Anyone who has rowed for JD knows his phrase “ham sandwich.” He’ll use it to describe a pause you may have, particularly at the catch.
“You’re sitting at the catch so long, you could have a ham sandwich,” he’ll say through his green megaphone, always making me smile at the thought of someone bringing a ham sandwich in a boat with them.
Never did I think the day would come that someone would actually eat a ham sandwich in a boat.
But sure enough, the coxswain of my octuple is making the most of our break at the turnaround point and has pulled out none other than a ham sandwich. She has not turned off the cox box. I hear the crinkle of the baggie, the consistency of the bread as she takes each bite. I lean out from bow seat to get a look, and it’s on that dark sunflower bread that is so good here, and hardly exists in the states. My stomach rumbles at the thought of it; it’s already noon and I’d gladly eat.
We’re sitting on the water by Cecilienhof, our turnaround point; we’ve nearly rowed right up to shore of the castle. It’s chilly, barely 60 degrees, and though we’ve rowed far we haven’t rowed hard, so we’re shivering as we sit, and the woman in three seat keeps muttering in English, not quite loud enough for the coxswain to hear, “Let’s go!”
This is my first time in an acht-Doppel-acht, another thing that hardly exists in the states. It’s a sculling eight, or I think an octuple in English. I understand some rowers from MRC had their own episode of “Lost in Duluth” in a rare showing of what they called an octopod in Minnesota last weekend. From back here I can appreciate the full view of so many blades—sixteen red oars glinting in the sun as we row. I’ve seen boats like this out on the Wannsee but never been in one before. Though it’s just a variation of all our other boats, it is still a spectacle, with twice as many blades as we typically use back home. At MRC we have enough trouble putting blades together for quads and doubles without sending octopods out to hog up all the oars.
This row is a practice for an upcoming regatta I’ll miss; I’m filling in for some missing woman, and I’m glad for the chance to row such an unusual boat. The coxswain is taking her job seriously, and she’s been talking to us almost nonstop throughout the row. Now and then the woman in front of me turns to tell me the commands she worries I may miss, and lets the rest slide by untranslated.
Rowing has its drills to try to stretch out certain movements while shortening others. The cox has us do a pause drill at third position, mostly the way we do at home. JD has a phrase for this too—pull it like taffy. Like us, they pause at arms away and body over, and the coxswain tells us when to row. But after a while she tells us to follow the stroke instead, and after another while she tells us the pause will shorten. And the stroke is very good. Over the course of a minute she gradually takes the pause out of her stroke; where the obvious pause was a moment ago is now diminished to a micropause and then finally just a memory of where the pause used to be. After all that attention on the recovery, our movement up the slide feels more nuanced, more taffy-like.
The coxswain is talking to us throughout this drill, and though I don’t understand her words I understand the drill, feel it working on my stroke, trust the language and rhythm of rowing that really defies any words we try to hang on it.
Rowing is rich with metaphors when coaches talk to you about progressing from wherever you are towards the natural, free-flowing, efficient rowing we strive for. Rowers talk about wanting to “get better” at rowing, a phrase I resist because it suggests that there’s something wrong with what they’re currently doing. It’s not an illness we’re trying to cure; it’s a continuum we’re moving along, and like everyone else I too strive for that seemingly effortless stroke the most experienced rowers have.
JD shot some video of a quad I was in this summer and sent us the link. As I watched the 15-second clip over and over, all I could think as I watched was “ham sandwich.” What am I doing, lingering at the catch? Why don’t I just drop the blade in? And yet when I was rowing I hadn’t been aware of that micropause at all. I’m sure he must have reminded us to keep moving smoothly through the catch. Words that make sense in theory but are difficult to feel, to execute.
Seeing the video made a good argument for having a coach—being able to see for myself what he was trying to describe in words and have a better chance at making the change.
We spin the octuple around, and now we are doing our race piece, and the rating is quick and the work is light. The blades flash and I realize, from my vantage point in the far rear of the boat, that these rowers do not suffer from lingering at the catch. All seven of them come up to the catch and drop their blades right in, no hesitation at all.
The coxswain continues her coaching. I think about her ham sandwich and how I’m getting my own private lesson in a language I do understand, better than any video footage or coach’s metaphor, a mass demonstration by as many oars as is physically possible, fourteen blades ahead of me making quick, clean catches stroke after stroke, for the full distance of a head race, showing me how to drop the blade right in.
I’m amused to think the ham sandwich has become literal and found its rightful place in the boat: in the hands of the coxswain, not the catch of the rowers.