The water was rough. For us. That was just the beginning.
It’s the largest fall rowing regatta in the West Coast, “a prestigious rowing event” that in its 36th-or-so year drew nearly 400 entries representing three countries and 10 states.
We were the oldest by combined age on the water.
The three mile Head of the Lake race passes through the narrow and beautiful Mountlake Cut connecting Portage Bay and Lake Washington. Spectators line each shore and the bridge overhead cheering you on – or, also in our case, warning of the bridge bulkhead approaching.
I steered a horrible course.
We had to wait maybe 40 minutes after rowing nearly three miles to the start for our chance to begin. Since Lake Union was windy we hid out among the houseboats awaiting our turn. We were passed by all 16 or so shells behind us. With about a half-mile to go Burk Ketcham, 87, began laying back further and further at the end of the stroke making his recovery slower and shorter. On more than one occasion my oar handles collided with his back as I mistimed our slide. Finally I shortened my reach and rowed minimally with legs as the length of Burk’s stroke became less and less. As we approached the finish line Burk totally collapsed laying over my foot-stretcher, his head near my knees. His back had completely given out. Immediately a chase launch was summoned by the finish line personnel and I suggested to Burk that he get on their boat and I’d bring his double in on my own.
Burk remained laying down and held his oars steady and I rowed hands-only while the rescue vessel guided us the last 200 meters or so to Conibear docks at the University of Washington. At the dock they helped Burk out of the shell and got him to his feet saying later they feared a heart attack. Once upright Burk said he was fine.
My guess is this may have been his last row.
Burk has rowed internationally, in Australia, England, Germany and other countries including of course our own. He even designed and had minted – and accepted by the international rowing community – an eight-sided medal “O.A.R.S for Octogenarian Association of Rowers Society”. To get one you just have to meet two criteria: (1) Be over 80 years old and (2) Show up in your shell at the starting line of an international rowing regatta.
He started rowing when he was 67 in the open water of the Atlantic Seaboard.
It was his first and last race this year for which we had trained together 202.5 miles on American Lake and it ended on Lake Washington.
And I can say I had the pleasure of being part of it; a team-member and friend of an inspiration, an icon – the oldest active rower likely in the United States.
On the eve of this historic election in America there was a post on Facebook about voting being pointless; what’s the use. Kids give up and drop out of school; fathers abandon their families; and the list goes on for reasons to quit, disengage, walk away, and decline to stay the course.
Something I observed close-up-and-personal however – given I was in his boat at the just completed Head of the Lake – is an example of what it means to remain in this thing to the end. No short cuts. Not giving up. Being in the race. Doing what I can. Rejecting the offer of assistance and finishing what we started.
Next time tempted to vacate responsibilities, stop short of the goal, or seek some other less virtuous or suspect objective – when faced as we often are with such decisions and pondering mid-stroke as it were what to do: