What better, on a summer evening, than fresh air and a gorgeous view? Try this: the air and a view of the Harbor Islands, plus a seat in a pilot gig, a 32-foot rowboat, with six new friends, an oar in your hands, and someone like Lory Newmyer cheering you on.
She was more than a cheering section. When I hopped into a boat recently with rowers from the Hull Lifesaving Museum rowing program, Newmyer, the museum’s executive director, doubled as coxswain. Or was it stand-up comedian? Or therapist for uncertain rowers?
It was all of the above. She steered and guided us through the waters off Windmill Point (aka Pemberton Point), at the very end of the Hull peninsula. Using gentle commands, she helped us move as one.
The coxswain, she said, is responsible for the safety of the crew — taking into account the rowers’ skills, the weather, and the wind. Newmyer has worked with rowers who have disabilities and those who do not speak English. She finds a way. Taking care of the emotional as well as physical safety of the crew is, she said, “consciously going on, in a way that we hope is very subtle.”
Broad and stable, the pilot gig is not a skinny vessel like the ones used in collegiate rowing. Still, it has nice lines — smooth and graceful. Ours was large enough to accommodate six rowers, the coxswain, and a couple of extra passengers. Two people could easily sit abreast, but they alternate down the length of the boat, one handling a left oar, the next a right.
The boat is popular with coastal rowing clubs in New England, including, in Massachusetts, the Gloucester Gig Rowers and Team Saquish Rowing Education Society in Plymouth. Even landlocked Vermont gets into the act with pilot gig rowing on Lake Champlain through the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Other clubs row similar boats. South of Boston, the Cohasset Maritime Institute uses the Mainville 26 gig, and New Bedford’s Whaling City Rowing uses replica whaleboats.
In all cases, the oars are long and powerful. It’s easy to get one caught in the water at the wrong angle and have trouble raising it, especially if you try — as I did — to mimic the way experienced rowers turn the oar with each stroke, so the blade is parallel to the water when in the air, reducing wind resistance, but perpendicular when in the water, exerting full power.
Some of my fellow rowers were experts. Karyn Strauss, who lives in Hull, has been rowing for about five years — she’s not sure exactly, and time goes fast when you’re having fun. She watched her son grow up in the museum’s youth rowing program, and then tried rowing herself.
She loves being with this group of people and being out on the water. She looks at the sky and thinks about how grateful she is to have four limbs and the ability to row — “saying grace, basically,” she said.
Bill Ketchum of Cohasset has been rowing for more than a decade. He coached Strauss’ son. Students really mature on the water, he said, and they recount their rowing stories on college applications as formative life experiences.
For me, too, it was a memorable evening. We followed our “stroke” or lead rower, trying to stay in sync as we made our way from the point toward Hull Gut, where a group of small sailboats were racing. Their colorful sails looked like a living pastel.
I could see why Denise Messina, who moved to the area a few years ago, gushed later that she was “having a love affair with Hull.” Any more time spent with this suitor, and I could be persuaded as well.
“I’m more attracted to this than sculling — there’s sort of a rougher physicality to it,” Messina said.
Whoever shows up rows. There are no teams, an arrangement Messina said she likes.
Judi Flaherty started rowing in Hull on New Year’s Day 2011. On one winter row, the group made snow angels on one of the islands, she said, and “then I thought, this is totally the crowd of people I want to hang out with.”
Now they form a big part of her social circle. Flaherty stretched her abilities, entering races even though she had never competed at anything before, she said. It’s exciting and calming at the same time. It’s meditative, she said, because she has no choice but to clear her mind to fully concentrate on the strokes.
Same here. Every time I tried to ogle the scenery, my stroke got a little messed up. Not bad for a first-timer, though, or so I was told.
Back at the boathouse, we pulled the boat onto rollers and up the beach — a last communal act of heaving the vessel, this time without the benefit of buoyancy.
Most newcomers know in short order whether they’ll be back.
“There’s something that happens; there’s a ‘Shazam!’” Newmyer said. It just feels right. Different kinds of people, with varied backgrounds and political affiliations, get together to have fun.
“I do think in some ways it is the community that for other people is church,” she said. “You know you are going to feel better when you come back than you did when you went out; that’s the only given.”