By David Anderson
Here on American Lake we don’t row in the wind, at least we don’t if we don’t have to. And we don’t spit into the wind. But if we did – spit or row – it’s better to do both downwind.
Early morning before the sun is even awake and not a breath of a breeze bestirs the blackness of the water, little red blinking bow lights wink through the darkness, the whooshing throb of matched oars and creaking oarlocks the only whisper that an amphibious monster has passed.
I gave the first rowing lesson the other day to a guy who is a fencing instructor. No, not the barbwire or split cedar version but the Peter-Pan-vs.-Captain-Hook-
In return he gave me a book to read, “Lords of the Sea” by John R. Hale. It’s subtitled “The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.” The thesis of this non-fiction classic is that rowers were responsible for all that we admire today about Greek history.
Not “the Parthenon, or Plato’s Academy, or the immortal tragedies, (or) even the revolutionary experiment in democracy,” but rowers (and notably not kayakers which is my brother’s sport) alone laid claim to “all the glory of Athens.”
Hale – to use author John R. Hale as a pun – to the heroes of the ancient world, the rowers of the triremes.
Who didn’t row in the wind either.
Wars were called off for the day if the wind picked up. “Smooth water was absolutely essential,” Hale documents, “since a trireme’s lowest tier of oars lay just above the waterline.” Of course it helped that the enemy were housed in sailing ships, glass-like conditions rendering them “helplessly becalmed”.
The trireme was a boat that could maintain the “phenomenal speed of ten knots over a full day of rowing” accomplished by three tiers of rowers, all 170 per ship rowing in unison and responding in chant to the stroke call of the coxswain, “the siren song of the Athenian navy” striking fear in the heart of her enemies – the trireme heard, but as yet unseen, as she approached through the fog of water and war, an ancient version of the ghost-like Black Pearl.
Picture yourself on board – not the trireme but rather huddled near the rail of one of her enemies, straining for the sound of what you’ve thought you’ve heard but hope you haven’t.
“At dawn, when the Aegean Sea lay smooth as a burnished shield, you could hear a trireme from Athens while it was still a long way off. First came soft measured strokes like the pounding of a distant drum. Then two distinct sounds gradually emerged within each stroke: a deep percussive blow of wood striking water, followed by a dashing surge, Whumpff! Whroosh! Relentlessly the beat would echo across the water, bringing the ship closer. It was now a throbbing pulse, as strong and steady as the heartbeat of a giant.
“Soon other sounds would become audible, always in time with the oar strokes: the reedy skirling of pipes, the rhythmic shouts of the coxswain as he urged the crew onward, and in answer the deep chant of the rowers. The ship’s own voice joined the din, with tons of timber and cordage creaking and groaning. As the trireme hurtled forward, the steering oars and the bronze ram hissed like snakes as they sliced through the water. In the final moments, as the red-rimmed eyes set on the prow stared straight at you, the oar strokes sounded like thunder. Then the ship ran you down.”
Fleet like an eagle and a fleet of hundreds, the trireme brought prosperity to Athens from conquered navies ushering in a century-and-a-half of golden age renaissance-like tranquility.
In sitting rowers took a stand. Freemen rowers, not slaves, not “emaciated, half-naked galley salves chained to their oars”, but citizens who took pride in their country, rich, poor and middle class , aristocrats and common laborers who “at times of supreme crisis would all board the triremes and row to save their city.”
And on this Independence Day as we remember the declaration of our intentions to be free of tyranny and celebrate with “fireworks, parades, barbecues, carnivals, fairs, picnics, concerts, baseball games, family reunions and political speeches and ceremonies,” it’s also time to hear again the clarion call of the coxswain and answer with the chant of courage, manning the oars of our ship of state.
When then not to take a stand? Who then cannot pull their weight?
Never. And none.
Ask a rower.