I sat in an eight-rower (plus coxswain) sweep boat for the first time on a dark April morning more than three years ago, and declared: "This is the sport for me." Running and swimming are too boring as aerobic pursuits and don't offer amazing views of a vital city preparing for a new day.
Since taking up the sport, my wife and I have switched from sweep rowing (one big oar) to sculling (leaner boats, fewer seats and two shorter oars).
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)
The visit to Calm Waters Rowing offered a number of enticements -- the chance to row on flat water (important for improving your technique), the prospect of a new level of personal instruction and an opportunity to row in a single, a one-seat boat that is the oarsman's equivalent of an eager steed -- fast but precarious.
I opted immediately for a hotblooded stallion, a 26-foot racing shell that was exhilarating and a little scary. Within an hour I was gliding fast, but had hairy moments when my technique failed, an oar caught and the boat promised to capsize.
The lake comprises two fingers, one 1,000 meters long, another 1,500 meters (3,200 and 4,900 feet, respectively) but with a few twists that keep you on your toes, since you must turn to see where you're going.
The stillness of the water made up for the heat and the burdens of schooling. Each day brought new aches but also the anticipation of finding a secluded, shady corner of the lake where I could breathe in the moments of tranquillity. Geese, cormorants, terrapins, kingfishers, native lotus plants and an occasional osprey bring layers of natural beauty in a world far removed from the office. On the first morning, I looked through the trees to see a bald eagle in flight, and later I would row past a superb old white skeleton of a pine tree, a perfect eagle perch, to see if the bird would appear again. It never did.
Dunn and Hollings, separately, would lurk in boats like traffic cops and eventually seize on your inadequacies as a rower, but in a friendly and forgiving way. And illuminating. They ironed out some pretty deep wrinkles in my technique, and on the last day I had an epiphany of sorts when Dunn showed me how to maintain the power of the blade through the entire drive.
The ease with which youth absorbs instruction was demonstrated by Jessica, a 16-year-old high school rower from Alexandria whose mother dropped her off with our gang of middle-aged rowers. Jessica seemed to enjoy the fuss of five surrogate mothers and was soon outrowing us all.
As rowing schools go, the accommodations are plush, especially if you stay in the top-of-the-line Coach's Room, with its four-poster bed, fireplace and historic decor. Booking one of the humbler but pleasant rooms in the basement of the house lowers the cost markedly.
The last row of the day was rewarded with a shower, a drink on the porch and an informal call to the table, where each course was devoured with great eagerness and little guilt. The chef specializes in traditional Tidewater dishes that were fresh, flavorful and wonderfully light. We were thrown in with a party of women from Pittsburgh, whose tales of rowing on the turbulent and barge-busy Ohio River made the Potomac sound like a millpond.
This was one vacation where calories were not an issue. Improving one's rowing was a main consideration, but there was one other that was perhaps more so -- looking good at the dock.
The ultimate in rowing chic is to climb into a single scull and push off from the dock before settling in the seat. Jessica perfected this ultimate test of balancing, though I claim the blue ribbon for landing. Hollings imparted the secret: You bring the boat in at 40 degrees to the dock and then lean slightly away, causing the scull to drag on one side, effecting an exquisite parallel park.
GETTING THERE: The Inn at Levelfields and its nearby Calm Waters Rowing school are just outside the town of Lancaster, in Virginia's Northern Neck area. From Washington, take I-95 south to Fredericksburg, the Route 17 bypass south to Tappahannock, Route 360 east to Warsaw, then east on State Route 3. The inn is on the left, two miles past Lancaster.
STAYING THERE: The inn offers three-day weekend stays ranging from $705 to $840, depending on the room; or four-day midweek stays from $780 to $960. Rates are per person, and include food, accommodation, instruction and use of gear at the rowing school. Rates drop in September; rowing continues until mid-November Info: 800-238-5578, www.calmwatersrowing.com.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Virginia's Northern Neck offers a number of historic attractions, including George Washington Birthplace National Monument (804-224-1732, www.nps.gov/gewa) on Route 204 off of Route 3, between Lancaster and Fredericksburg.
The nearby fishing village of Reedville features daily ferry trips to Tangier Island and Victorian mansions dating to the heyday of the menhaden fishing industry, a period captured by the town's fishing museum. Details: 804-453-6529, www.rfmuseum.com.
INFO: Northern Neck Tourism Council, 540-663-3205, www.northernneck.org.