First row in Berlin


After two weeks in Berlin, I had a chance to go for my first row, and just as everything has been here so far, it was a combination of awesome, gorgeous, thrilling, confusing, aggravating, and exhausting, but certainly worthwhile.

We have a wonderful apartment in Berlin where we can walk to any shop you could dream up, but it is landlocked and seems to be as far from a body of water as possible. So… I left our place at 8:30 a.m. Saturday to reach the club in time for a 10 a.m. practice. I had emailed with a club contact earlier in the week who said this is one of three regular all-club sessions they offer. I hoped to arrive with about a half-hour to spare so I could look around, but as it happened the S-bahn line that I intended to take was closed for the weekend. Having left my German/English dictionary at the apartment, I was trying to decipher construction signs and communicate with conductors about how to get to the Wannsee, the huge lake in the SW quadrant of the city where most of the rowing clubs are located. Three connections later, I got off the train and booked it on foot the last half-mile+ to the club. I was hugely relieved to see the “Ruderclub am Wannsee” sign as I arrived at exactly 10 a.m.

There was a group of people outside the club but they were clearly gearing up for a bike ride. I asked one of them in my best (very poor) German where to find Dietmar, my rowing contact, or else the group of rowers who were assembling. She led me to a bay of boats, and sure enough, there was a random group of people standing around, waiting to find out what boat they’re in, and I stopped sweating and started to relax — because this was the most comforting sight of all — a group of people with nothing in common except that they were all eager to get out on the water. I already felt at home.

Dietmar was no where to be found, but I spoke to a kind-looking woman in the group who spoke a little English, and she helped me get signed in to their computer, and someone else showed me the locker room, and next thing I knew I learned I’d be stroking a novice mixed quad, with coxswain (named Helga). This could not have been a better fit, because this group wasn’t rushing around, and I had enough lag time to figure out where they wanted me and what I should do next.

The boat turned out to be all-wood, wide-bottomed, with brass hardware. It was heavier than hell, and the way they carry it and handle it to the water was wild; you turn it guts-up and carry it by the gunnels and lower the stern into the water, and then walk in the rest of the boat — like putting in a canoe. The oars were wooden, and the blades were macon style, old-fashioned looking but perfectly workable.

The coxswain puts a huge removable wooden rudder on the end, and attaches a thick rope to it that she held the whole time and put significant weight into to steer out on the water (you can see them hanging on the wall in the picture). I asked if we’d be doing drills and once she figured out what I meant, she just laughed; the command I’d have to listen for would be their version of sit ready, ready all, row, and we’d do that for a long time, and then eventually she’d say “halt,” and then I knew to stop. I could ignore everything else she said, which I think was always directed to the novices behind me. Out on the water she pointed things out to me, castles along the shore, old churches, a ferry to take people to an island in the middle of the lake, as well as an island the rowing club owns where they hold picnics and swims, plus swans and other sights.

The other boats I saw out on the lake from their club were, without exception, boats I’d never seen before. I saw a 3x, and a 5x, as well as a coxed double and several coxed quads. Coxing and bowing is a huge responsibility out here, with all the boats to watch.

The Wannsee is a huge lake, and it felt a bit like Lake Superior. There was soooo much boat traffic out there. I couldn’t believe it. They were dozens, if not hundreds of sailboats; there were water taxis, steamboats, power boats, yachts and windsurfers. There were ferries and barges that looked like the ones on the Mississippi. There were kayaks, and kayaks with sails. I swear there was a pirate frigate out there that went sailing by. The most alarming boats were what they call “party boats” that look like handmade rafts, with makeshift coverings on top, that groups of people can rent for the day — to take a bunch of friends out on the water and drink, basically. They were all over the place, and several times we had to stop because they would just cross our line anytime they pleased. At any given time I’d look out and see at least six large watercraft in their own ill-defined lanes, and we wouldn’t slow or stop unless the waves got to be really high, which they did a few times.

As we returned to the dock, we rowed through a group of sailboats where two of them had tipped over and about four people were in the water. (Back on land we learned that this was a class, and they were learning how to get back into their boat and get it upright again). It was wild out there, and the water was so choppy. It was as bad as the worst day of wind and chop on the Mississippi, but we were in this huge, sturdy, wooden tub of a boat, so only once did we have a roller that came right over the gunnels and surprised us all.

We were out on the water for a very long time. I could tell it would be long when we went in one direction without stopping for probably 40 minutes, and then to my dismay kept going in that same direction when we picked up again. Toward the end, when I asked, the cox said our row was 17 kms total, and that this was a typical row for their club. As we came back to the dock (through rows of docked sailboats), I started to feel strange, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. My stomach was churning and it hit me — I was seasick! It was a terrible feeling and I was hugely relieved that we were docking, because if we’d stayed out even 5 minutes longer I think I would have barfed.

Anyway, we got the boat back in to the boathouse, and I saw the clock — it was 1 p.m.! I couldn’t believe it, because we’d met up at 10 a.m. I’d promised my family I’d be home by 1 p.m. so we could go out for the afternoon, but here I was at least an hour away, and I was starving and knew I had a long trek home. Fortunately, and here’s the best part, the club has a staffed cafe on the second floor, with a full menu and beer on tap, so I went up for some plum cake and an apfelshorle (sparkling apple cider) with a woman from my boat, and we sat on the deck of the club with a bunch of others and looked out at the mayhem of boats on the lake, which was apparently quite normal to them. Then this young woman offered me a ride back, because unlike me she had a car, and 20 minutes later she left me at an U-bahn station, and four stops later and a short walk, I was home — at 2:30 p.m., a full 6 hours after I’d set out for a nice morning row. Soooo… I don’t know how often I’m going to be able to manage this.

Fortunately, when I came home, no one felt like going out, so I laid down and promptly fell asleep for an hour, woke up at 4 p.m. and had coffee and a shower and was ready for the rest of my day, which unfortunately was just about over.

A little more research online suggests there are many other clubs, of course, but they are almost as far from our apartment as this one (and many are farther), and I have no contacts at any of them. The actual closest club (still 40 mins. away by subway) is only for men, unfortunately. We’ll see how this goes. Maybe I’ll have to take up kickboxing (ok, that’s really unlikely). But I may have to find some other outlet for the year. Seasickness every row? No thanks!! But the boats were lovely, and the people were kind, and rowers are rowers wherever you go, and I liked them right away. Maybe I’ll just show up now and then and continue to be a guest until the snow flies, and then hibernate for the winter. Don’t know.

Meanwhile life is good here, except that we miss our friends back in the US. So please keep in touch and share your fun times and ups and downs with me when you get a chance. I hope all is well back home. Best to you all.


2 thoughts on “First row in Berlin

  1. Bobbie Gilkerson

    I am reading, Jill, and enjoying. You do have your hands full, but I’m sure you will be speaking the language a finding friends before long. Keep writing! Bobbie G


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