Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, painting by Thomas Eakins, 1871
In the first half-revolution of the pedals, that scant fraction of a second before the rotation of the wheels creates its own stability, the bicycle rider is on the point of falling, falls, and is caught. Learning to ride a bicycle is mostly about forgetting to fall, and once that magic trick is mastered it becomes difficult to recall the feeling of space that exists between stillness and movement.
Look left for traffic in the quiet street in front of the house. Bring the right pedal up to the top. Raise your left leg but do not push down on the pedal yet. Wait, balanced, a second, a fraction more, until you feel the bicycle just begin to topple from the midpoint… and then pedal, the physics of the machine taking over, turning the falling motion of the pedals into rotation of the wheels, and the rotation of the wheels into forward movement. A bicycle in motion is stable. Take your hands off of the handlebars and the bicycle will continue to stay upright as long as it maintains momentum.
Unlike a bicycle, a rowing shell - the single racing shell that is the pinnacle of the sculler’s art - is inherently unstable. Just stepping from the dock into the boat requires small, precise movements. Take the oar handles in one hand and step directly into the center of the shell, keeping your weight low and the oars completely still. Lower yourself onto the sliding seat then place your feet into the stretchers. Sit upright, balanced over the base of your spine, oars in hand, and push gently off.
Away from the dock the shell becomes a sensitive partner, quick to take offense at any ungraceful move. With the oar blades flat on the water the boat is stable but every minute shift in weight, every ripple, every movement of the oar handles threatens to flip the novice sculler (and more than a few experienced scullers too) into the water. But one cannot row a boat with the blades flat and resting on the surface. So bring the seat forward to the catch - the point in the rowing stroke at which the oars start to push against the water, creating motion. And now the tiny amount of stability that existed at rest is gone, leaving boat and sculler poised in the moment of falling.
Sit there, at the catch, balanced, arms straight, legs compressed, ready to uncoil their energy into the stroke. Your hands on the oar handles are the only thing keeping you upright. Do not grip the oars - put no pressure on them at all. Rest the first joint of each finger on the handle, wrists flat, thumbs loose. (“Imagine balancing a wine glass on your wrist”, my first sculling instructor told me, years ago. “You should be able to row the entire stroke without spilling a drop.”) The boat rocks gently with the movement of the water. Pivot at your hips to move with the boat, while your upper body, hands, head remain motionless.
Listen to your heart, eyes fixed on a point far off, waiting for a beat, two, three, and then pull, legs pushing hard against the stretchers, lifting you just out of the seat, arms straight, hands loosely curled around the handles. Then, as the boat begins to move, legs flat, elbows in, shoulders back, pull your hands quickly into your body, just below the ribs, and feather the oars with the tiniest release of the fingers, then quickly, quickly hands out again, arms straight. “Fast hands, slow slide!” the coach yells from those long ago remembered practices as you begin the recovery, sliding back up to the catch, oars skimming just above the surface of the water. Every movement balanced, contained, precise, to maintain the momentum of the boat. And then do it again. And again. Fifteen hundred strokes in an hour. Every one identical - the same movements at the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery - every one different, as the movement of the water demands.
Bicycling requires only that the rider believe in physics. Once in motion the machine will proceed where it is directed as long as the rider continues to turn the pedals. The challenges of a long ride - the hundred-mile “century” which is the basic unit of measure in recreational cycling, as the marathon is in running - are many, but they are feats of strength, endurance, pain management, calorie intake (more difficult than one might assume), and occasionally of bladder control. Keep pedaling long enough, keep eating, keep drinking, ignore the pain, and the rider will succeed. Likely they will be sore and weary, cold and wet, or hot and sunburned, and perhaps they did not achieve the time that they were hoping for, but at the end of the day the ride is done and the rider retires from the field with what victories they can claim or defeats suffered.
Sculling, however, is the act of striving for and failing to achieve perfection again and again, every few seconds. For the amateur sculler, as for the amateur musician, the challenge is not merely to make progress in the face of difficulty, but to forgive oneself for every wrong note, every break in rhythm, every flaw, in the instant in which it occurs, recover one’s timing and balance, and keep going. The tiniest mistake in feathering the oar at the finish, the most minute imbalance of the hands at the catch, the merest fraction of an inch wrong in the height of the oar blade in the water - all will be immediately reflected in the ungainly splash, the accusatory bobble in the even pattern of circles in the water left by the oars, the hitch in the fluid motion of the boat as the sculler reacts, adjusts, recovers.
But if sculling requires an act of self-forgiveness with every stroke, it also offers a chance at redemption with every next one. Start again at the catch. Forget the mistakes of the past. Feel the resistance of the water against the oar blade. Commit all of your energy, trust your weight to the oars, give yourself up to the moment in which boat, oars, rower, water come together in a motion which is more art than mechanism. Better that time. Not perfect - it will never be perfect - but in that instant of stillness at the finish, oars feathered, hands already moving away from you, the boat running evenly through the water, one can imagine perfection, see its shape, explore its fractal dimensions, be amazed by its infinite, unachievable complexity.
We would like to think that our lives could be like riding a bicycle - that there is some system, some mechanism, some ideal process or state that, once achieved, would take over and ensure our happiness and ultimate success. Reach some level in one’s career or income, meet some goal of weight and fitness, buy the right house, manage one’s time according to some schedule provided by an expert in productivity, branded and marketed with tools and apps and seminars, save enough in a 401k account to fund one’s retirement (a daunting figure which remains out of reach for most of us), and we will be able to coast, letting the machine do the work of balancing for us while we merely turn the pedals.
But it is not so. On this earthly plane at least, we are not granted freedom from care despite the promises of wealth, education, possessions, place in society, physical or mental health, or other privileges or accomplishments. Our existence is not balanced by some law of physics or metaphysics, but by our own efforts. Each day we begin again at the catch, ready to exert our force against the resistance of the world, balanced on the point of falling, trusting our weight to invisible oars. Each night at the finish we measure ourselves against an ideal that we hold in our minds. The day was not perfect. The task list is not complete. That proposal remains unwritten. The laundry is not folded. Toys remain scattered on the floor. Sharp words were said, and recanting them does little to restore harmony. But forgive yourself for your mistakes. Do not dwell on imperfection. Tomorrow offers another opportunity to try again, oars ready, poised at the catch.