2010 Snow Row: A Rower’s Perspective
Two Belfast ‘Pilot Gig’ rowing teams, a men’s and women’s with boats in tow, entered one of the most celebrated rowing events of the year: the annual Snow Row in Hull, Massachusetts. It was a warm sunny day, March 6th and this year there was a record turn out for the three and three-quarter mile race–one hundred and eleven boats in total. All manner of rowing craft from a single canoe and kayaks to a nine person reproduction of the three thousand pound historic quarter boat from the USS Constitution were lined up on the beach beside the Hull Lifesaving Museum Saturday morning and raring to go. There were so many boats crammed onto the beach there was precious little room left for oars, some of which are 12 feet long. So the race is started in four waves of similar class boats, 90 seconds apart, in an attempt to avoid a concentrated and massive display of confusion and mayhem. The result of the staggered start is, well…. an extended display of confusion and mayhem. Adding to the chaos, (the organizers’ idea of throwing a little challenge into the challenge) is the policy that boats start empty, their bows on the beach, and the teams having to run down the beach, jump into the boats and row backwards hoping to find a clearing to turn around in. Needless to say, there usually isn’t one.
Three hundred rowers who on dry land may well be articulate, level headed, reasonable people, begin to holler incoherently, as their minds and bodies are distorted with adrenaline. Coxswains are screaming commands to no avail; their words lost in the pandemonium. Oars cross and collide, boats careen, tip and stall, water churns with fury and foam, fingers pinch and shoulders and sleeveless arms are exposed to the maelstrom of intruding oars levered from 700 pound boats. All, presumably, in the name of fun.
As in nature, or so the theories on Chaos profess, there will, at some point, appear some semblance of order. Rowing boats isn’t so unnatural apparently, and things did eventually smooth out to some degree. But not before the 32 foot long six oared gig ‘Selkie’ this author was rowing in broadsided the Team Saquish gig as we made our valiant 180 degree turn, admittedly, a little too soon. In the heated gunwhale to rubrail altercation of entangled oars, we inadvertently removed the bandana of one, bruised a shoulder of another and drew blood from yet a third hardy Saquish woman with our oars. All this happening within the blink of an eye, but delaying our take-off by a minute or two and any second of which could mean the race to any of these boats. Once we pulled clear of ‘Saquish’, we were able to see across the sea of splashing rowers, and there was the Belfast women’s team ‘Belle Fast”. She had started in a very tight spot on the beach between two whaleboats, but managed to muscle ahead of many of the other gigs, appearing to have executed a brilliant, fast, clean get-away off the beach. They looked fantastic, all pulling hard, all in unison, a picture of practiced team-work. Their hours and countless nautical miles of summer, fall and winter rowing were paying off. They were clearly ahead of the favored women’s team, none other than ….‘Saquish’ the boat we the men, had just unwittingly waylaid.
‘Belle Fast’ had indeed exploded off the beach with their first and second strokes Linda Hurley and Martha Garfield getting in two good catches before they even sat down. The rest of the crew except for one was right behind them: Marnie Reeve, Esther Martin and Ellen Sinclair digging in strong and fast. They were so fast in fact that their bow oar, Willy Reddick, the last to jump onboard, nearly didn’t make it and had to pull herself up and in after dragging her boots in the water. The beach in Hull drops off much quicker than our practice beach here in Belfast. Live and learn……and jump.
In the mean time, the men’s Team Saquish rowing the ‘Mike Jenness Sr.’ out of Duxbury Mass., the favored team to win, had a fast start as well and were powering out into the bay. These are serious, powerful, seasoned competitors and have been winning this race (except when the world class Cornish team is here) for decades. It was our job now to catch them.
Frustrated with our start, we pulled even harder to make up for time lost. Sometimes this can be a mistake using up too much energy at the start. But our crew was in good shape, Jim Bahoosh and myself the long stroke bookends to a powerful engine room: Rafe Blood, Eric Beenfeldt, Roy Rodgers, and Greg Stafford dug deep in perfect stride. We quickly passed other boats that had cleaner beach exits than we but to our good fortune were lacking speed. Our team has never rowed better. Even though we crossed oars while passing other boats, we didn’t lose our rhythm, breathing deep and steady, pulling hard, and harder.
Soon we caught up with smaller boats that started out on an earlier gun and we passed them. It was crowded at the first turn at Sheep Island and rocks just below the surface were a constant danger, but our sharp eyed cox, Chris Gordon, kept us tight and clear, giving way when needed but threading the needle with confidence when push came to shove. We must have passed forty or fifty boats of every conceivable style. Once in a while we would hear from an unknown boat; “Go Selkie!” or “ Looking good Selkie!” What a supportive group these rowers are! We reciprocated when breath allowed; “looking…good…Gannet” Chris found our way to an inside course bringing us to within inches of the second turn, a huge stand of I beams coming up out of the water. He let us know we were gaining on the ‘Mike Jenness Sr.’ and had a half-mile to go. We’d rowed now for three and a quarter miles at breakneck speed and now had to power up. A daunting task but one we had to muster to take the win. We were definitely up for the challenge. Team Saquish had pulled in closer to shore for the last three quarter mile, no doubt taking advantage of the lesser current flowing through the Hull Gut and then would use it in the last 300 yards to whip themselves across the finish line. And sure enough, the last 200 yards their speed increased two fold. Chris had decided to make a bee line for the finish knowing that they would have to cross our path in order to take us. We inched ahead but by the looks of it they might be able to pass us still they were gaining on us so quickly. They’d done it before two years ago in this same race on that same stretch. Were they going to take us again? In Belfast Harbor we have practiced diligently and always push our stroke rate up to 35, 36, 37 strokes per minute for the last 100 yards. It’s a last ditch effort for speed but can’t last for long,.. a few minutes is all a body can take of it. Chris called out “one hundred yards!” and off we went digging deeper than we thought we could, bringing it up to 38 hard and fast strokes per minute, putting everything we had into the water.
We crossed the finish at 32 minutes 50 seconds and the proud ‘Mike Jenness Sr.’ screamed in 26 seconds later. There was not another gig in front of us. We won the race and we were completely exhausted. Behind us now boats were coming in fast and furious. Our women’s team in ‘Belle Fast’ was pulling hard for the finish and crossed it at 37.22 just 29 seconds after the women’s team ‘Saquish’ who managed to pass ‘Belle Fast’ at Sheep Island. They’re a world-class team, that ‘Saquish’ and our women’s team never let up. Their coxswain Malcolm Gator would make sure of that if there was ever any doubt. We’re proud to row with them.
Later on the beach we apologized to the Saquish women’s crew for any harm we had done to them or their boat. We saw the bleeding gash in the coxswain’s finger but she shrugged it off. “It goes with the territory” she said.
We thank all the rowers from around New England that made the Snow Row race a pleasurable and exciting event. We also thank all the people who worked so very hard to organize it, made food and coffee, prepared the course, made the trophies (a golden clam) arranged for the Coast Guard to be on hand, gathered chase boats and all the other endless details that go into creating such an event for the enjoyment of so many people. Thank you to Rick and Liz Fitzsimmons for towing Selkie to Hull and back and to Roy Rodgers and Rafe Blood for towing Belle Fast. Thank you to the community of Belfast Maine who support Come Boating! with memberships and donations and interest. We look forward with great anticipation to taking any and all who are interested, out in the gigs for the community rows this season. They are free and fun and open to the public. We promise not to hit you with an oar…
Wes Reddick Stroke Oar, Selkie
And the Crews of Selkie and Belle Fast