All rowers know why they row.
Yet oarswomen and men — out in force this weekend for the Head of the Charles Regatta — tend to keep the answer quiet, because silence is prized in the shell. Rowers are a laconic lot because the sport is an internal psychological and spiritual challenge, making explication of its almost hypnotic attraction nearly impossible.
Yet some have tried. Legendary sportswriter Paul Gallico — who rowed in the six-seat of an outstanding 1921 Columbia crew — described the bonding process every squad undergoes when it coheres from a group of individuals to a single crew. “We became one with the boat and our fellow oarsmen and felt ourselves as giants, since one’s own power applied to the shell was multiplied by eight,” he wrote. “Not often, but from time to time, there are moments when a good crew really blends together, bringing an ineffable delight to the rower as he feels his shell surge forward beneath him. Eight oars whip out of the water in unison; eight oars dip again and one feels a great exultation in one’s breast.”
This “great exultation” is known to all oarsmen as “swing.” Swing is ephemeral and almost indescribable. It’s the challenge that keeps oarsmen rowing. It’s the moment when the physical propulsion of a shell evolves into a metaphysical feeling of transcendence. This is the essence of crew.
In his classic work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” — a feeling very close to swing. Flow begins when one is “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Although spectators can see all the ingredients — syncopation, application of force, rhythmic timing, and physical grace — they can never actually know if swing is occurring. They cannot fathom how the apex of this sport is beyond consciousness; rowers can’t fight harder for swing, or demand it, or even think about it too much.
“The paradox of rowing,” The New Yorker’s John Seabrook, a former Princeton oarsman, once explained, “is that this most physically demanding of sports is about eighty per cent mental.” Like marathon running, distancing swimming, or other punishing sports, rowing’s psychic rewards emerge from both its mental and physical challenges.
Rowing is a paradoxical quest. To row effectively, an athlete must be simultaneously graceful and brutal, intense and relaxed, thoughtful and robotic.
Rowing exacts a physical, mental, and spiritual toll, but it rewards the oarsman with a sense of satisfaction impossible to attain elsewhere. And rowing or sculling with teammates demands an exquisite balance of confidence, trust, and harmony that few other team sports can match. Rowers can communicate verbally, but they rarely do; rather, rowing is about maintaining a balletic synchronicity achieved through hours of cooperative practice.
Rowers adjust to each other through nonverbal and often unconscious cooperative physicality. For example, if one rower barely drops his hands, somewhere else in the eight, another will slightly raise his to maintain balance and harmony. The process is automatic. Every single stroke is slightly different, with numerous tiny, simultaneous adjustments constantly occurring, until a crew moves beyond conscious adjustment and into the realm of unspoken sensitivity to their environment and teammates.
That’s where swing originates — in this realm of unconscious cooperation.
Every oarsman, and coxswain, knows when swing occurs. They sense their effort has become transcendent; the boat is now flying but the effort to maintain — and even grow — speed eases. Everything flows as the boat glides. Everyone feels it but nobody acknowledges it. It is unity made manifest. It’s surrender to process rather than demanding results.
One key aspect of achieving swing, California’s legendary coach Ky Ebright once noted, is acceptance of the paradox of unleashing raw power while maintaining grace and precision. “A boat cannot be jerked through the water,” he explained. “Everything must be smooth. There are times for mighty power, times for quick movements, time for slow movements, but everything must be smooth. There is a rhythm of the water, and it will not be denied. You cannot force it — so accommodate yourself to it.”
That’s the irony. A crew obsessed with swing will rarely achieve it. Swing, in this sense, is closely related to Zen, or existential feelings bridging the ephemeral and the enduring.
As you watch oarsmen and women racing up the Charles, look at their faces. Look at their shells’ rhythm. Listen to their coxswains. See if you can detect the squads that have evolved into a crew, and which remain groups of individual athletes working cooperatively. If you are lucky enough to catch a crew in swing, you might superficially gain an understanding of why so many love the sport.
But if you are really lucky, you’ll take up rowing and experience this beauty yourself.
Michael J. Socolow teaches at the University of Maine. He rowed for Columbia University and the King’s Crown Rowing Association and is the author of “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics.”