By Oral O. Miller, Washington, D.C., USA
Can you describe a racing shell, a racing sweep, a coxswain (pronounced “coxon”), or a gig? If you cannot, do not feel especially uninformed. During my senior year in high school (at the Kentucky School for the Blind and at Louisville Male High School in the 1950s) I couldn’t have described or even recognized one of them because they were part of the lingo of a sport I had never tried or even seen. I had already participated in several sports with a degree of success, but I did not expect to take up a new one upon entering college. As a high school junior I had lost only one wrestling match, and as a senior I had been undefeated, while my track team did not lose a meet either year, so I expected to continue with one or both of those sports in college. Later that summer, at a dinner given by the Princeton Club of Louisville for prospective freshmen, one of the younger alumni suggested going out for crew (“rowing”), saying I had the right build for a crewman. (I was six feet four inches tall and weighed 200 pounds.) Yes, I had to ask in order to confirm my vague understanding that “crew” is a sport in which rowing teams or crews race against one another in long, narrow boats called “shells.”
During freshman orientation week at Princeton University the following September it was announced that all freshmen interested in fall crew practice should report to the boat house. About 60 of us showed up that first day, and I realized that the other 59 knew more about crew than I did. About two-thirds of them had graduated from Eastern prep schools where crew was a popular sport, and all of the others had at least seen races. When I asked the freshman coach whether he objected to having a blind student try out, he, in his usual quiet way, said “no,” but that he would have to check with the head coach – a blunt-spoken, leather-lunged, muscular mountain of a man. The head coach’s words were surprising: “There’s no reason why a blind fellow can’t row. Half of the oarsmen I have ever coached rowed like they had their eyes closed anyway.” With that send-off, I seated myself at a strange device known as a hydraulic rowing machine. It consisted basically of a wooden bar like an oar handle, a hydraulic cylinder and a small hard seat with small metal wheels which ran on a short narrow track. I knew that the object was to pull the oar handle and that the hydraulic cylinder controlled the amount of strength needed to pull the handle, but I had never seen anything like that peculiar seat on wheels. It soon became clear that the wheeled seat allowed an oarsman to bend his legs before pulling on the handle – thus adding the enormous strength of his bent legs to that of his arms and back.
I was just catching on to the somewhat complex series of movements when the coach walked by and informed me that I was leaving out one of the most important motions. I had been correctly grasping the handle with both hands, extending my arms forward about shoulder level, bending forward at the waist and bending my legs so that my knees were against my chest, and then going through the motions of rowing. However, I had overlooked “feathering” the oar handle. It is necessary to lift the oar blade out of the water at the end of a stroke and to slip it back into the water before the next one. Anyone who has ever rowed a boat of any kind knows about these simple hand m movements, but the average rowboat oarsman is not familiar with “feathering” or turning the oar handles slightly so as to turn the oar blade almost parallel with the surface of the water between strokes. The purpose of feathering is to reduce the wind resistance of the oar. I soon saw that feathering my oar would be a problem because the handle was perfectly round, and I could not discern the exact angle of the oar blade. Thus ended my introduction to rowing, although I had never gone within 30 feet of the water.
The physical conditioning aspects of crew, as introduced to me that same fall afternoon, were not really new to me. The freshman coach directed us to run a prescribed course totaling about a mile and a half. Fortunately for me, the course went over fairly smooth ground. Although I made no effort to lead the pack of runners, I covered the distance satisfactorily by sometimes lightly touching the shoulder of another runner (with his consent, of course) and by sometimes following the pounding of the feet of a runner ahead of me. I was already acquainted with these training techniques, having used them in high school.
Our first day on the water was an unforgettable experience for those of us who had hardly seen even an oar before. We took to the waters of Lake Carnegie in “Cleopatra’s Barge” – a training vessel that carried about a dozen oarsmen plus several people who were passengers until it came their turn to row. The coach observed us from a walkway that ran the length of the barge – much as ship captains must have done in the days of the Roman galley ships manned by slaves chained to their oars. The pace at which we flailed away at the water with our long oars was set by the counting of a coxswain – a small fellow who sat in the back of the barge and steered it. My most vivid recollection of that first afternoon on the water is of enormous blisters which appeared on my hands after about 10 minutes. However, I was still having trouble feathering my oar. Whenever I started a stroke with the blade at the wrong angle, the handle at the other end of that nine-foot oar came back furiously and unexpectedly at face level, and I defended myself reflexively by wrestling the blade out of the water. In short, my rowing style was lacking in several respects, and it was not likely to improve much until I mastered the art of feathering. When I reported for practice the next day, the coach handed me an oar to which he had attached on the round handle a very thin strip of wood. It was placed so that, from its position, I knew the angle of the blade at all times. The thin strip punished my hands even more than did the handle alone, but it served the all-important purpose, and I used it for the next several weeks while improving my rowing technique. In later years the coach and I agreed that a less punishing marker could have been used — such as a short piece of heavy string taped in position on the oar handle.
I first experienced the true feeling of rowing through the water when we were promoted later in the fall from the barge to the “gigs,” a long, narrow boat with virtually a round bottom in which the oarsmen sat in a row. Each gig carried eight oarsmen (seated in a line) plus a coxswain. The oarsmen faced the stern of the gig, but the coxswain, who sat in the stern, faced forward so he could see where the boat was going. The oarsman nearest the bow pulled an oar which extended to his left; the oarsman seated in front of him and designated as position number 2 pulled an oar going to his right; position number 3 pulled an oar going to his left, and the positions alternated that way through position number 8, referred to as the stroke oarsman. During the intervening years, some boat builders have changed with alternating configuration from the arrangement described above. When we first moved into the gigs we continued rowing to the shouted counts of the coxswain, but gradually the number eight oarsman assumed that responsibility, by merely rowing at the desired pace. Each oarsman was supposed to watch the man ahead of him, and this caused the entire crew to row in unison – an absolute necessity. I could not see the movements of the oarsman in front of me, but I discovered that I could, by anticipating the stroke by a split second, detect every stroke by listening for the sound of the other oars being feathered (turned in the oar locks). I cannot over-emphasize the importance of precise timing in rowing, and as I gradually became more experienced, my ability to anticipate the stroke, my ability to react to new situations and my own sense of timing improved markedly.
Rowing or just sitting in that comparatively narrow gig, which had an almost round bottom, felt like sitting on a log in the water. It was held more or less upright by the weight of the four oars extending from each side, but it was by no means stable in the sense that an ordinary rowboat is stable, and even minor shifts of position by one oarsman would cause the boat to lean. At first those of us who were inexperienced tried to hold the boat absolutely steady, but we discovered that was impossible, and we had to make ourselves accept on faith the fact that it would not turn completely over, although its gunwales or edges were only inches above the water.
It was in such a vessel that I rowed through that fall, covering about six miles a day, five days a week. The coach, who rode along in a motor launch and communicated with us by shouting through a megaphone, was constantly switching the make-up of each gig’s crew in an effort to improve the combination, but as cold weather approached, he switched us less and less in order to let us prepare for our first race – an intra-squad event. The high point of the fall for eight other fellows and me came one cold, blustery November afternoon when we powered our gig across the finish line about a gig’s length ahead of the other freshman crews. With the onset of winter, Lake Carnegie froze over, so there was no further crew practice until very early the next spring, although some of the freshmen occasionally worked out on the hydraulic rowing machines inside the boathouse.
My hopes as an oarsman took a big step backward about 10 days before the beginning of spring practice. During a college wrestling match I suffered a broken ankle, which was then in a cast for about six weeks. When the cast was taken off, I reported, still with a slight limp, to the boat house, where my classmates were already far ahead of me in physical conditioning and rowing technique. The coach agreed to work me back into his practice routine. It was then that I discovered the freshmen had already graduated from the practice gigs to the long, low, streamlined racing “shells” which were about 65 feet long and about 2 ½ feet wide. The unsteady gigs felt like rocks compared with the shells, which were devoid of all unnecessary weight, frills, comforts, conveniences, etc. In fact the body of the wooden shell was so thin that there were only a few areas where the boat could bear the oarsmen’s weight when getting in or out. The only safe, reinforced area was between the tracks on which the seats rolled.
Merely launching or landing a shell was an art. To launch it from a dock all of its crew members placed one foot between the tracks, grasped the oar handle and a gunwale with one hand, grasped the other gunwale with the second hand and, upon command from the coxswain, pushed the boat away from the dock with the second foot – which then had to be pulled into the boat quickly as the oarsman was sitting down. Landing a shell had to be done with the same precision.
Since I had reported for spring practice several weeks late, I simply had to work much harder to make up for the lost time and to get accustomed to the unsteady feeling of rowing in the shells. I often practiced on the rowing machines after finishing regular practice, but I still needed the oar with the strip on the handle. Although a specific oar was usually used at the same position regardless of who was rowing there, my crewmates were happy for me to take my oar with me wherever I went because that small strip made it very uncomfortable to use. Before long I was advanced from the third boat to the second, and with that crew I took part in my first intercollegiate race – a close one which we lost to Yale.
A week later we broke into the victory column against Kent and enjoyed for the first time the thrill of throwing our coxswain into the river (a tradition in rowing). Since we were only the second freshman crew, the university had not authorized us to “bet our shirts” on the outcome of our race. It is customary for the losing crew members to give their rowing shirts to the winners, who, of course, look upon won shirts as worthwhile trophies. Since it is also traditional for an oarsman to pay personally for almost all the shirts he loses in this manner, let it suffice to say that consistent losing could become expensive. I suppose crew is the only sport in which the losers literally lose their shirts. Of course, whether rowing shirts would be given as trophies can be a matter of local practice.
Near the end of my freshman season the coach asked me to make a tremendous rowing change – to switch from rowing on port (left) side of the boat to the starboard (right) side. That is almost like asking a right-handed bowler or baseball pitcher to start performing with his left hand overnight. The new position movements felt clumsy at first, of course, but I became more comfortable at it while preparing for the intercollegiate rowing regatta in Syracuse, N.Y. I went to Syracuse as a starboard oarsman for our first crew after rowing on that side for about a month. I believe our freshman crew finished in third place that year.
As a sophomore I moved to the varsity squad and into the tougher training and practice routine of the late and great head coach Delos “Dutch” Schoch. I also switched back to my original position as a port oarsman and said good-bye forever to the oar with the strip on its handle. The strip had served its purpose very well, but with experience I had learned to determine the angle of my oar blade by the feel of the oar as it turned in the oar lock. As a sophomore I rowed approximately 1,500 miles and took part in a number of intercollegiate races in the spring, ending with the national regatta in Syracuse.
A few events stick vividly in my memory, and perhaps they will give you a chuckle. For example, as a junior, while rowing out to the starting line on Lake Cayuga in upstate New York, we encountered a terrific storm, which whipped up the water so much that, as each wave broke over us, our shell gradually accumulated water and began to sink. Although a couple of us were not good or even average swimmers, all heads remained very cool as we decided that we would probably go down before we could get back to the Cornell University boat house. When we were still about a mile from the boat house, our prow quietly slipped beneath the surface, and we calmly slipped over the sides to wait for the race officials, our coaches and the Coast Guard to pick us up in their motor launches. A privately owned pleasure cruiser, whose passengers had known for some time that we were in trouble, was the first to pull up, but the race officials and the Coast Guard urged the big cruiser to back off, because the sunken shell, with the oars still in place, was floating just beneath the surface, and the officials knew that the yacht’s propeller and rudder would become tangled with it. One nice, grandmotherly little lady aboard the yacht had visions of college boys drowning all around her and, motivated by the kindest intentions, threw a line with a boat hook into our midst, almost hooking our coxswain. At that point, the Coast Guard, seeing that the situation was about the get out of hand, ordered the yacht to back off so the rescue could continue as planned. The grandmotherly little lady shouted as the yacht backed away, “You can buy more boats, but you can’t buy boys!” Thereafter the rescue went smoothly, and the shell was salvaged.
I shall always remember the send-off we received just before my last intercollegiate race – against Yale and Cornell. We were slowly rowing down Lake Carnegie from the boat house to the starting line. Since we were merely warming up for the race, and since our coxswain had the other two crews in sight, it did not occur to him that there might be a fourth boat in the area – a rented canoe containing two fellows and two girls who were out for a warm, relaxing paddle on a spring afternoon. One of the other crews shouted at us when it became obvious that our coxswain did not see the canoe, on which we were bearing down rapidly. (I want to point out in defense of our coxswain that, since all of the oarsmen sit in a row directly in front of him, the canoe was very difficult for him to see.) Our coxswain gave the command for us to stop as fast as we could, but that was not fast enough. The two girls in the canoe were paddling at the same time, and in their excitement, when they saw our boat bearing down on them, they both started paddling furiously on the same side, thus turning the canoe broadside in our path. Yes, we did a thorough job of ramming it; our metal prow went in one side of the canoe and came out the other, knocking the two girls and one fellow into the shallow water and leaving the canoe, with one fellow clinging to it, stuck on our prow. The fellow abandoned the canoe, and we managed to pull away from it. After determining that our shell was not damaged, we proceeded to the starting line. When our coxswain reported the incident to our coach, the coach shouted back in his own inimitable way: “Good! Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!”
My most touching experience as an oarsman took place late in my senior year when I received the Biddle Award – which is presented to the senior who, in the opinion of his fellow oarsmen, has contributed most to crew at Princeton that year. In my athletic life I have been fortunate enough to win a number of honors, but the Biddle Award is among my most treasured. Although I have not had it on in a number of years, I still treasure that heavy black sweater which has the large orange “P” (my varsity letter in crew) across the chest.
During my four years at the oars, the press was very kind and complimentary to me, inasmuch as I was believed to be the first fully blind athlete ever to compete successfully and letter in a true team sport such as crew. It was a challenge and also a pleasure for me because it opened up an entirely new world. If I had it to do over again, I cannot think of a thing I would do differently, because I believe I benefitted more from it than I will ever realize. I have reservations as to whether crew is a sport that should be undertaken by an entire crew of blind oarsmen, but there is no technical reason, as far as I know, why another blind oarsman can’t someday pull one of those long sweep oars in a big regatta. In many communities in the USA now there are rowing clubs in which blind members participate on a recreational or competitive basis, usually rowing with fully sighted teammates but occasionally rowing or ‘sculling’ alone with directional guidance from a sighted colleague. In short, rowing is clearly a sport that is absolutely feasible for blind athletes requiring little or no accommodation by their sighted crew mates and my experience proves that a determined blind athlete can attain the same physical and psychological benefits as those received by his sighted teammates whether he rows as a member of his college or club’s first crew or third crew.
A quiet word of thanks goes to my late varsity coach, Dutch Schoch, and my freshman coach, Peter Gardner, for it was they who, although a bit skeptical, agreed to give that tall blind young man from Kentucky a chance to see what he could do in a sport which he knew nothing about previously.