Back with Pattie Pinkerton, UCSD women’s crew head coach. She did student time at San Diego State in the ’70s, rowed in the USA National Championships from 1975 to ’84, was a competitor at the Master’s Championships and World Games from 1985 to ’97, won 16 international titles, seven national titles, coach-of-the-year awards in Australia and the West Coast Conference, was USA National Rowing Association president, and so on.
Pinkerton hired on at UCSD ten years ago, when UCSD was a Division III school on the way to Division II. In the past three years, she’s coached her rowing team to two second places and a fifth place in national Division II rankings.
Since the odds are high-to-certain that you know as little about rowing as I do, I’ll stay with the basics. “Tell me about the positions on your team.”
“There’s the person who steers the boat, and that’s the coxswain,” Pinkerton says. “She needs to be small and fierce. You need a competitor who has charisma. Coxswains are the coach in the boat. They’re the ones who respond to tactics and execute the race plan.”
Okay. “What’s a race plan?”
Pinkerton says, “We have a 2000-meter race. If you watch a mile run, there are front runners and then there are other people who stay back in the pack. Rowing is like that. It’s divided up into four 500-meter quarters. It starts off with a sprint and then settles to a sustainable pace and then sprints again at the end. The reason why it starts off with a sprint, which is not physiologically sound, is that you have to get three-quarters of a ton up and moving. So, you get the boat up to its maximum speed in that first 45 seconds, then you shift down to your sustainable pace. You’re pretty much redlining right on your anaerobic threshold. Rowers have some of the highest lactates [lactate levels] on record.”
“I assume there are different skills for different oaring positions?”
“You have to work together,” Pinkerton says. “Two ends of the boat. The front end is where the stroke — that’s the person who sets the pace — sits. You have an equal number of oars on both sides; even numbers are generally rowing port side, and odd numbers are generally rowing starboard side. The seats are numbered. Seat 1 is closest to the bow because rowers sit backwards, and it’s the seat that crosses the finish line first. The numbers go up to 8, which is the stroke seat. Seats 7 and 8 set a rhythm; they have to work together and set a rhythm for the rest of the boat. They don’t talk a lot because they can’t, but they can feel the boat and they might tell the coxswain that it’s time to take it up or, ‘Let’s go now.’
“The two ends of the boat are quite narrow, so a lot of people think the best rowers are up front. But, that’s not true; there are different skills. The people who sit closest to the bow have to be technically proficient, and they can’t be too heavy. You put your heaviest, strongest rowers in the middle of the boat — referred to as the engine room because it’s the most stable place; rowers can get the blade in and crank it.”
“Get the blade in and crank it?”
“You’re trying to do the same thing over and over again and perfect it. Your [oar] stroke would have a good rhythm. Rowers would not be affected by what’s happening behind them; if people went a little nuts they’d still have a strong sense of rhythm.
“A good [oar] stroke gets the blade into the water while you’re fully compressed. You’re in a tuck position, and your arms are extended as the blade enters the water, without slowing the boat down. You get the blade in and then use your legs. It’s a flat stroke. You send the boat away at the release, and then you have a recovery. You don’t do anything to slow the boat down.”
DON’T SLOW THE BOAT DOWN! Got it. “What’s the hardest thing to coach?”
“The catch. Trying to get the blades into water simultaneously. It takes a lot of precision to get the blade in at exactly the right time. It’s a lifelong quest.”
Pinkerton’s immediate quest must be moving up from second place to champion. I ask, “Who is the powerhouse in Division II?”
“For the last four years it’s been Western Washington. But, someday they’re going to lose and we hope to be there when it happens.
The UCSD women’s crew team will be competing in the San Diego City Championships on April 19. Hie thee to ucsdtritons.com for particulars.