For years I’ve run down River Road (for fitness, not romance) and felt a bit of jealousy as I passed Narragansett Boat Club (NBC). I always see competitive rowing teams gearing up on the grass across from the building as crews glide swiftly through the Seekonk River off in the distance. It looks like such a pleasant way to spend the day – though, judging by the shoulders and abs on some of these folks, they’re not just enjoying a relaxing paddle on a lazy river. Needless to say, I was excited to receive an invitation to their Open House and finally get out on the water myself.
The NBC is one of those under-the-radar institutions that everyone recognizes (“Oh yeah, that building over on the river”) but for the most part people don’t know much about. It has a lot of history, dating all the way back to 1838. Its list of founders reads like a who’s who of families things in Providence are named after: William Greene, Rufus Waterman, Henry Lippitt, Charles Arnold, et al. It began in a large boathouse near the intersection of River Road and Angell Street, but a century later moved into its current home after the original was sold to Brown University. For much of its early life, the club was focused around competitive rowing; at its peak in the 1880s, NBC produced several champion rowers and got itself on the cover of Harper’s for hosting a professional sculling regatta.
In the ‘70s, the club launched a learn-to-row program under the direction of Albin Moser. Today it boasts approximately 180 members, with 50-60 rowing more than once a week, who combine to row more than 80,000 cumulative miles per year. And Albin Moser is still the Director of Rowing Programs.
The man himself was there to greet us at the Open House. I was placed in a group with several other newbies: mostly women in their 40s, along with a teenage girl and a 20-something guy. Albin gave us a brief overview of rowing, followed by a tour of the facilities and a history lesson. Within minutes we went down to the docks to board “the barge,” which is the largest and most elementary of NBC’s boats. We were going to get an introduction to sweep rowing, in which each rower holds a single oar (as opposed to sculling, which is done with an oar in each hand). The barge provides novices with an entry point to all the basics: the different ways to use the blade to manipulate the motion of the boat, the anatomy of the stroke, the sliding seats.
We were loaded into the boat and pushing off from the dock faster than you might expect. As we quickly learned, rowing is simple, but it’s not easy. The basic technique of the stroke is a testament to the power of our body’s core: while it may look like the shoulders and arms are doing all the work, a surprising amount of the force behind each stroke is drawn from the hips and lower back. Albin helped us piece together the rudiments of the stroke in three phases: we began by simply pushing the oar out to arm’s length then drawing it into our chest to push the boat through the water. Next, we added some upper body movement, beginning in a forward lean with our arms out, then laying back as we again drew the oar towards our chests, adding even more power to the drive. Finally, we worked the legs, with the seat forward and the knees bent in sort of a crouch at the beginning of the stroke, we then thrust ourselves backwards with our legs while we leaned back and pulled the oars towards our chests to achieve the full force of the drive. Even with 12 complete novices in the boat, the combined power of those movements gave us considerable speed.
We managed to get the hang of the basic elements of the stroke fairly quickly. Getting 12 people who didn’t know each other or the sport less than 30 minutes prior in sync for multiple strokes proved to be a bit more of a challenge. While the mechanics were simple, the rhythm was deceptively complex. Before long we had overlapping oars, mistimed strokes, and uneven drives on either side of the boat. We were kind of a mess, but we were rowing, which was more than any of us could have said earlier in the morning. I like to imagine that some runner was passing by at just that moment, jealous of my newfound place on the water.
Want to learn to row? The next open house is July 23, and the next six-week, 12-class rowing instruction program begins August 1.
Narragansett Boat Club
2 River Road