The Starting Line Experience

by Gregg Porter

Last week at States, I volunteered to be a stakeboat holder. That means I was afloat on a 6×12′ platform near the dam at Occooquan for six hours, most of that time face down on a 2×12 plank suspended over the water holding the tail end of a 66-foot long shell. (That’s called the stern, I believe.)

Here’s what a stakeboat looks like:

It was an awesome experience and I hope you get a chance in your daughter’s career as a rower to experience it. It will change what you think of her.

Here’s how the start works. (apologies to parents who have rowed. This is for those of us who have not.)

The course is 2,000 meters long. High school races use 1,500 meters of it. Colleges use the whole thing. You think that’s not such a long distance – I didn’t, until I was taken to the start. Here’s a picture – the finish can barley be seen. It’s a long way home:


Here’s how the start works:

Boats approach and are instructed by a referee to get in a lane a few hundred meters above the starting line. Depending on how quickly boats are arriving, there can be two or three heats lined up.
The starter, stationed on ten-foot tower perched precariously on a pontoon boat behind the stakeboats, calls up the next heat. She announces which school occupies which lane and tells the boats to move up to the start (“warm up in your lane”). When she says “five minutes” the stakeboat holders scramble onto the boards and help the crew backs into our hands. This part is fun and friendly. Once positioned, we hold the stern while the bow seats “tap” to “get their angle” – point the bow toward the finish. You really see the skills of the cox in these maneuvers.

So, here I am dangling four feet out over the water, two feet from the cox. I can hear every word. Approaching the start, it’s serious “two seat pressure” “three seat tap twice lightly” and the like. After a few heats, I was sure I could follow with utter confidence most of these coxswains into hell with knowing I would emerge safely and victorious. It was an awesome display of leadership.

Once in position, it’s all psychological, and the cox would always speak softly: “we’ve got this”, “hydrate now.” It’s almost peaceful. There were smiles, nervous chit-chat and the lady rowers all wished each other good luck. (None of the boys exhibited such grace – nor did they exhibit more ferocity at the start).

At minute two, dutifully announced by the starter, the alignment referee begins the line-up shuffle. “Lane 3 up 6 inches” “Lane 6 down a foot.”. Then the cox announces “lock-in.” The blades flash into position – half submerged. There is a physical SNAP. The platform beneath me shudders. The boat in my grasp shocks into stillness. No more “good luck” – these faces were still and colorless – all about power.

The starter then announces the schools, lane by lane. “Yorktown, Episcopal, Visitation, Cathedral, Albemarle, TC Williams” This is the signal to be ready to start. Then, she says “ATTENTION”. There is total silence, a vibration of intense pressure against the blades which almost pulls the boat out of our hands.

Starter: “ROW”

You just can’t imagine what happens next. “ROW” from the starter and the most incredible explosion of power and fury follows. The cox is at full volume:

“Three Quarters Three Quarters Three Quarters”

“Full Full Full”

Rowers are silent, but they explode. The power of the start is unlike anything I have ever witnessed, and unlike anything I could have imagined my daughter initiating. Pure. Raw. Power. Now, scroll back up and look at the length of the course. It is inconceivable that anyone could maintain the intensity of that start for that distance. But they do.

Working the start made me appreciate the incredible athleticism of our daughters. Next season, please make a point of working a stakeboat.

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