Their oars sometimes hit in rapid succession, often splashing more water than rowing through it. Their nautical knowledge runs the gamut from tyro to beginner. And they've yet to develop a power stroke or even do any speed work.
But don't mistake the potential or resolve of Wilson High's new rowing program. The participants are already a crew, the first such scholastic program in the District.
Using equipment borrowed from Georgetown University, more than 20 Wilson boys and girls practice after school at the Thompson Boat Center in Northwest Washington. Learning under the watchful eye of Hoya rower John Quirke, Wilson is laying the initial foundation that may one day make it a contender with the long established crew programs of some Northern Virginia high schools. But for this spring, there will be practices without any races or cheering crowds.
Last summer Georgetown officials decided to offer assistance to any District public high school that wanted to begin a crew program. There wasn't much interest except at Wilson and Coolidge, which later decided not to participate this spring.
In December, Georgetown's crew coach, Jay Forester, and GU Athletic Director Frank Rienzo met with Vinna Freeman, D.C. supervisor of physical education and athletics, along with Wilson's girls soccer coach, Mary Rieger, and Wilson senior John Rhigini, a transfer student who previously rowed in New England.
Georgetown, which is seeking to acquire parkland along K Street for a new boat house, offered free use of shells and oars and necessary training. All Wilson's prospective oarsmen had to do was make the necessary time and physical commitment.
Here Rieger, who coaches the Interhigh's only girls varsity soccer team, saved the day.
"There wasn't anyone else at Wilson who offered to help the kids, so I said I would," explained Rieger, who admits to little rowing expertise. "I didn't know enough to coach them myself, but I agreed to act as sponsor, to open the gym doors and coordinate their land training.
"I'm all for new sports. As long as kids are interested in a particular sport, I think we should try to help them find a way to play."
Preseason training in rowing is grueling, particularly for a school trying to launch a crew program. But from January through March, Rieger led as many as 45 prospective oarsmen through a battery of circuit weight training and flexibility exercises. There were even Saturday sessions at Georgetown to work on ergometer (rowing machines). She even arranged for Washington-Lee High School Coach Charlie Butt to bring his rowing boxes to Wilson so that the hopefuls there could get the feel of a sweep oar in their hands and practice simulated rowing.
"The kids were getting really bored until we brought the rowing boxes over," said Rieger. "Our kids got the diagrams for it and even constructed two of our own. If not for the interest of our students, particularly John Rhigini and Tim Swope, there wouldn't be a crew program at Wilson. They're the ones who deserve all the credit for getting the ball rolling."
By the beginning of April the Wilson rowers were finally on the water. There was initial hope that they would be ready to compete in this spring's Northern Virginia scholastic regattas, but as with any novice crew, progress has been slow if steady.
"Actually the Wilson rowers are learning very quickly," said Quirke, a Georgetown sophomore who rows on the Hoyas' junior heavyweight eight. "There's no substitute for experience and only long hours on the water can teach you. It's not a quick process, but they're making very good progress."
For some like Rhigini, who rows in the shell's seventh seat, the progress often seems slow.
"Tim and I row doubles at PBC (Potomac Boat Club), so we really tried to interest other people in rowing," said Rhigini. "Learning how to row takes time and then functioning as a crew takes even longer, but we're improving."
Coxswain Emily Hill, a junior, didn't plan on calling strokes and steering the shell, but likes the challenge.
"This is a position where you have to respect the crew and earn their respect," said Hill, who says she'll be back in the fall and ready to race next spring. "My dad always rowed and now I understand why. This is a sport that's very different from others I've tried. You really have to work together or nothing gets accomplished."
But will scholastic crew ever catch on in the District?
"I think rowing will catch on in the Interhigh," said Forester. "We'd just like to get other schools involved. Coolidge showed early interest and we'd sure like to get them rowing. Other District schools could also try their hand at crew. We're willing to help as many as are interested.
"The major drawback to crew is the initial expense of buying the necessary equipment, but we've removed that hurdle," Forester said. "I guess it'll take a while to get things started, especially because District schools don't have a rowing tradition. But hopefully by next spring, we'll have Wilson and perhaps several other schools racing and that should really raise students' interest."