A Search for Solitude: San Diego Rowers Lured by Quiet Sport

An hour before dawn, Mission Bay is a dark, placid expanse.

Reflections of street lights seem to float on its surface, rocking gently from side to side with the tide.

Now and then the shrill cry of a shore bird cuts through the darkness.

Far out on the water, shadowy figures in long, narrow boats glide across the water, moving rhythmically as they go. They are rowers, and this is their hour.

At a time when most residents of the city are getting acquainted with a new day over bacon and coffee--or are still lying in bed thinking about getting acquainted with it--the surface of Mission Bay is alive with people rowing around like so many aquatic bugs.

Among them are the four-and eight-person crews from San Diego State University, UC San Diego and the University of San Diego, who pull at their oars in unison while coaches follow in motorboats, shouting instructions through bullhorns. But an increasing number of individuals are also out on the bay, rowing for miles each morning simply for the exercise and joy of being on the water. They include professionals and retirees, many of them women.

At the San Diego Rowing Club, membership has climbed to 150 from a low of 25 in the late 1970s, according to President Tom Ward-McKinlay. Duke Robinson, vice president of the Mission Bay Rowing Assn., which administers fees and equipment for local college teams as well as for about 200 recreational rowers, said membership "is easily up 33% over two years ago."

Robinson said the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles greatly stimulated interest in rowing. He also pointed out that more women are taking up the sport because of the proliferation of women's crews in colleges. "There are almost as many women rowers now as there are men," he said.

In spite of its growing popularity, rowing is still a relatively uncommon form of exercise, and those who stick with it after college tend to be individualists. "Not everyone does it, and I like that," Dennis Whelan said.

Whelan, 34, is an architect for the firm of Mosher, Drew, Watson & Ferguson. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, he was a member of the crew. But he hadn't touched an oar in five years when he took up rowing again last summer. Now he rows three times a week, starting about 5:45 a.m. and averaging three to six miles each time.

Like many of those who row, Whelan has an intense, almost mystical, devotion to the sport. "You know that blissful state you sometimes get when running, when you're moving fast and not feeling as if you're working hard to do it? With rowing it happens a lot more often," he said.

"It's very, very satisfying. The word 'euphoria' comes close to describing the feeling you get."

Stuart Neffeler, 53, director of marketing for Copley Newspapers, agreed that rowing "gets into your system. It's like a narcotic.

"The beauty of it is that it's a pure athletic activity. There are no professional teams or high fives. . . . but most of us who get involved with it end up remaining around it forever."

Neffeler rowed competitively at the University of Southern California in the late 1950s. But he had long given it up when, five years ago, he decided to see if he could interest his two teen-age sons in the sport. He took the boys out in a boat a few times; they didn't think much of it. Neffeler, however, began rowing in earnest again.

Now he is out on the bay at 5:30 a.m. five or six times a week. He begins at Santa Clara Point, then rows under the Ingraham Street bridge and around the eastern part of the bay to the Hilton Hotel before returning. It takes him about an hour to complete the eight-mile route.

Neffeler explained that early morning is the best time for rowing because water skiers are scarce and there is little wind. Both create swells on the bay's surface that make rowing difficult and sometimes impossible. "Once you've got a chop on the water, forget it," he said.

"But all of us who do this appreciate the beauty of the bay in the early morning, too," he said. "The moon, the stars, the light on the water and the sunrises are fantastic. I grew up in Los Angeles and spent a lot of time near the ocean, but I've never seen so many different kinds of birds as I have since I've been rowing."

Whelan said he likes "to row for a half hour and then stop dead in the water, and just look at the fog or watch the sun rise. You really feel like you're out alone, apart from everyone." But he added that rowing is a deceptively simple-looking exercise that in reality can be "lung searing."

"Rowing burns more calories per hour than anything but cross-country skiing," Neffeler said. "Most of the effort comes from your legs. . . . but different parts of the body are doing different things. You really have to concentrate."

The boats are highly responsive to the slightest ripple--and the slightest mistake. These are not dumpy aluminum rowboats like the one your grandfather climbs in to go fishing. They're lightweight, needle-shaped shells of wood or fiberglass, with seats that slide backward and forward as you row. They cost $2,000 to $4,500, and an average shell for one person is 28 feet long and only a foot across at the widest point. They move fast, but they're also unstable in the water. One false move and you're likely to be treading water--cold water.

That's why rowers tend to grumble about water skiers and the boats that tow them. The wakes they leave aren't always large, but even a small wake can cause a lightweight shell to rock violently.

"It wouldn't be so bad if they were more considerate, but they seem to have no idea of the effect they have on you," said Ward-McKinlay, explaining that skiers often pass within a few feet of hard-working rowers.

Another constant danger for the rowers is collisions. It's the nature of the sport to row "blind," with your back pointed in the direction you're going. Neffeler said most rowers try to memorize the positions of all the buoys in the bay, because a collision with one of them can not only send you for an unexpected swim but also damage your rowing shell.

Nevertheless, collisions with the buoys are not infrequent. One hapless rower here actually speared a buoy with the sharp bow of his shell, and was unable to move forward or backward until another rower came by and helped him disengage it. Neffeler hit a buoy recently when he adjusted his course to avoid a fisherman's line.

He also ran into a seal a few weeks ago and pitched into the bay. "It didn't damage the boat, but I thought for a moment the seal was going to come after me," Neffeler said.

Such unpleasantries do not deter the devoted rower. "An enormous challenge develops" to stroke the oars cleanly and efficiently, Neffeler explained. "You never really get to the point where you're taking perfect strokes every time."

Whelan agreed that the "pursuit of perfection" motivates many of those who row. "There are eight or 12 different parts in the stroke, and every one of them requires attention. You have to concentrate all the time or it goes wrong," he said.

"Sure, I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to pack my breakfast and lunch for the day" in order to row for an hour before work, he said. "And to do that, I go to bed at 9 or 10 at night, which doesn't leave much time for a social life.

"But in a way, rowers are like those people who travel to Katmandu to seek out a yogi. Every now and then when you're out on the water, there comes a transcendent moment when the boat just lifts off the surface, and you can actually hear the water singing on the hull. . . . "To tell the truth, I'd love to just row all the time."

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