My friend Kara is a combination of equal parts crafty girl, tomboy, and crazy weirdo. She’s a talented jack-of-all-trades, and since I’ve known her she’s participated in all sorts of activities from international bike expeditions to knitting circles, hip-hop dance classes to themed-cooking clubs. Not only does she manage to accomplish all these activities, she always befriends interesting people and has amazing and hilarious stories to tell along the way. And so when she joined the Renegade Bastards, the Embarcadero Rowing Club’s competitive team, a little over a year ago, I knew I’d be hearing a lot about her new hobby and friends.
Because she keeps so busy, I see Kara maybe once every few months. One of the first times I saw her after she joined the Renegade Bastards, I noticed that she had undergone a physical transformation. She’s always been a sporty type, but I immediately noticed her new rock-hard guns and taut stomach muscles. Kara and her Bastards get buff from practicing year-round for their spring and fall race seasons. Eight rowers each paddle 40-pound oars to move a one-ton, 26-foot whaleboat filled with a crew of 10 at top speed in courses and conditions that vary from two-minute sprints to 45-minute endurance races.
Aside from the physical benefits, Kara enjoys the company of her fellow teammates on the women’s team, along with other members of the ERC. According to legend (as posted on its Facebook page), the Renegade Bastards began in 1985 as a group of rowers who “borrowed” corporate teams’ boats under the cover of night. They got their name after winning a race, when the race officiator declared “those renegade bastards!” the winner. Whether the legend’s true or not, it’s a fitting name for this group who claim the motto “We row so you don’t have to. We drink because we like it.”
I have trouble rowing the dinghies on Stow Lake. I have zero upper-body strength, and a glass of wine is my drinking limit, so I’m an unlikely match for this group of rowing misfits. But I asked Kara if I could sit in with her team during one of its practices. It turns out that although they have a knack for humor, they take rowing seriously and practice isn’t amateur hour. Kara pointed out that the ERC offers noncompetitive recreational rows every Tuesday night and Sunday morning. Open to all levels and adults of any age, it’s a great chance to learn the fundamentals of rowing with other newbies.
Although the ERC website advises recreation row participants to place valuables in a bag that “can stand to get a little wet,” Kara didn’t think we’d get more than a few light splashes. She did have some instructions that set off an alarm of concern: You must not wear pants with any seams or pockets on the backside, and you should not wear underwear.
Any kind of folded, raised, or riveted fabric on your butt will cause major chaffing. To express the direness of her warning, Kara offered a cautionary tale. On her first rec row, she had foolishly worn a pair of pocketed jeans and underwear. By the end of the hour-long row, she had painful raw blisters along the underside of her cheeks, something she’d learn from ERC members to call “chooties.” These days, Kara has switched to seamless yoga pants sans undies, but admits that chooties are still a problem. I wrote myself a note to wear a couple of pairs of stretch pants and go commando on the day of the row.
Due to constant bouts of rain hitting the city, Kara and I had to postpone rowing until one recent clear Tuesday evening. When we arrived at SF Boat Works in China Basin, the Renegade, a navy blue boat decorated with gold filigree and an Anchor Steam Brewery logo, was still hidden beneath a tarp. The only person there was a middle-aged woman named Robin who was knitting a sweater while waiting for others to arrive.
Because you need eight rowers and one coxswain, or person who steers the boat and directs the rowers, Kara was a little concerned that we’d not have enough people to go out. She knew that several rec row regulars on the men’s team would not be available because they were practicing for a competition on the ERC’s other boat, La Sirena .
Turns out that rowers are slackers just like the rest of us. Eventually, we had enough people to go out. So many, in fact, that our boatload had runneth over. With 15 people to fill 11 spots on the boat, we decided to rotate turns. I was on the first rowing shift.
Before we boarded, our cox, Mark, gave us a jargon-filled tutorial on how to set up our oars and how to stroke. As I watched his demonstration, I tried to remember how to position my back during “the catch” (beginning of the stroke when the blade enters the water) and how to move my arms correctly and keep the oar blade “square” (upright) for “the drive” (the stroke). I was worried that I’d forget that “weigh enough” meant to stop, “all eight to the catch” meant to start again. Overwhelmed by the diarrhea of lingo and information, I released my inner slacker. I wasn’t going to lose anyone a race, anyhow. I decided that I’d just follow the lead of my stroke, or the position of the most experienced and consistent rower at the back of the boat. I took position closest to the bow, strapped my feet into footblocks, set my oar, and before I knew it, I was stroking with the best of them.
Let me clarify that I said with, and not like, the best. Being small isn’t necessarily a rowing deal breaker, but it doesn’t help the cause, either. Lifting and moving something that is one-third of my weight through water in sync with seven other people, is not easy, especially for someone with arms that are shorter than the general population’s. Mark scratched his head wondering why my catch was so much shorter than that of the others. Even after adjusting my oarblocks, I could only reach my oar about three-quarters of the length back. I felt bad for Johnny, the tall guy in front of me whom I’d pound on the back with the end of my oar when I fell out of rhythm. Sorry, dude!
Maybe he was just being nice, but Mark said I was doing a good job given my shortcomings, and although he didn’t say it, I was clearly not the worst rower that night (woo-hoo for being second worst!). I didn’t completely suck at rowing, but as we gently bobbed in the water, I felt myself being overcome by a greater force – seasickness. I was lucky that the bay was calm that night, but still, my nausea would not subside. After about 30 minutes, Mark announced it was time to switch positions and I willingly gave up my spot to regain my bearings and keep down the six-hour-old lunch that was being coaxed from its position in my gut.
When we were on dry land again, we headed over to the Mariposa Hunter’s Point Yacht Club. If you’re considering coming to a rec row, I highly recommend coming on a Tuesday night since it’s your ticket in to the Mariposa, a members-only establishment. If the ERC were the cast of 90210, the Mariposa would be its Peach Pit. Colorful regulars of all stripes frequent this old boys’ romper room.
ERC racing trophies, nautical decorations, and an excellent display of vintage portraits of sea captains adorn the place. But the ornamental highlight of the Mariposa can be found in the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Etched lovingly on the wooden toilet seat in the ladies room are the words “Win the Race Win the Party, Ladies Team Kicks Ass.” I was told that equally inspiring words can be found on the men’s throne.
More homey than classy, the Mariposa is a great place to kick up your heels, knock back some brewskis, load up on carbs (a huge plate of cafeteria-style food costs $7), and meet some new friends. The men’s rowing team was already settled in when we arrived and they welcomed us with offers of beer and food. My stubby arms and I are probably never going to be asked to compete alongside the Renegade Bastards, but it’s good to know that we’re always welcome with this group of salty characters anyway.