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Are You Out of Your Scull?

For the aerobically inclined, a vacation at a Virginia rowing inn makes for more than just a lot of heavy breathing.

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2003; Page C02

John Dunn is the keeper of a fine old Virginia inn by the Chesapeake Bay. He is all you would want in a taverner, welcoming and attentive. But his after-dinner talks might sound odd, to say the least.

"What is power?" he asks powerfully. "It's the change in the rate of work with time."

Different strokes: For some, hard-core rowing makes for a great holiday. Above, owner/coach Charlotte Hollings works out on the lake belonging to her Inn at Levelfields (below), a combination B&B and rowing school near Lancaster, Va. (Photos Larry Kobelka For The Washington Post)

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I am suddenly back in my high school physics class. Dunn is shining a light in corners of my memory last visited 30 years ago. For more than an hour, seven of us sit in silence thinking about mass and acceleration and pendulums and what have we gotten ourselves into?

The answer is one of the few country B&Bs given over to the sport of rowing. Where else but at the Inn at Levelfields would breakfast be followed by a large-screen video and a public critique of guests filmed rowing a couple of hours earlier?

And if you think this is all classroom stuff, I should point out that there are three separate rowing sessions daily on the couple's private 80-acre lake, totaling almost four hours of putting Dunn's theories into rigorous practice.

For my wife and me, this four-day "break" left us blistered and tired, but also buoyed by the ordeal and grateful that Dunn and his wife, Charlotte Hollings, had turned us into far better rowers by correcting three years of accumulated bad habits. For even greener rowers, their school, Calm Waters Rowing, has near-flat-bottomed sculling boats.

The rowing camp is not cheap, and more sedentary souls may consider it madness to pay handsomely for the privilege of mimicking an outboard motor. But anyone seriously interested in rowing is unlikely to find more intensive personal coaching elsewhere. Both Dunn and Hollings are former members of the national rowing team and seasoned coaches, including teams at Cornell University. They said they enjoyed coaching so much at a rowing camp in New England, they decided to start one themselves. They opened the inn-cum-rowing-camp in 2001 after a long search for the ideal combination of house and water.

The inn dates to the 1850s as one of the last antebellum mansions built in Virginia, one of a number of period houses in the coastal region of Northern Neck. Dunn says the Chesapeake breezes make Washington airless by comparison. The wind was not as brisk as I would have liked on the hot days of summer, but the aura of the Chesapeake, its history and continuing maritime character do pervade the area.

The mansion was built for a country parson. Its central hall and high-ceilinged rooms hark back to Colonial precepts of natural air conditioning, which now imbues the house with a wonderful sense of airiness.

The lake was formed to power an old mill and is surrounded by mixed hardwoods and conifers. It is about two miles down the road toward Kilmarnock (rowers are shuttled in a bus).

Sculling boats have no keel and are balanced solely by the oars and the rower's skills, so placid water like this is rare and coveted. To the proprietors, the lake's glassy surface suggested the camp's Calm Waters name. It is a place where seasoned rowers can refresh and refine their skills., novices can advance, and non-rowing guests can find a traditional B&B experience and join the athletes at dinner Fridays and Saturdays by reservation.

Can such a place thrive?

Rowing is big. If it was once the domain of clubby collegial types, it is now a sport for all, with burgeoning programs at public high schools and colleges and in adult clubs with recreational and competitive programs. Before you read this article, dozens of Washingtonians will have spent the dawn hour on the stretch of Potomac from above Key Bridge to the Anacostia and down to the Wilson Bridge. The scene is repeated on rivers in most major cities.

US Rowing, the sport's governing body, lists 14,500 clubs and other groups among its members, each containing scores or hundreds of rowers of all ages.

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