Normalcy in the Time of the Coronavirus

I am up and at ’em today at 5:00 a.m., per habit.

I don my rowing kit, come downstairs to the main floor, greet the Labs, and let them out to the back yard. I move through the basement, where I am met by the kitties. I feed and water them, escort them up the stairs to the kitchen, empty the dishwasher, and start the coffee. I put food and water down for the dogs, and let them in. The four furry friends gather in the kitchen for their morning snacks and attention.

I head upstairs with a cuppa for Karen, awaken her enough for a kiss and to let her know that the animals are happy, the back door is locked, and I shall return. Down I go to the kitchen, for my coffee and snacks, and out the front door.

Good music in the car accompanies my 38-minute drive to the boat launch at Coos Bay Yacht club. I am on the water by 6:30. Today I focus on blade depth and releases. I put in 8,000 meters, mostly at low stroke, half power, average heart rate 105. It’s a good aerobic workout for an old guy in my 72nd year.

I experience light rain today, temperature in the low 50’s, and calm water. An excitable gaggle of Canada geese flaps and honks away off my course, and I see my friend the great blue heron. Aside from the birds and the fish below, the lake is all mine.

I am standing on the dock just before the predictable 8:00 o’clock parade of bass boats roars past from town. The fishing crowd and I are happy. S. Tenmile Lake is theirs for the rest of the day.

I drive homeward though Lakeside and North Bend, and into Coos Bay. I am replete and relaxed, and grateful for all normal goodness I can hold on to.

The Hudson

It’s not all about wood. I do in fact row on carbon fiber shells, my favorite being a 1998 Hudson 2x/2-, MARJORIE HUGHES COSTELLO.

I purchased this shell in 2004 from UDub. It was well-used and in excellent condition. I raced in it for years with my late double partner, Stu Brown.

It’s a dandy boat. Everyone who rows it loves it. I keep it like new. I was disappointed recently to discover damage done to the stern, apparently by someone using a weed eater. (Boat was racked near a little hillock of grass.)

Here is the MARGE in its cover at Starbucks in Eugene en route to Vancouver, WA for repair.

Something Mike Johnson and Charles Brown and I cooked up long ago

The stroke cycle: The stroke needs to be longer, especially on the back end. There’s a 3-to-1 ratio outboard to inboard, so an extra three inches of finish equals nine inches at the end of the oar. That times 225 is a lot. 

There needs to be more attention paid to accelerating through the pin and sending the boat. This will improve the start and the finish. In looking at last year’s cycle on the San Diego tape, and I understand that it was the end of the race, you were missing on the front end,shoulder throwing, rowing the oar into the water, and cutting off the back end. Instead of a loop, it was a trapezoid.

Instead of viewing of the cycle as catch, drive, release and recovery, we’ll look at it as disengagement, recovery, engagement, and drive. Why? Because it makes more sense. 

The disengagement sequence begins when your legs hit down, through to the finish and the send, proceeding with your hands and body away to when your knees break and the recovery begins. The key is the degree to which you relax after the release. 

The engagement sequence begins when you start to square the oar, through a loose, quick catch and into the lock. The whole body absorbs the lock load, led by the legs, connected with abs and lower and middle back, transferred through the shoulders and arms to your fingers on the handle, directing all your force onto the drive plane. 

So these are the terms you’ll hear from me:

Send and swing: Accelerate through the pin to a strong, high finish position. Once the oar is released, relax completely and settle onto your seat, balanced over center, swing hands and body away to get set for the next engagement.

Draw the boat underneath: On the recovery, your focus needs to be low in the boat. The swing out of bow is led by the abs, not the shoulders. The upper body is so relaxed that it easily follows the abs. Focusing on your feet and seat, and drawing the boat to you helps control the slide and makes the timing of the hook easier and more consistent.

Hook and lock: The focus of the hook is to engage the water in proportion. If the legs, abs and lower/middle lead the lock, the load is passed through your upper back and shoulders, and onto your arms suspended on the oar. The reason to emphasize this is to eliminate shoulder throwing and to ensure that power is concentrated on the drive plane.

Accelerating through the pin:  Cutting the stroke short is giving away speed. Acceleration should start at the hook and continue all the way through to the send. Overemphasizing the front end usually leads to being short at the finish and/or out of position at the send.

Relaxed power: Converting the alert relaxation of the recovery into explosive power begins during the recovery, not at the catch. Your body angle is set as you compress into the hook. You are aggressive, poised to strike and intent on accelerating all the way through the stroke.  Important: Relaxed power does not imply passiveness; it implies energy conservation and intense focus on the drive plane.

Boat selection: There won’t be much time for this, and I’ll probably do it by switching pairs within the eight. I have no preconceptions here (I love that about myself), and I’m always open to bribery.

It should be noted that the boating will be determined by the ability to execute the stroke cycle described above. Again, I believe your biggest increase in boat speed will come from improvements in the back end of the cycle.

Individually, you will receive thoughtful, pithy and sensitive coaching about your stroke. And be sure to laugh at your coach’s many humorous comments, intended and unintended.

Starts: Continuing with an earlier theme, your improvement on starts will be on the back end of the stroke cycle, not the front.

Question: When you’ve blown a start in the past—there must have been one or two— where did it happen? My guess is the back end. From the very first stroke, you  send the boat. So our focus on starts will be on being relaxed, quick and light, and attending to the complete cycle.

Slow rowing (Tai Chi rowing): You’ll spend as much time as possible slow rowing. Its purpose is control, relaxation, balance, swing and feeling the lock with the entire body. It will be used in getting the stroke rate up by alternating between low rates and high rates. You’ll be surprised how well it works.

Once again–relaxed power, channeled onto the drive plane. Also, no matter how slowly you row—paraphrasing Chubby Checker, “How slow can you row?”—the catches and releases are loose and quick. As the stroke rate increases, so will the quickness of you engagements and disengagements.  

Relaxation: Relaxation is a skill. Practice it in your car—a nice diversion from road rage-or at work, or in line at the grocery store, or anywhere.

Relaxation is half of the stroke cycle and its importance shouldn’t be taken lightly. Think of sitting at the starting line, relaxed and breathing deeply, poised to strike, aware and deadly.

You burst off the line, in the cycle, hooking and locking, accelerating through the pin, sending and swinging, and it’s bye bye Beach Badgers. That’s the way I see it.

Remembering Mike “Boats” Johnson

Mike “Boats” Johnson coaching on the Willamette River. Portland, OR ca. 2002

June 20, 2019 finds me in Ontario, Canada, trailering my fleet of racing singles eastward along the north shores of Lake Huron. Perfect scenery, perfect weather, perfect road, perfect pancakes with locally-tapped maple syrup.

Imperfect day, though, because on this day more than most I miss my great pal, that one-of-a-kind goof butt, Mike Johnson. Today Mike would have turned 70, but “Boats”, as some called him, died fifteen years ago following his second bone-marrow transplant treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As it is with all departed loved ones, the bleak feeling of losing him never passes, never lessens.

“Because I can and because I must” is why I take this solo row’d trip. A big part of the “must” is that this is the type of trip Mike and I often said we would take together: load the boats and oars, head down the road, and look for smooth waters. Eat good food, row good water, see the sights, have some laughs.

He should be here today with me today. He would love this.

Mike Johnson and I raced crew for the California Golden Bears in the late 1960’s. My frosh year began October 1966 and his a year later. Each of us in our younger years had played sports – and we were pretty darned good at some of them – but we were destined not to achieve our dreams of being major college material in any.

Both of us, however, came to U.C. Berkeley determined to compete intercollegiately at something. Fortunately, although neither of us knew anything about rowing, we were recruited to come to the boathouse as walk-ons – like most people were in those days, even at a rowing powerhouse like Cal.

We got hooked. We stayed. We learned a sport-for-life, made life-long friends with guys like Mike and me.

I completed my bachelor degree in June 1970 and Mike graduated the following June. His senior year at Berkeley I spent at graduate school in Arizona. His post-graduate year, 1971-72, I was crew coach at University of Oregon, and he apprenticed as an electrician near his home town in Concord, California.

Fall of 1972 I began law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. That year, I established L and C’s rowing program and started Station L Rowing Club. I was loving my time on the ground floor of Portland’s 1970’s rowing renaissance, learning my way around the Willamette River, meeting the old rowers who were coming out of the woodwork, and spending many hours rowing and building the rowing programs, and coaching the collegians and the masters rowers.

On top of all that I was a husband and the father of a young son, working full-time at a law office, attending class in the evenings, and studying. Plus, we had pets! By 1975 I could no longer burn the candle at those many ends!

Mike was in Albuquerque, selling vacuum cleaners. (“It’s air flow, Don, not suction.”). I called him and said, “Get your a** up here, Johnson; I need your help. I’ll get you a job and a place to live, and you can join the prestigious ranks of unpaid / underpaid rowing coaches.” He was unsure so I leaned hard on him as only a good friend can do, and next thing I knew he had given up his chance to be Hoover’s King of Sales and was sleeping on our couch.

Early the following Sunday morning, I woke up a couple of law school classmates, introduced them to Mike and said, “Here’s your new roommate.” “We weren’t looking for a roommate.” “You didn’t need to; I found one for you.” I took him to Refectory Restaurant where I had worked and in a few minutes he had a job.

Mike and his law-student housemates would become close friends. Mike would coach Lewis and Clark Crew and Station L for several years, do a three-year stint coaching University of Oregon Crew, then come back to Portland to coach some more. He became a fine coach and built a reputation as one of Portland’s premier bartenders and waiters.

He met his wife, Valorie, in Portland. I stood as his best man at their wedding as he had done for me a few years before. In time Mike and Val would move to San Francisco, and their son, Sam, was born there January 25, 1988.

After a few years, they moved back to Portland. By then, Mike was quite ill with cancer. Nonetheless, he got back into coaching, and over a span of several years, he helped rowers at most of the Portland-area clubs. Novices, Olympians, hackers and technicians were all the same to him. He gave them everything he had up until weeks before he died.

He was an inspiration as a coach, as he had been as a college rower. He was a force. He had won the Russ Nagler award as outstanding freshman and in his senior year Mike’s crew teammates voted him winner of the Dean Witter Award, Cal Crew’s highest honor, for “Loyalty, Proficiency and Spirit.”

He poured those same qualities into his family and friends as well. No man ever loved his wife and child more than Mike Johnson did, and no one ever had a better friend than I had in him.

Mike and I found common ground in our need to test ourselves, to push beyond what we had thought were our limits, to compete and to win. We had similar backgrounds, with intelligent parents who were teachers – serious people with high expectations who were good humored and confident enough to trust our offbeat leanings toward Mad Magazine and Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan and the like.

We were studious guys who leavened things with acerbic but harmless (usually) wit. We shared an abiding intolerance for pretentiousness. (For example, standing in line at Starbucks: Don [loudly enough]: “Mike, just what does ‘Vente’ mean?” Mike [loudly enough]: ” ‘With sheep droppings.’ “) We were not for the faint-of-heart when we were together, and I suppose if we were still at it today, we would be hearing that something we had said or done was declared “inappropriate” by someone who feels “uncomfortable”.

We wasted little time wondering whether people liked us, instead being driven simply by what we thought was right and fair – and, yes, funny. Those sensibilities played a large part in building successful careers – mine, as a lawyer and judge, and Mike, as comedy writer and stand-up comedian. We constantly advised and encouraged one by teasing, testing, questioning, challenging and criticizing – just like we had learned to do in those eight-oared racing shells.

I considered us equal in every respect. One of my proudest moments came years ago when for the first time he called me “brother”. Having had no natural brother (or sister) of my own, in that moment I realized how lonely I had been for a sibling and just how important Mike and I were to each other.

When Mike Johnson took sick with cancer, together with the help of our families and crewmates and friends we mobilized the many who had come to love this special man. It was almost unbelievable, the amount of energy and love people extended for him and his wife and son.

We never doubted for a moment that he would beat his disease. A person this good cannot be allowed to leave, we believed.

The cancer eventually took him down after a decade of fighting.

I am not one who thinks he “is up there looking down’, etc. I have no idea what, if anything he is doing now. But for sure I am looking right at him, and smiling, and he is blurred by tears.

Some Numbers

I left my home in Coos Bay, Oregon early afternoon on June 14, 2019 and returned there late afternoon on July 2.

Miles driven: 6,960.

States touched: 20. Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado (Julesberg juke), and Utah.

Provinces: 2. Ontario and Quebec.

Places rowed: 3. McCall, Idaho. Milton, Vermont. Laporte, Indiana.

Inquiries, “What are those things on your trailer? 20+.

Number of friendly people encountered: many.

Number of jerks encountered: zero.