This past summer, I had the experience of a lifetime. When I first set out to write about it here, I was framing my story as one of risk that resulted in reward, but at its core, this experience was one of vulnerability — and that makes a difference.
In July, I traveled to England for a friend’s wedding. We added in a few days of sight-seeing after the nuptials and spent several days in Maidenhead, a community to the east of London. On the last full day of our stay, one of my travel companions pointed out the Maidenhead Rowing Club was just across the Thames River from our hotel. I hadn’t noticed up until that point. As I mentioned in a past post, I rowed in college and have always loved the sport, though my ability to participate has been mostly absent in adulthood.
It was nearly dinnertime and we’d had a jam-packed day of sightseeing, but from our shore, I could see that the boathouse bays were open and a few tiny figures were bustling about the building. “What’s the harm in asking?” I thought, “It’s unlikely, but I’ll go see if there’s any chance I could join one of the boats going out for the morning row tomorrow.”
It took about ten minutes to walk across the bridge, down through a narrow street to the boathouse. By the time I arrived, there was a swarm of activity around the building, with boats clearly being prepped to go out on the water. Suddenly I wasn’t feeling very courageous. Surely this was a terrible idea. Surely there was a legal reason I couldn’t row. Surely I would need to join as an affiliate club member and that would be out of my trip budget. Surely this kind of thing — guest rowers from the States — was completely frowned upon and culturally rude.
But right then a very friendly British lady came up to me and asked if she could help me. “I was wondering if there was any way I could join a morning row tomorrow? I used to row in college in the States and didn’t know if there was any way I could participate in the morning.” “Oh wow! What a lovely idea,” she was more enthusiastic than I expected, “let’s find someone who knows that answer.” She was off on a mission, threading her way through all the spandexed folks around the building, calling “John! John! We’ve got a guest from America!”
John was soon located and no one could come up with a reason why I couldn’t go for a row with them. “We don’t really have larger boats that go out in the morning — it’s mostly singles — so we should get you in a boat right now. I’ve got a spot in my four…could you change into your kit and be back here in fifteen minutes?” When I packed for the wedding and subsequent sightseeing, I definitely didn’t pack my rowing “kit” and the hotel on the other side of the river, but here was an opportunity to go rowing on the Thames, so I said “yes” and took off running back across the bridge in my sandals. I changed as fast as I could, trying to remember all the little things that would be needed in the boat (I remembered socks!), made an online account with British Rowing as I jogged back across the bridge so my emergency contacts would be noted, and turned up back at the Maidenhead Rowing Club in sixteen minutes. They hadn’t left.
I was joined in the four by John, Alice, and Brian (who was having his first outing in the steering position) and off we went for an evening row on the Thames. It was not smooth. In college, I rowed sweep (wherein a rower in a boat only has one oar to maneuver) and we were sculling (each rower has two oars to manipulate, all while avoiding smashing oar handles and subsequent hands together). I had sculled once before, but the difference in switching between sweep rowing and sculling is somewhat like trying to write with your non-dominant hand: it can be done, but it takes intense focus and does not look as smooth and graceful as your usual signature. By far. In addition to this challenge, Brian was getting a feel for the steering role and John (clearly the most seasoned rower) was coaching him through the motions and trying to keep us from veering madly all over the river.
About five minutes into the row, we discovered another challenge: the lingo surrounding rowing in England is entirely different from that used in the United States. John was calling out orders and I had no idea what he was talking about. I was blindsided by the foreign terminology. I could put together what he meant by following the others, but that put me on a delay of a second or two — not something that works well in rowing. Neither this American nor the Brits saw this complication coming. We took a few minutes to hash through the differences: Americans say “port” and “starboard” for the different sides of the boat; the British say “strokeside” and “bowside.” Americans say “way enough” and “hold water” when we instruct the boat to stop rowing and place the oar blades square in the water to slow the boat down. The British say “easy oars” and “hold it hard” for those actions.
I got a sinking feeling in my gut. I’d talked these nice folks into letting me row and now I was causing confusion and chaos with my poor sculling skills and lack of comprehension at the basic commands. I was frustrated by the difference in lingo as it took something I knew how to do and created a brief disconnect in my brain before I could translate the command into action. I was the weak link and on top of that, I was making Brian’s first outing with the rudder extra complicated. I felt exposed as incompetent and certain the others were irritated and annoyed by me being in their boat. Our row upriver was the embodiment of the “rowing upstream” metaphor, and then some. And on top of that, we were now miles (or kilometers) from the boathouse, so there was nothing to do but keep rowing.
So we did. I began to relax a little, rejoicing internally when John called out a command with the different terminology and I understood. At one point, he complimented me on my power (if I couldn’t master the technical pieces, I was at least determined to pull as hard as I could on the oars!). At other points, Alice chatted with me about how she’d come to join the rowing club and how much she loved it. We each cheered Brian on for his first (and extra challenging) outing at the rudder. I began to feel more confident in my place in the boat. It started to feel like I’d known these strangers for ages. The remainder of the hour flew by, and before I knew it, we were headed for home.
As we neared the boathouse for the last time, John asked if our boat would like to do a pyramid (an increase then decrease of sustained rate of rowing), starting with a power ten (ten strokes at full power and quick speed to fire the boat through the water). This is a culminating exercise only possible if the boat is in balance and the rowers are in sync. “Why not?!” was the collective response from our group. We sat at the catch and took off at John’s command. The boat, which only 40 minutes ago had been chaos and confusion, shot forward with all of us rowing in unison. The oarlocks ca-chunked in harmony as we feathered our blades, and the seats slid forward on their tracks as one. Our eight oar blades dropped and powered through the water with combined force that shot the boat forward like a rocket. The beautiful English homes on the banks slid past. We rowed like a seasoned crew beside the manicured rose gardens and the Queen’s white swans. The sinking feeling I’d had earlier was gone. My trepidation at asking if I could go out on the water with the Club was gone. My fears and misgivings at rowing an uncomfortable style with foreign lingo were gone. My vulnerability was forged into validation.
As I reflect on the experience, certain actions made the entire experience possible. These can be applied to other scenarios far beyond rowing:
- Pay attention to the surroundings and recognize opportunities. It’s possible, without the nudge from my travel companion, I never would have noticed the Club on the other shore or considered the possibility of being able to row during our travels.
- Ask (you don’t know unless you do). As I initially approached the boathouse, I was building up the reasons why my request wouldn’t work, but the only way I could really know was to ask. If I had been content with my assumptions my request would be rejected, I would’ve missed the entire experience.
- Say yes, even when it’s not exactly what you had in mind. I was asking to row in the morning. That made sense with my schedule and how tired I was from the day’s travels, but the opportunity didn’t look like that. The opportunity required a timeline that was very different than what I was expecting, but I’m so glad I said yes anyway.
- Be vulnerable with what you don’t know. It was embarrassing and frustrating, at a very gut level, to feel incompetent in the boat. I had billed myself as someone who knew how to row, and yet I found myself confused and lost. When I communicated this to the others, however, they paused, helped me with the terminology, and supported me.
- Embrace differences. None of us knew there were differences in rowing terminology on the two sides of the Pond. Everyone in the boat was in a place of learning in that regard. Our conversation also led to more understanding of the rowing cultures in both countries. In addition, this line-up of rowers was new. We each brought our strengths to the boat and had to learn the gifts and challenges we each embodied.
- Be thankful and share your joy. Despite the challenges, the experience of rowing with this group on the Thames is one of my favorite memories from the trip. My enthusiasm at being allowed to row with the group in a setting and on a river that seemed so exotic to me as an American clearly changed how my British boatmates thought about their weekly hobby that day. It also made a difference in how I approached the rest of my trip in the UK: I felt awakened to more opportunities to connect with the people and places I encountered.
- Remember the feeling of vulnerability, recognize it in others, and support them when you do. In the midst of my discomfort, the warmth with which I was treated made all the difference. If my boatmates had reacted to my vulnerability and frustrations with hostility or scorn, the experience would have easily become the worst part of the UK trip, possibly chilling any of my future efforts in vulnerability. I am so thankful they reacted with patience and understanding. Recognizing when someone is emotionally unguarded is critical, as is then being willing to support them.
This summer, I rowed on the Thames River in England. I was vulnerable in a way that scared and frustrated me, yet that vulnerability led to one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
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