From shore, the rowboat looked like a wreck hurrying to happen. Two kids in life jackets clutched the gunwales as their father rowed a course across the lake to shame a wounded duck. Every third stroke, an oar escaped its lock to clang against the aluminum hull with a shot.
"Guys like that give rowboats a bad name," said Lou Strang, a Dale City carpenter and rowboat fancier who was watching the midsummer spectacle from a shore of Lake Accotink in Fairfax County. "In the right hands, that would be a pretty sight."
Strang is a rowboat loyalist. While most of his friends have made the high tech jump to bigger, sexier models powered by internal combustion, the 54-year-old Strang has remained voluntarily chained to his oars.
When wags in neon-bright-bass boats compare the lines of his wooden skiff to a garbage skow, Strang quietly inquires about their fuel bills. When kayakers offer to tow him behind their speedy, needle-shaped, kevlar boats, Strang asks them where they pack their picnic lunch.
"A rowboat is not slick or speedy, but it does the job," says Strang who moves his boat across a lake with the grace of a water bug and is able to explore shallow coves where no outboard dares to go.
Half a century ago, the rowboat was king of freshwater rivers and ponds. Now, at many public lakes, you are lucky to find a seaworthy rowboat to rent. In the great American courtship of speed and power, the humble rowboat has been left behind like an old spouse.
In the last few years, however, the rowboat appears to have made a bit of a comeback.
"A few years back when summer hit, we wouldn't rent any boats at all. Now it seems that almost every weekend we rent 40 to 45 boats a day," says Ray Fletcher, who operates Fletcher's Boathouse beside the Potomac with big brother Joe. There are 65 red, wooden rowboats for rent at Fletcher's, some of them made by Ray's grandfather Joseph more than 50 years ago. Many of them are rented to fishermen who anchor the boats just 50 yards offshore. But more, says Ray Fletcher, are rented by people who use them for family outings, romantic picnics or exercise.
"A lot of parents with small children are reluctant to take out canoes," says Ray. "The rowboats are sturdier. You can stand up and walk around in them . . . to turn over one of these you have to really be trying."
In upstate New York, Adirondack guide boats, 15-foot wooden rowboats first built in the 1840s, have recently enjoyed a gold-plated revival. The hulls of old, rotting boats that could be had for a few dollars just a decade ago, are now being sold for prices of $700 and more. Refinished boats, with cane seats, bronze oarlocks and brass screws, are being sold for $3,000 and $4,000.
The newest rowboat design may be the 35-foot boat that Englishman Peter Bird recently rowed across the Pacific Ocean. Bird spent 294 days rowing his boat from San Francisco to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The boat, which looked like a giant beer can pointed at both ends, broke up while being towed after Bird abandoned it on a reef.
When he reached shore, Bird sounded like a man ready to stay there for awhile.
"Just to live in normal, everday life could be a challenge," said Bird, who rowed eight hours a day and admitted talking to himself on more than one occasion.
No other sport has had to overcome a public image as bad as rowing's nor done it so successfully. Before it was sport, rowing was strictly a scourge. Our Saturday afternoon movies have always included scenes of galley slaves working to the sound of lashing whips. Mention rowing now, however, and the image conjured is more likely to be prep school scullers stroking down the Thames.
My father was a dedicated rower of not much skill. Some of my earliest memories of him are sitting at his knee, watching him gleefully stroke our rowboat into low-hanging limbs. That is still the worst thing that can be said of rowing. You don't see where you're going until you've already been there.
At Fletcher's, some of the oarsmen have solved that sighting problem. They do their rowing standing up, facing the direction they are going. One late rower, Charlie Maggio, could be seen powering his way up and down the Potomac in that standup style when he was in his late 70s.
"I've gotten a little lazy lately, but I still row," says Ray Fletcher. "When I want to get away from it all, I just get in a boat and go."