A rowboat for our times

AN optimist to the end, I recently bought a book by two Harvard doctors on how to whip a neglected body back into shape. It is so well done that it could become for weekend athletes what Chapman's ``Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling'' is for weekend sailors. One paragraph, however, brought me up short. The authors list rowing as good exercise but only, they caution, if you put your back and legs into it. They say you cannot do that in a simple skiff and suggest you go out and buy a rowing shell for $3,000 or more.

That section reminded me of the woman I once knew who had a great idea for a book but could not write it because she did not have the money for a word processor. We are all being led to believe that we cannot do anything unless we have the correct - and expensive - equipment.

The advice to buy a shell can come only from people whose rowing experience is limited to chrome and black plastic machines in their bedrooms or the kind of wooden jewel that Grace Kelly's father once stroked along the Schuykill. In the real world, anyone who has ever rowed the simplest skiff a couple of miles against the wind has learned to brace his feet against the stern thwart and use the body's biggest muscles to get home. A fisherman may sit upright while rowing from one side of the lily pads to the other, but anybody going somewhere will use a lot more than arms.

A PLAIN old rowboat will provide all the exercise anyone could want, it costs considerably less than the alternative, and you can do a lot more with it. In a shell you can row, period. With a rowboat you can throw in fishing gear, a picnic cooler, a couple of kids, and the dog; you can go somewhere and do something. You don't go as fast as you would in a shell, but you do fall into the same meditative rhythm, lose yourself in the same gliding water and gurgling along the hull, until the destination that once seemed dishearteningly far away is suddenly upon you.

Admittedly, rowboats are hard to find these days. A few places still rent them, but invariably these turn out to be aluminum all-purpose boats that are easy to maintain but almost impossible to row. The sides are so high that you would need eight- or nine-foot oars to have a chance, which today are scarcer than Carolina parakeets; instead, six-foot oars are supplied.

Nobody wants real rowboats; they are too simple, too old-fashioned. Suggesting to a man in the late 1980s that he work out in a rowboat would be like advising him to build muscles by carrying 50-pound blocks of ice up four flights of stairs. Nobody does that anymore. The rowboat has zero appeal. (How many young women out there have been invited for a row around the lake?) What rowing needs is modern merchandising, creative spin, sizzle with the steak. Here's my plan:

Start from scratch. No more rowboat. What we are selling is a ``dynamic fluid displacement machine.'' No more oars. We'll use ``power transfer vectors.'' We are off to a good start. Next we need a product to fit the words. An abandoned warehouse becomes our top-security production facility. Inside economic misfits from places like Rockport, Maine, and Annapolis, Md., do something not seen in this country for years. They are happily building small boats, some simple, flat-bottom skiffs, and some, still for a lot less money than a shell, lapstraked, high-bowed pulling boats. The secret is that inside the barbed wire and guards they are making these boats out of a miracle material, a high-strength, flexible aggregate of longitudinal cellular elements - wood.

THEY hide the terrible secret, of course, covering the boats in layers of epoxy and resin. They mix in a little powder ground from Australian black sand so the ads can truthfully say ``built from a space-age titanium composite.'' Next comes the real sizzle. Red racing stripes are added to the black hulls. Raked antennas (no wires are included; there is nothing to attach them to) are bolted to the sides; plastic fins are glued to the rails.

Most important are the ``computer monitored'' oarlocks. Inside these sleekly styled cylinders, a single tooth trips a mechanical counter each time the power transfer vectors are pulled back. Through electronic marvels too intricate to be detailed here, each click of the counter appears as a liquid crystal number on a monitor screen suspended in the rower's face. This marvel also tells him the time and date, miles rowed (at so many feet a stroke), and even kilocalories burned (if the rower happens to weigh 150 pounds). Most of the sculpted, high-impact monitor box is empty.

Finally, of course, the product has to be sold, and where else but on television? Our commercial opens on a quiet lake, shortly after sunrise, with mist still rising off the water. A heron takes flight as our hero rows into the scene from the left, effortlessly propelling his Black Max II across the calm. The music gets more and more excited. Inexplicably, bombs start going off underwater, sending huge geysers skyward. Our hero, unperturbed, rows on. The camera swings toward shore. In the reeds a young woman, hair extravagantly frazzled, snaps her head around toward the camera. Her face is a snarl as she barks one word, biting off the end in her passion: ``Hottt!!'' We'll need factories all over the country, working two and three shifts, to meet the demand.

In every society, of course, there are a few subversives, the sort who never get with the program. A person like that might simply find himself an old rowboat, get in, and start rowing. Oh, there'd be a little consternation at the launching ramp: ``Daddy, Daddy, that man has no motor.'' But once away from the dock, alone with water and sky, major muscles flexing at a surprisingly low cost per hour, our rebel just might allow himself a quiet smile.

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