hang out on the back deck overlooking the water for a bit, before taking Rennie and his dog, Maggie, to the Bark Park for a little run-around. Then we were going to have dinner at his house and I would camp that night at a nearby state park and take off the following day for my next stop.

I barely knew Sandy. I had met him at drum camp in May, when I went with my mom and her friends. He and a crew of other percussion enthusiasts had driven about 12 hours to get there from what we understood to be the outskirts of Detroit and I think we became acquainted at one of the camp meals at the huge, round tables where we all sat three times a day. Then he lent me one of his drums for a session when my djembe was not going to cut it, but in the grand scheme of things, I did not know him very well at all before I made plans to stop and see him, and to meet his family.

So I had a peaceful drive from Fort Wayne,

cutting through Ohio on US127

and then entering Michigan on US12, thinking all the while that if we only drove on state roads, we’d be so much happier— and smarter. Sure, it took maybe a little longer than I’d expected, due to some rush hour traffic

but I made it in time to at least see the lake in its late-afternoon glory. And there was nothing about “outskirts of Detroit” that came to mind. We were, in fact, an hour away from the city.

Then Sandy’s wife, Pam, came home from work, and we all piled into the car with our dogs, and we hung out at the Bark Park for a little bit, before heading home to barbeque.

And things were going swell— comfortable and easy. Their youngest son, Alex, came home and we ate hamburgers and sausage and such, and there was wine, and then Sandy said something about dragon boat racing. And time stopped.

I don’t remember exactly how it went but it was something like this:

“So, you’re what this weekend?”

“I’m part of a committee to put on the first annual Dragon Boat Race in Lake Orion. It’s part of the usual Dragon on the Lake celebration that we do here, and there will be a team from Canada that’s really good; they’re all breast cancer survivors and this sport is actually supposed to be really good for them— something about the way it works their upper body. And then there will be a bunch of teams from Lake Orion competing, too.”

“So, if I stuck around for the weekend to see this…?”

“Do you want to row? On a team? I need more people on my team.”

And that’s more or less how I got involved. The plan was that I would take part in the team practice on Saturday and then the races on Sunday, but that Sandy would also get me out on the lake to take photographs, because after seeing a whole bunch of YouTube footage, I wanted my own, mini-masterpiece.

And that’s pretty much how it worked— well, except for the mini-masterpiece.

I spent that first night, when I was supposed to be camping at the state park, plugged into Sandy’s house, because dinner ran late and it was too close to the park’s closing hours to be driving around on unknown dirt roads, so they let me stay outside their house, parked and connected to both their power and their Internet. The next day was Friday and I checked in to the campground for three nights, thereafter driving about 20 minutes into town every day.

Practice on Saturday was the first time most of us had ever rowed. We started onshore with our instructor, Dave, learning how to hold the oar, what to do with it, how not to row. Then he put us in two lines to show us our order for the boat. Apparently, the most important people sit in the middle and they are called The Engine Room. The front few rows set the pace and the back six rows don’t have an especially defining role. I was on the last row, left side.

Once we climbed aboard and correctly grasped our paddles, Dave started shouting orders from his position right behind me and we did some backrowing and then we were pointed toward the open water, and then we were kind of all rowing together, and then we were moving, slicing right through the lake. It felt good. I knew that we were not making any sort of music with our strokes but we were going in a straight line and we were cutting through the water pretty fast and it was kind of glorious.

Then Dave got tough. He started explaining how the first five strokes of the race were the most important and we really, REALLY had to be together on those, and then we had to do five more strokes but a little bit quicker, and then we had to do five more and they had to be even quicker, and then we could kind of relax a little and dig in for the rest of the time, counting in sets of 10. So, we practiced that for a good while and we were breaking up the boat into fours, and then eights, and then tens, until it was all 20 of us rowing together and I think we were doing pretty awesome.

We didn’t have a drum on practice day. In addition to the 20 rowers in the middle and the coach on the back with the rudder, there is supposed to be a drummer on the front, keeping time for the rowers to paddle but we did not have enough drums that day, so our drummer was just using an empty coffee jug with the idea that the next day, we would bring it all together for the race.

And for some reason, people seemed very worried about getting wet, which made Dave say, “It wouldn’t be a water sport, if you didn’t get wet,” which is so hilariously true; right?

Then practice was over and as Sandy had promised me, I was whisked to a pontoon boat, which belonged to his son Alex’s friend, Billy, and Billy said that the boat had earned something of a claim to fame last summer, when Danny Glover drove it around for a movie he was making on the lake. And it was all beat-up at the time, which Glover wanted, because the boat was supposed to be owned by some poor people, but now the boat is pretty well fixed up and it certainly got us around the lake for a few shots of the other teams going through the same drill we had just gone through.

I wanted to get more close-ups but once on the water, I realized that it would be pretty hard to get the gritty shots that I wanted to get, without maybe capsizing the dragon boats. So this is as action-packed as I could get.

But more than anything, everyone was just there to have fun and maybe do something new, while supporting the community at the same time.

And I got to see the biggest burrito I had ever seen in my life.

Then it was Sunday and we had to be there at 11 am and I couldn’t bring Rennie, so I put him in his crate at Sandy’s place, and things were festive at the park.

I think everyone was wearing uniforms except for us. We also switched rowers around a little and a few people who had been at practice the day before swapped out with some people who hadn’t even been at practice, so that our first time rowing together was on the water, against the clock.

Well, we won the first heat. That gave us mega confidence, because we had been up against the Wonderbroads, that all-gals team from Windsor, Canada that got started eight years ago and that clearly had more time to get it together than we did. I mean, look at their shirts.

Anyhow, we beat them and the other team we were up against, which resulted in some grumbles from one side of the park. We went into our second race feeling pretty good, though. And we did SO badly. Even the first-time spectators onshore could tell how off our rowing was, but we somehow won that race, too, which was much to our instructor Don’s surprise. He said he looked around at one point and wondered how we were even moving with strokes like ours— some paddling, some not, oars clunking into each other. A total disaster.

We recuperated our energy onshore.

And then it was our third and final race, and we had been paired with two other teams who had each won two races, as well. We were determined that if nothing else, we would at least be in synch this time and as we paddled up to the starting line to position ourselves with the other boats, we had Don shouting at us like a drill sergeant to keep our hips pressed as close to the side of the boat as we could.

“You are INside this boat now!” he roared, his voice going hoarse, like one of the lead characters in those war movies. We were not to look to the side, he instructed, nor ahead to the finish line— ONLY to the people in front of us.

Then the horn blew and he was yelling for us to go and we were shouting “One! Two! Three! Four! Five!” until we had motored through the fast strokes and reached the 10 long ones, and then we were speeding along, neck and neck and neck with the other two boats and my team was all in synch this time and I am sure that underneath those distorted warrior faces and twisted open, yelling mouths, we were all beaming at the beauty of it, because although we were not winning, we had at least managed to come together for this last race, and it was a sight to see.

There was no drum beating this time, because we had decided that it had messed us up last time— that we just needed to be counting all together. The role of the drummer and the finesse with which the rowers must follow that beat should not be overlooked. It’s not just the simple matter of pounding a rhythm that the others go along with. To me, it seems like it would be similar to when a dance troupe learns a choreographed show and they all have to follow the music and move at the same time, which takes months; right? I imagine that incorporating a drummer to the boat’s performance would require the same time commitment from both the athletes and the lone musician. Think about when you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time. First, you have to master each one separately; then you can put the two together.

And so we rowed to the chorus of our shouting-out counts and we came in just behind another boat and that’s how we were all able to go home with silver medals,

which Alex and Sandy pointed out might just get me into some other dragon boat racing events down the road in other cities. And no kidding, ya’ll: I would so play that card, if it meant that I got to go out in another one of those boats.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sandy Mabery
    Sep 2 2010

    Nice post, love the hyperlinks.

  2. Mindy
    Sep 2 2010

    Way cool. I’m so jealous of your new job.

  3. SirenaSteve
    Sep 3 2010

    Dragon boats? We need one of those on the island. Preferably the nice pink one 🙂

  4. hillary
    Sep 3 2010

    That was a burro, not a burrito. Nothing diminutive about that thing at all.

  5. pogo
    Sep 5 2010

    Fantastic action shots! Wonderful way to capture the moment. Great article as well. Enjoy the silver and the memories.


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