We are the Gray Buzzards rowing team and have been together long enough to know why we’re called the Gray Buzzards. We are also glad to report that the Snow Row 2017 is now in the books. And what a race it was! Actually, with winds blowing 20 and gusting to 30 knots, it felt like less of a race and more like surviving an obstacle course. We would learn, soon after the race was over, that one boat carrying two rowers flipped over just yards from our start on the beach, and two others were blown so far off course that the Coast Guard towed them back to port. It truly was A Snow Row Race for the ages.
As races go, the annual Snow Row, which is the signature race sponsored by the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hall, MA is a short contest at 3.6 miles. It’s typical for a hundred boats of all classes and shapes from all over the East Coast and as far away as Ireland and England, to take part. It’s a three-legged affair with each section having its own potential perils of navigating rocks, strong currents near “Hull Gut,” sand bars near Sheep Island and the ever constant hazard of all classes and sizes of boats maneuvering around one another from the Le Mans start at the beach to the finish line. It is also a contact sport even if it’s not supposed to be. With sea-going kayaks, that intentionally run close on our leeward side to cut the wind and scoop our draft, coming dangerously close to our large, wide-sweeping whaleboat oars, to gigs, which are built for speed, muscling on by and sometimes trying to cut us off, or us them, to single and two-man dories, who, mind you, are rowing backwards with no idea what they’re about to crash into, it’s a bit of a free-for-all out there. And all of us, whatever the craft we’re in, we love it.
But this year was different. My goal as our boat steerer is always safety first, maneuver around for best starting and flat-out racing position second and winning our class third. Chuck, one of our most seasoned rowers and a life-long sailor to boot, had me in a sailors racing harness with a strap cinched down to a floor plate. At the start once underway, with the winds on our starboard quarter and the current so strong, I needed to stand for nearly the whole race to steer and keep us on course. If I lost my footing and fell at least I’d stay in the boat!
Whitecaps, swells and spray
There were waves aplenty, and swells and spray that crashed over the starboard and later port sides of our bow. (It was at this moment that I was grateful to remember that whaleboats, especially the Beetle Whaleboat design that we were racing in, with its relatively high freeboard and wide amidships, was intentionally designed for these kinds of waters. I mean, most of the whalers came back most of the time, right?) During the first leg out before jockeying for position around Sheep Island a combination of the incoming tide and wind at our starboard quarter made it almost impossible for me to steer. I needed to call port to back-off and starboard to power up and have Chuck, rowing at oar four, to “drag an oar” (on the water) about a dozen times to just to maintain our heading, knowing that each time I did so also cost us precious racing time. But the last thing I wanted to have happen was for us to get caught on the windward side of the island with its rocks and surf, so hitting that first mark was crucial.
When you’re rowing at 100% of whatever strength you have and lean into your stroke and can’t find water due to the boats position in relation to the swells, there’s nothing to keep you on your seat, and you fly back, landing ass first on the floor. It’s called “catching a crab,” and it happened simultaneously to two men just like that in the middle of our first part of the course. After that, I tried to lose count of how many more times it happened later in the race.
I have done this race at least a dozen times before so I had my marks and turns down fairly well when approaching Sheep Island, intending to make a gradual turn to starboard near the sandbar. But this year, with whitecaps everywhere, it was tough to see where the sandbar ended and the deeper water began on our approach. Turning with three or four feet of water beneath us is a time saver, but this year it wasn’t worth the risk so I steered us further out and around to the backside of the island. In previous races, more than one workboat while following kayaks that can skim over sandbars in a foot or less of water, ran aground and had to get out into the icy water, push-off and start anew.
Now, with our first turn completed and beginning the second leg, the wind, I swear, had also shifted somewhat and now the waves and swells were pounding our port side full-on, constantly trying to push us onto the island itself and the string of rocks on the island’s north side. Still, it was by far easier than the first part. I kept telling the guys that this was the leisurely part of the race and that should savor it ahead of our final leg ahead. Nobody laughed.
At one point Dave wanted to call for an all-out 100% pull down to the turn at the channel marker as a salute to Steve, our team’s captain, who was unable to be with us for the first time ever this year. Because the rowers face the stern, they couldn’t see how far away that channel maker actually was. Dave, who was rowing stroke and sitting directly in front of me must have read my face and asked, “How far is it?” I told him that Steve would have time to go out to lunch and back before we’d reach that mark. The call for 100% faded off in the wind.
Maybe it was fatigue or the advancing time, but it seemed to take forever to finish the second leg of the race and reach that final turn. We had a pack of boats a ways off of our stern and a wide swath of nothing in front of us as the fastest gigs, now almost out of sight, rounded the last turn themselves. That space ahead was just enough for the Justice, the largest tug I have ever seen, to come cruising down the channel (nothing in tow thank God) and power through the middle of our race course. The Hull Gut and the waters connecting it are also a major shipping lane, which means tugs, barges and tankers don’t stop or yield while underway for the simple reason that, well, they can’t!
I kept a single distant cottage on Peddocks Island smack-dab on our bow cleat to keep the wind from pushing us south of the channel marker. Sometimes it’s a good thing not to be leading a pack of boats because I saw two gigs who got blown so far downwind that it took them easily five minutes to row back up, straight into the wind, to finally round the turn.
We enjoyed a five-second celebration ourselves as we rounded our last turn. Now, the swells and spray-overs were back as we headed straight into the current. For reasons I cannot explain, the damn wind never got fully behind us with any of our turns. Our plan was to stay between the gut and Peddocks Island and turn to starboard at the last moment, cut across Hull Gut and over the finish line.
And that we did. In previous races our slowest time in challenging conditions was about 48 minutes start to finish. Today, with an experienced rock-solid crew, our time was a whopping one hour and eight minutes! Of course everyone’s time, regardless of vessel, was longer as well. As Chuck said later, “I won’t say that it was a fun day, but I’m glad that we did it.”
As we slid into shore, one of the guys reached into his pockets and said, “Look what I found in the cabinet this morning?” Forget the water and chocolate that I brought, the nips were making the rounds and the rest of the day belonged to memory.
Text by K. Lee
Image of Gray Buzzards: The Patriot Ledger
Image of the tug “Justice:” Boston Towing and Transportation
To learn more about rowing whaleboats visit Whaling City Rowing.