It was a stormy day in early April, and as I walked down the hill to the boathouse I wondered what on earth I’d been thinking, attempting a row on such a forbidding day. The clouds were full and the wind was high and a drenching rain greeted me halfway down the hill.
“I’m here to erg,” I reminded myself, and trudged onward through the rain.
I ran into Dietmar along the way. Like me he had the hood of his raincoat pulled tight around his face.
“There’s no way we’re going out on the water, right?” I asked.
He said he’d wait to see the conditions firsthand before calling off practice.
When I reached the boathouse I could see whitecaps from the dock, a bad sign if there ever was one, and I assumed I was on my own to work out.
Alas, it was not to be. On my way to the erg room (thinking, “let these crazy Germans go out on that water if they want to; I’m staying in here”), a man named Alexander shanghaied me to join his men’s quad.
“But the wind! The waves!” I said.
“Can you row?” he asked.
“Yeah…” I said.
“That’s good. We can’t,” he said, as he logged out our boat on the computer.
I stared at him. He’s a joker, I could tell, but I didn’t know what to think. This could mean he’s a foolhardy novice or a former Olympian. Or something in between, which was more likely the case.
He looked at me kindly. “We’ll be in the Wannsee, the heaviest boat in the house.”
“Ah,” I said, and soon saw what he meant: a gig boat quad with room for a coxswain, at least twice as wide as a typical shell and, as promised, heavy as can be.
Soon we were off: Alexander, Ulf, Philip, myself, and Achim as steuermann. We crossed the open Wannsee, heading for the narrow opening to the Kleine Wannsee, always calmer water than the wide lake. I was surprised to see that the sloshing water had little effect on the boat, heavy as it was, though we were moving at a snail’s pace in the wind.
“Jill?” called Alexander from stroke seat.
“Do you understand the rowing commands in German?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then we’re going to give them in French.” I just smiled and shook my head.
Behind me Ulf called out, “Parlez-vous pommes-frites?”
I chuckled. We rowed on.
A few minutes later Alexander asked, “How far shall we go?”
“Umfahrt!” called Philip from three seat, meaning a full 18 km. tour of both the Kleine and the Grosse Wannsee, rare enough in good weather. Thank goodness he wasn’t serious, though it was hard to tell.
We spun it around at Griebnitzseemitte and started our return trip. The women’s eight was out on the water as well, to my surprise; they were preparing for a race that Saturday. I could see them coming towards us, making much better time than our gig boat.
“Jill?” called Alexander.
“We have a rule in this boat.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“We can never be overtaken by a women’s boat.”
“Is that so?” I laughed. The gap between us and the women’s eight was closing fast.
“Looks like that rule’s about to be broken,” I said.
“No!” he called. “Nein, nein, nein. We have a plan.”
I waited for him to call a power piece, but instead he yelled over the wind: “We’re going to sink them!”
And he and Achim then had a loud discussion about how best to sink the women’s eight.
I was still laughing when the women’s eight charged past us at full steam while we flailed our macons in our bathtub of a boat.
A little while later we left the haven of the Kleine Wannsee for the wide open lake, and the hour that had lapsed since we launched had done nothing to improve conditions.
To make matters worse, the new BVG ferry crossed our path and spun to land at its dock, not far from our boathouse. The water was now a churning mess.
The singing came from in front of me; I couldn’t tell which of them started it, but soon all four men were singing in German, some drinking song, or military song, or folk song, who knows, and they continued as we chopped away at the whitecaps all around us. It couldn’t have been a more perfect response to the terrible water. I grinned all the way to the dock.
I was surprised to see the women’s eight still on the dock when we landed. Turns out it was so full of water they needed my crew to help them lift it. When they brought it up to their waists they dumped gallons of water onto their feet.
Left alone on the dock with our gig boat, I first held onto it with my foot, but soon saw the waves could pull me into the lake. I ended up squatting on the dock and hanging onto the heavy quad with two hands and all my might to keep it from being taken out to sea.
I looked up and what did I see? Dietmar, returning to the dock. In a single.