At 6:30 a.m., the streets of Old Town Alexandria are silent and dreamlike. Only a few joggers chug down the riverside footpath in the soupy morning haze. But it's too late to get a parking spot at the end of Madison Street beside the Alexandria schools Rowing Facility. By 6:30, even the teenagers, most of whose peers are still asleep on this first week of summer break, have slipped into elegant, fragile-looking skiffs and glided out onto the glassy water.
That means the novices can get started.
"Okay, lean back! Now pull into your ribs! Drop the blade in the water! All right!"
That's Chris Cabrera, the coach who is teaching a group of eight adults how to use an oar. It's only their second day of class, and their first day in the water, so they aren't leaving the wooden dock today.
Crew may be new to them, but in Alexandria, it is an old tradition. Mothers and fathers introduce the sport to their children in eighth grade. T.C. Williams High School crew is as much social scene as it is sport -- no one gets cut from the team. Adults come here to row before work; some keep it up into their seventies.
This boathouse was built in the 1980s to accommodate them, and it draws rowers year-round. In winter, they use the rowing machines on the second floor.
Each summer, about 50 novices sign up. They learn early on that just getting into the narrow boat, eight at once, is a challenge.
"All right, one foot in -- and in!" Cabrera barks.
"A very attractive position," Paulette Burdett remarks dryly, watching her classmates clamber in.
She joined today after signing up her daughter Nicole, 13, for the novice youth group. "I was bringing my daughter three days in a row, and I got so jealous," she said.
Others in the adult group have similar stories. Charlene Rusnak, 40, lives along the Potomac River and was intrigued by the skiffs passing by in the mornings and evenings. Carole Sargent, 45, teaches English literature at Georgetown University to students who would arrive at her class after crew.
"One day they came in and said, 'We rowed for you today, Professor,' and I was so touched," she said.
She read a book about a woman who rowed around Arctic coastlines with her husband, which Sargent doesn't think she would like to do. However, she already has distinguished herself today.
"I saved an eel," she says brightly, pointing at a pool of water in a motorboat where the hapless animal had been trapped until she intervened.
Farther down the dock, the youth novices are preparing to push out onto the water for the first time.
Some are following older siblings into the sport and have waited impatiently until the summer before eighth grade -- the earliest they are allowed to start -- for this rite of passage.
"I'm so excited," squeals Meg Runyan, 13, a skinny girl wearing the life jacket and microphone of a coxswain, a position that involves leading and steering rather than rowing. Her sister is a coxswain at T.C. Williams.
But Nicole, one of eight bodies marching like ants under an upside-down boat, grimaces at the weight. "Come on, lock your arms!" their coach shouts.
"I'm trying to, man!" she snaps back.
Once in the boat, they encounter one of the first perils of rowing: The built-in shoes in each seat are not necessarily their size.
But there's not much time to stress out. The kids in the back have started counting down the row, indicating they are ready to go.
In the distance, the silhouettes of intermediate rowers move swiftly across the water, beckoning. With a little shriek or two, the new kids push off.