For Stan Murray, unwinding after a long day at the office has very little to do with stopping by a favorite watering hole — but everything to do with getting on the water.
The president of Citizens National Bank in Columbus, his wife, Debbie, and several converts are avid scullers, rowing whip-thin, lightweight craft almost silently across the water at Columbus Lake near the John C. Stennis Lock and Dam.
The long, narrow oared shells with sliding seats and riggers are a novel sight, slicing through the surface of a waterway populated primarily by fishing, ski and pontoon boats. Their closest, and chunkier, cousins are the occasional kayaks or canoes.
Specifically, sculling is a form of rowing in which each rower mans two oars, one in each hand. It can be done in a single-person craft, or in pairs or crews. (In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower mans one oar, held with both hands. It must be done in pairs or crews.) The sport requires strong core balance, as well as strength and cardiovascular endurance.
“I go out just about every day if I can,” Stan said, standing almost knee-deep in the shallows next to a gleaming, white boat sleekly reflecting the morning sun.
“It”s a complete change from your normal, everyday life,” he shared. “Whatever”s gone wrong that day, when you get out on the water, gee whiz, it”s like you”re hundreds of miles away from whatever your problems are.”
Putting in at the boat ramp parking lot near the Lock and Dam East Bank entrance, the scullers can skim out into the deep, traveling quietly, without unduly disturbing animals including surface fish, heron, turtles, pelican, beavers, deer and the occasional snake.
“Once a mama raccoon and about four babies were swimming across the river,” recalled Stan, who estimates he”s logged as many as 25 or 30 miles in one outing. “They weren”t particularly worried about seeing us. … You just enjoy this. It”s part wildlife, it”s the scenery, and lately the sunsets have been gorgeous.”
The rather peaceful pastime is a far cry from the guts-and-glory gridiron, where Stan spends almost every fall weekend officiating SEC football. It was while in Knoxville, Tenn., to officiate a game, that his interest was really piqued.
“It was about 2000. The football stadium is right on the river; whenever we have a game there, I go there to walk around, and I saw a person rowing. I”d been looking for some kind of exercise that would work the upper body. I remember thinking I wished I lived in Knoxville so I had a river I could row on,” he chuckled. “I”m not sure how long it took me to realize we do have a river to row on.”
Birds of a feather
In recent years, Stan”s rowing — and the distinctive 21- to 25-foot long boats strapped to the hood of his vehicle — attracted attention from the curious and like-minded.
Dave Thomas, Doug Patrick and Charlie Stevens of Columbus are among them. Dave has a strong canoeing background, from years living near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. He and Stan had shared a penchant for competitive running in years past. After trying out one of his friend”s shells for a while, Dave soon purchased his own.
“I”ve always loved boats,” he said, standing on the grassy bank after a row. “And one of the best parts is the folks you meet.”
Like racing kayaks or canoes, most racing shells are inherently unstable. They come in multiple styles, with often subtle variations that affect speed and handling. On this day, Dave”s boat, for instance, has a flatter bottom than the one Stan uses. It”s also about a half-foot wider and several feet shorter.
“Stan”s is a little more tipsy, built more for speed,” Dave noted. “You”d probably get discouraged if you started out in the harder boat.”
All the scullers have found a valuable resource for knowledge and equipment in Pete Gallo and Karen Comfort of Adirondack Rowing, in Queensbury, N.Y.
“Sculling is a big thing in upstate New York; they”ve been real helpful,” praised Dave, who made use of some of Adirondack”s training DVD”s when he first got started.
Getting your water legs
The sport can be a little disorienting at first, since scullers sit facing the stern (the rear of the boat) and travel backwards. Stan wears a tiny round “rear view mirror” that clips onto the bill of his cap.
“With this, I can see a log ahead in the water, in a boat or maybe a fisherman sitting quietly near the edge of the water,” Stan explained.
It takes practice to get the hang of the sliding seat, coordinated leg compression and arm movements that power the oars and produce a smooth, safe ride. Debbie recommends a rowing machine at the gym as a good way to get introduced to the motion and to get in shape for it. Many competition rowers train indoors on similar apparatus.
Like the perfect golf swing, a serious sculler is always in pursuit of the flawless stroke — the technique for the cyclical “catch,” “drive,” “release” or “extraction” and “recovery” that yields maximum acceleration, minimum splash.
While the Golden Triangle rowers are out for enjoyment rather than speed, Stan did recall an encounter with a barge and crewman.
“I got alongside of him; he could tell I was trying to keep up with him. So he came out and signaled to me that I was doing six miles per hour by holding up his fingers,” he smiled.
All year long
Ice is a hindrance in the North, but Southern rowers can get on the water year-round, as long as the water is calm.
“I watch the weather very closely,” said Stan, whose most worrisome times in his shell have been during unexpected thunderstorms and lightening. “Of course, summer offers more daylight, especially after work, but if it”s not too windy, most winter days are fine; you just need a few more layers.”
One poignant, wintertime memory that has stayed with him is of a flock of migrating pelicans. “They were flying over, and it was like they stopped and came down to check me out. I could hear the wind over their wings.”
While the convivial, loosely knit group of scullers isn”t officially a club, “we feel like one,” Stan said. They hope to encourage others to give the sport a try. To date, they”ve not been able to pinpoint any organized rowing in Mississippi, although the University of Alabama does have a women”s rowing program.
For now, Stan, Debbie, Dave, Doug and Charlie share the exhilaration and camaraderie to be found right here on the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
“When you think about beautiful rivers, some people don”t often think of the Tombigbee, but there are some beautiful things to see here.”