The Monterey Bay Crossing, an annual 26-mile rowing race from Santa Cruz to Monterey, was scheduled to begin at 5 o'clock in the morning. No big deal, I thought at first -- a little early, but rowing is generally a sport of early risers, and I've been used to early starts since my paperboy days. Then our gracious host Cindy shared the full plan with us: we should be at the Santa Cruz Harbor at 4 o'clock, thus we should wake at 3 "in the morning" ! My rowing partner Mark and I had adjusted to the apparent insanity of the marathon rough-water row, but the prospect of waking up in the middle of the night to do it now lent a surreal effect to the proceedings. And Cindy had seemed so nice and normal, a slim woman with a gentle manner, whom one might more easily imagine stroking a few golf balls at the country club instead of sweating out countless rowing strokes and bashing through waves for 4 hours in the open sea. "3 o'clock", she had said cheerfully, so Mark and I tried not to whine too much and laid out our gear neatly so that actual consciousness would not be needed.
The Monterey Bay Crossing is organized by the Santa Cruz Rowing Club, and has been an annual event for 17 years, according to club triviameister Russ Cline. This race is one of a relatively few long-distance open-water rowing races in the country. Open-water rowing is a lesser-known cousin to flat- water rowing, which is a rather lesser-known sport already. Maybe you're familiar with flat-water rowing, as most often practiced by college crews or clubs, whose lineage can be traced to the first Oxford and Cambridge challenge race of 1829. These folks mostly race either 2000-meter "sprints" or 3-mile "head races", and may or may not cherish their preppie-ish reputation. At the world-class level, flat-water rowing is one of the last bastions of true amateurism, requiring lots of guts and offering very little glory (not even a chance of a Wheaties shot). Flat-water rowing is conducted on calm inland waterways only. In contrast, open-water rowing is, essentially, rowing over water considered too often too rough for flat-water rowing. Nature being as it is, however, many a flat-water race has unofficially become an open-water race, with a capsizing or two, and the winner being he or she who survives storm conditions in a boat designed for little more than ripples. Open-water shells, in contrast, are designed for virtual submersion. A good open-water rower can withstand a wave which might appeal to a surfer, maybe pause mid- stroke, then resume rowing while the autobailer rapidly empties the small cockpit of water. The best open-water racing shells take on very little water, and have well-sealed flotation compartments. Unlike flat-water shells, which have kept the same basic shape for years (imagine a 60 foot toothpick with 8 seats) -- though incorporating space-age materials -- open-water shells have evolved rapidly in the last 20 years as the increase in open-water racing has encouraged "recreational" shells to evolve into faster craft that can still handle rough water. In the process, some would say, a new sport has emerged.
The open-water rowers themselves are a rugged and random lot, some ex- collegiate rowers who enjoy the accessibility of "open water", some outdoorsy types who found rowing as a great way to work out arms and legs while exploring a watery wilderness, some ex-runners and bikers who find themselves seduced by the special feeling of being on the water. Open-water shells are easier to learn to row than flat-water shells, are sturdier, less expensive, and more easily transported. Since almost any body of water is suitable for open-water rowing, this sport is accessible to nearly everyone.
So there we were, at 4:45 AM in the Santa Cruz Harbor ready for our 5 o'clock start. The Santa Cruz Rowing Club was well organized, and we were actually starting on time, with escort craft ready and the Coast Guard alerted. The starters called to us from Aldo's Restaurant, at the harbor entrance, and we were off, into the pre-dawn darkness of Monterey Bay. Soon we fell into a comfortable rhythm, about 25 strokes per minute, as the movement of the sea overlaid its own rhythms on ours. August 7th was blessed with a rare foglessness, and so we were able to watch the lights of Santa Cruz retreat into the distance, and even see the glow of Monterey over the bow. (We heard that the previous year was foggy, and the competitors had seen "not a stinking thing".) The bay is a celebrated marine sanctuary, so we were on alert for critters, and soon encountered some. While crossing some kelp beds, we startled several sleeping flocks of Shearwater gulls, who rose en masse, shadows in the dark, wings whooshing overhead. Then, Mark saw a creature poke out of the water with "a pointy thing on its nose" ... a swordfish ? ... unlikely, but possible, we were told later... or maybe just a sleep-deprivation-and-caffeine-induced hallucination. Later there were pelicans, and sea lions swimming alongside, and reports of whale spouts (grey and/or killer whales). Perhaps we would have seen the whales, and who knows what, but the challenge of propelling our craft over the tossing sea was keeping our attention. The combination of wind-chop and slow rolling ocean swells was a new and exhilarating experience for us, as we were used to rowing at Cochiti Lake, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Up-swell strokes were different from down- swell strokes, and we found ourselves sometimes surfing down, and struggling up, depending on the angle and timing.
Rowing is, arguably, the best total-body exercise there is. Thanks to the invention of the sliding seat about 120 years ago, about 80% of a rower's power is from the legs, with the rest from the arms and back. The heart and lungs are also fully involved, for a simultaneous aerobic + strength workout. Therefore, a 26 mile row offers one a wonderful opportunity for complete and utter physical exhaustion, plus a little mental exhaustion from concentrating on keeping a straight line course (or, in our case, trying to serpentine a little less wildly). Indeed, one of Santa Cruz' star rowers, Craig Rogers, overdrew his aerobic account somewhat in last year's 38 mile Catalina to Marina Del Rey race, and was rushed to the local ER for a few rehydrating IVs before returning for his 1st place award. Thus warned, we cautiously replenished our fluids every half-hour. Normally, rowers are blessed with a low risk of injury.
Mark and I were rowing his boat, a Whitehall made by Hogtown Bayou Boats in Florida. At 20' it is too short and wide to be considered a true open-water racing shell, but its stability, strength, and cargo capacity are ideal for the backcountry rowing adventures enjoyed by Mark and his wife Deborah. They have toured the Green River in Utah for two weeks with all their provisions aboard, including camcorder and mini-expresso-maker.
Halfway across the bay, we crossed the "Monterey Submarine Canyon", over a mile deep, an unusual bit of ocean topography. The first two hours had passed quickly, perhaps because we hadn't fully awakened. As our strength waned in the second half, we were encouraged by Captain Dan aboard our escort craft, as well as the growing apparition of our destination. The 1993 Monterey Bay Crossing ended successfully, with all nine boats finishing at the beach next to Monterey municipal wharf #1. Our Whitehall made it in 3:59, just under our 4- hour target. After the final exertion of carrying the boats up to the club's trailer, we adjourned to a nearby establishment for brunch. The Santa Cruz Rowing Club are a real friendly bunch, and were very kind to us out of state visitors, after they had tried to scare us out of coming (for safety reasons only, of course). And thanks to an open air verandah, the "atmosphere" at brunch wasn't adversely affected by our briny bouquet. During refueling with eggs and muffins, race captain Linda Locklin gave congratulations and commemorative mugs to the finishers, and a feelgood time was had by all. The fastest time was turned in by the mixed double team of Margie Cate and Craig Leeds from Marina del Rey, CA, who finished in 3:19.
Is open-water rowing a serious sport ? Does it matter ? My answers are 1-Yes, and 2-Maybe. Though the SCRC are easy going folks who enjoy the scenery and row to reggae from onboard boom-boxes, they are also dedicated athletes who train hard year round and strive to excel. And they are not alone. Open- water rowing is gaining in popularity around the country, with new clubs dedicated to open-water rowing, flat-water rowing clubs diversifying, and among individuals who keep a shell in their garage and cartop it to the local waterway. As well as the "marathon" open-water rowing events such as the Monterey and Catalina races, there are many shorter races 3 miles and up.
Flat-water rowers -- me included -- used to call open-water shells "recreational" shells, as they were considered inadequate for competition. This terminology is no longer correct. Just as it is possible to row a flat-water racing shell recreationally, it is now common for an open-water shell to be raced competitively. Just as mountain bikes are now raced, despite their "recreational" roots, on courses inaccessible to road bikes, open-water boats must handle conditions which flat-water boats cannot. For me, perhaps the only reason it matters whether open-water rowing is a "serious" sport or not is the opportunity it offers someone entering the sport. Unlike 20 years ago, open-water rowing will nowadays let you go as far as your legs and heart will take you. Though the Wheaties box may still be out of reach, ready and waiting for you are the equipment, the races, a hardy and high-spirited community of rowers, and perhaps most importantly, thousands of miles of beautiful water.
Santa Fe, NM
Copyright © August 1993