All engines fire to find tranquility on the lake

By Deborah Lynch

Many people have giggled their way through the grade school trick of physical coordination by trying to rub their belly while patting their head. It’s hard to do at first, or maybe at all. With practice, most people can eventually get their hands moving in different ways at the same time. This is an accomplishment of complex motor pathways, and is helpful for much more than recess tricks.

Many activities require active brain engagement along with physical prowess. Activities like these can be more stimulating overall than a stagnant movement. Compare running or jogging to playing tennis, for example. Making a good tennis shot involves much more than just swinging a racquet. Some players, like legendary player Roger Federer, plan a winning shot at least 10 shots in advance. Each shot in between is carefully calculated for its placement and where it moves the opponent. Making the shots requires hand-eye coordination, leg movements, and coordination with steps and swings. 

Jogging really requires only keeping the same natural pattern going with the body while being mildly aware of surroundings (if running on a path or sidewalk off the roadway). Most people prefer AirPods in their ears with music or podcasts to help pass the monotony of a jog.

Monotony isn’t an issue in sculling or sweeping in a boat. The brain must constantly fire to find the coordination between pressing the legs and pulling the oars in tandem to propel the sleek shell across the surface of the water. Add two, four, or eight people to a boat, and coordination becomes even more important to ensure all rowers’ oars are entering and leaving the water at the same time and maintaining a matching stroke rate. 

“Rowing is an aerobic activity like running and biking, but much more technical and as a result, more engaging mentally,” said Dennis Martin, a nine-year rower and member of Susquehanna Rowing Association. 

Learning to row is not for the faint of heart. A sculling boat is a long, narrow carbon fiberglass shell that sits on the water. A seat sits on a track that glides along the bottom just like the ergometer rowers found in gyms. The feet are secured in velcroed shoes/bindings. Instead of the single handle that those rowers have to pull back on, the boat has two oars secured into oarlocks on the side. The left oar is slightly higher than the right one.

The rower must keep the left hand and oar above the right at all times. When pulling back to propel the shell forward, hands and arms are in a straight line. When finishing the stroke, the hands press down while turning the oars a quarter rotation, so the blades skim flat across the water on the return. That motion in itself takes great concentration and skill to achieve. Couple that with timed movement with the legs, which are the real motor for this type of boat, and the brain is constantly firing.

It “works the legs, arms and core,” Martin said, noting that “most of the power comes from the legs as the rower, sitting on a seat on tracks, extends the legs on each stroke and then contracts them to prepare for the next stroke. The stroke is a continuous motion of balance and power tempered with finesse.”

Susquehanna Rowing Association, which has existed since the late 1980s, started out on City Island. The unpredictable levels of the Susquehanna, a less-than ideal boathouse, and minor league baseball led the group to depart for the smoother waters of Pinchot Lake at Gifford Pinchot State Park between Rossville and Lewisberry in northern York County.

The group has grown over the years to now have between 35-40 active members. Each year, the club holds Learn To Row sessions, although Covid has changed that the past two years. For 2021, individuals interested in learning to row can contact the association and set up a series of five lessons. All prospective members should be able to swim. Participants are taken through different stations, starting first on land, where they practice on erg rowing machines.

From there, they advance to getting a feel for the oars while sitting on the ground, the oars secured in the ground beside them. Next, they move to the water in a single person boat, which is tethered with a rope to the instructors who coach the rower through a few strokes before pulling them back in. 

Finally, if all continues to progress well, novices will join an experienced rower in a two-person shell. The coach will help the rower through strokes while guiding the boat on the water and being the “eyes.” Rowers sit backwards in a boat, so a coach will usually wear a rearview mirror attached to a cap to help navigate. If the novice begins to catch a rhythm with steady strokes, the coach will join in and the boat will feel like it’s flying across the lake.

“It requires some muscle and quite a bit of skill,” said longtime member Jack Sanstead. “It can be such a pretty sport. When I’m out there rowing, it’s meditative to me. I’m going through the same cycle of pull, relax, get set up for another pull, then relax. At the same time, it’s like doing breathing exercises and meditation.”

Rowing can be either “sweep” or “sculling.” Both use the same shell, but sweep involves a rower having two hands on one oar and being in a shell with at least one other rower. For sculling, a rower has two oars, one hand on each oar. Sculling can be performed alone. Most rowing with SRA is sculling, but some boats can be rigged for double- and four-person sweep.

After completing the five lessons coordinated by club coxswain Bruce Herring, rowers are asked to join the club if they want to continue using equipment. The club has more than 15 shells (singles, doubles, and quads) that are stored in two sheds at Boat Mooring area #3 of Pinchot Lake. Members can join in group rows spring through fall on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, when as many as 15 members generally gather. Teaching and coaching is provided to all during group rows. For a yearly membership fee of $200, members also can take boats out on their own whenever they want. 

The club enters some racing events, such as the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh and in races on Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Whether to enter competitions is up to the individual, “with some members performing at a high level and others focusing more on the satisfaction and fun of having participated in an event much like a local foot or bike race,” Martin said.

Susquehanna Rowing Association also holds its own event — the Mid-Atlantic Rowing Conference championships held on a Saturday in early April (although scuttled the past two years due to Covid). The race is a qualifier for the Division III NCAA college championships and has attracted colleges and universities from Chicago to Connecticut to race at Pinchot. It is the club’s major fundraising event.

The club doesn’t have a youth level, but welcomes all rowers 18 and older. Its oldest active rower is 88-year-old Bill Smith, one of the original founders of the group. “He’s impressive,” Sanstead said.

Many people head to an indoor gym to work off the stress of a day at work. Susquehanna Rowing Association offers an escape from that with long, lightweight boats that can skim across smooth peaceful waters on a warm summer evening framed by a setting sun, woodland trees, birds, and tranquility.

“Rowing on the erg [(in the gym)] is mindless,” Sanstead said. “But when you’re out on the water, you’re not only thinking about where you’re going, you’re also thinking about making sure you don’t hit a fisherman, taking into account the waves, the wind; you’re looking at all the birds, taking all that in. To me, it’s just wonderful. When I’m out on the lake, I truly am on the lake, I’m not thinking about work — I’m not thinking about anything.”

For more information on Susquehanna Rowing Association, go to the website at or check out its Facebook page at @susrowing.