Texas A&M crew rises early to practice precision in an ancient skill
In the dim pre-dawn moonlight, the eight-oared rowing shell evokes ancient scenes of Phoenician seafaring as it speeds almost silently across the glassy waters of Offatts Bayou. With eight strong bodies — four men and four women — working in perfect synchrony under the guidance of a coxswain at the stern, it’s a powerful machine.
It’s one of mankind’s earliest machines, and though it has been refined today with carbon fiber oars, a lightweight, frameless, composite carbon fiber hull and smoothly sliding seats, it’s a machine that Ulysses’ crew would know how to operate.
A modern rowing shell, like the ones used by the Texas A&M University at Galveston Rowing Club, is by design the least boat it can be and stay afloat. Needle-sharp, at some 40 feet from stem to stern with a beam of less than 4 feet, it presents the minimum possible resistance to the water, leaving its stability to the teamwork and skill of its crew, which act as both the shell’s engine and its only cargo.
“I started rowing at A&M just because it seemed like an interesting and fun thing to do,” said Sam Crenshaw, a junior studying marine sciences, third-year rower and now Rowing Club president.
Thinking about it, though, he sees it as relevant to his maritime career, he said.
“The teamwork, the early wake-up for practice,” he said. “It does have an application.”
The close teamwork of the crew begins with the command “hands on,” starting a finely choreographed process of lifting the boat from its rack, walking it in the darkness to the dock, turning it over and placing it in the water. It’s all done by the numbers, with quiet commands and practiced drill.
Boarding the boat is done by the numbers, too. The shell’s semicircular cross section, while reducing drag in the water, also makes it as tippy as a canoe, and it must be entered as carefully. The process is complicated by the fact that the weight of the crew, more than 1,000 pounds, is divided into nine otherwise autonomous bodies, who must learn to act in concert.
Clear of the dock and underway, the oars settle into a smooth motion. The rowers, facing the stern, are guided by the rhythm set by the “stroke oar,” the rower closest to the stern. Facing forward, the coxswain, who has been chosen by the crew, steers by a tiny rudder set in the small skeg, or fin, at the bottom, and by commands to the port and starboard oars to turn the boat.
Varsity rowing at Texas A&M University at Galveston is an intercollegiate sport, one of only two at the university. It’s open to all students, without the tryouts and selection process usually associated with college sports. Participants are self-selected, and must be keen enough on the sport to make an appearance at 5 a.m. most days of the week for rigorous training and practice until about 7:30 a.m. Participants earn a single credit hour in kinesiology for their participation, but clearly class credit is not their primary motivation.
The early morning practice, allowing for 8 a.m. classes, imposes a disciplined schedule on these students. It also means setting out in the dark, but that has its own advantages, said Stephanie Collins, a senior in maritime humanities.
“In the dark, we’re not temped to look around,” she said. “We just have to trust the coxswain, and concentrate on the rowing.”
As a competitive intercollegiate sport, crewing for Texas A&M University at Galveston also involves a demanding schedule of meets around the region. The boats are taken by trailers to such events as the Pumpkinhead Regatta in Austin, the Head of the Brazos in Waco and Head of the Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
Grueling practices and wide-ranging competition aren’t the only evidence of the rowers’ commitment. The boats and their maintenance are not cheap, and fundraising is a necessary fact of life.
Serious rowing in Galveston represents not only the persistence of an ancient skill, but also the commitment and boundless energy of youth.