Story and photos by Sandra Chu
I begin writing this article completely offset. For decades I believed the word “coxswain,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, made its literary debut in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
This proves to be an urban rowing myth. The online edition of the OED does not even cite Moby Dick as a text containing the word coxswain. Instead, I discover that the word debuts in Manners and Household Expenses of England in 1841, wherein a payment is made to a “cokswaynne.” I am deeply unsettled. Nevertheless, it is with this fallacy firmly implanted that I take my first look at remo vasco, the traditional fixed-seat rowing of the Basque regions in Spain and France.
I stand on a dock in Sestao, Spain, along the Ria del Nervion o del Bilbao which plays home to twelve remo vasco teams. Behind me, there is a newly renovated pedestrian plaza and a wide walkway along the river. A modern brick and cement structure houses, along with a public café, the Club Deportivo de Remo Kaiku (Kaiku Rowing Sport Club). It’s December 27th and I’ve just climbed out of José Manuel Crespo’s launch after observing the first practice of the season for a talented junior boy’s quad. José is the head coach of the Kaiku Rowing School (juniors and masters). He returns to his quad and I await the start of the remo vasco practices.
I’ll ride next with Andoni Galván who coaches the junior men and women in both Olympic and Basque-style rowing. As he sweeps his arm to encompass the protected harbor from which the junior program launches, I look beyond. The wide mouth of the river meets the sea, not far from the Portsmouth, UK and Bilbao, Spain maritime border. Just before the river and the sea commingle, The Vzcaya Bridge or the Puente Calgante to locals, ties Portugalete with the seaside town of Gexto. Built in 1893, it is the first metal Transporter Bridge and its hanging gondola transports people and cars daily. The architect, Alberto Palacio y Elissague, was an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel and builder of the Crystal Palace in Madrid. An iron-red finish is symbolic of the mining tradition of the area.
Squinting toward the open water, I spy a black mass appearing and disappearing amongst the cresting waves. A plume arcs from a bowhead whale just discernible in the pitching waves; I startle at a cacophony of urgent shouts, and feel a press of motion toward the water. I leap aside as teams of men run to the harbor hauling high-sided boats with deep keels. It is a race to the whale, to its death.
The remeros [rowers] strain at the oars, their feet braced on wooden cross bars, all of the work done by backs that literally lay down the power. Currents from the Ria del Nervion and Ria del Bilbao roil where they meet the harbor. Waves rise to four, maybe five feet in height beyond the protected beach. The wind comes off the sea and the tide begins to turn. And suddenly, what seems like a simple route to the day's prize becomes a course for only the most seaworthy. The proel, or bowman, steadies a harpoon. The patron [coxswain] navigates the currents, the wind, and the waves urging his crew to propel the hull within striking distance. The boats converge on the unfortunate ballena [whale]…
With a gentle tug, Andoni brings me back to the present. The chica and chico [junior women and men] batels [entry-level boats with four rowers and a patron or patrona] are launching. The patrons balance the oars on one shoulder and bring them to the dock. Each rower slides her estrobo, a handmade sisal "bracelet" that acts as a collar, onto her oar. She dips the oar in the water, soaking the estrobo. The estrobo will slide over a plastic truncheon on the gunwale. The truncheon and the estrobo partner to make an oarlock, effectively affixing the oar on the gunwale.
Jone García de Andoin Pozo is the patrona of the junior girls batel and a three-time junior champion of Bizkaia’s (provincial) League of Bateles. If she wins this season, she will have four consecutive titles. As a tenth grader, her victories have only just begun.
Her brother Pello is a rower and a patron for the boy’s team, a common practice in the sport. He stroked the quad in the earlier practice, utilizing his patron leadership skills as he spoke for the boat. A senior in high school, he is a four-time provincial champion and a Spanish National Junior Championships silver medalist in the trainerilla –the next largest boat class (six rowers and a patron). Before coming to Spain, I watched a video of him during one of the biggest regattas of the season. He and the crew enter a turn in sixth (last) place, open water down, and exit the turn in first, open water up. More on this in a minute.
Maialen Mielgo Rodero is the stroke seat of the girls' batel. At 15, she has been rowing for two years. She has raced the Spanish National Championship Junior Girls single scull race twice in her career, finishing second in 2015 and claiming the title in 2016. Later this evening she will be recognized as the most promising female junior athlete in the city.
Maialen struggles to move the wooden bar against which she will brace her feet. Jone, kneeling in the boat, reaches forward to help her out. They are giggling, and smiling. There might be smack talk but my rudimentary Spanish is not up to the task.
It all seems very familiar.
A patrona and her remera... a coxswain and her stroke.
They shove. And almost all similarities cease.
Jone pushes her estrobo over her pin, locking in her oar. Wait–she’s got an oar? Kneeling on some foam, she uses it as a long rudder. Did I just say kneeling? With one hand, she takes some quick strokes while her ports also row, swinging the heavy hull out into the harbor. She calls out a few commands and the girls begin to row in the fixed-seat style of remo vasco. Their knees bend slightly as their torsos and arms swing to stern. They drive their legs down and then literally lay down, keeping their arms straight until their bodies have almost disappeared below the gunwale. Then, their arms squeeze the handle to their necks and feather the blade. The patrona keeps constant pressure on her rudder oar.
In short order, I realize that not only does Jone have to keep her balance, but she also has to maintain her blade square in the water. Unlike a standard oarlock, the estrobo only holds the oar against the truncheon. It doesn't prevent the oar from changing its pitch. In fact, remo vasco requires that the oar enter the water slightly over-rotated––a technical detail I failed to master in the tank just moments earlier. But, the patrona's oar must remain on the square or else she won't be able to steer.
Andoni, my translator, Professor Richard Salter of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and I motor alongside in a leaky launch. It is less leaky than the one that dropped me off, but leaky just the same. At both this newer boathouse and the older converted warehouse further up river, I’ve noticed that the rowers and coaches have parsed the sport down to its most vital parts: boats, oars, athletes. Everything else is functional, not luxurious and for some reason, this feels really good–really authentic–to me.
Rowers use what appears to be foam salvaged from couches to protect their bottoms from the unforgiving wooden beams that serve as seats. They fill scuffed and dented disposable liter bottles with water from a hose and load them into a re-purposed milk crate. The coach puts that in the bow of his launch for ballast. I wonder briefly what he does when all the water is gone but then realize that the nose of the launch will rise, and that’s probably better for draining out the water that’s coming in. Earlier, he made a joke about the Titanic holding water better than his launch (but he was actually right). When the rowers put their hull on land for a few minutes, they rest it on two old tires–no slings, no T’s. Even the boat racks are handmade. Inside the boathouse, there literally is nothing to sit on or put personal belongings on. The message is clear: we row, we train and all of it is hard.
Inside the boathouses, the training space calls out to my tinkerer’s heart. There’s a tiny fleet of older ergs. Pieces of two by fours are jammed between the seat and the foot stretcher to create a fixed-seat erg. Foam, similar to the pieces that went out in the boats, are piled up haphazardly on the seats. There’s a complicated, jury-rigged, fixed-seat contraption in the center of the room–easily outdating the swingulator by a decade. In the corner, someone has hooked a sit-up board onto a wall ladder. The foot end is about six feet in the air, the head set at a dizzyingly steep angle to the floor. I don’t dare try it; I doubt very much that I have the core to do one sit-up let alone the hundreds that José told me the rowers do regularly.
When the coaches show me the boats, the story changes and there’s a palpable contrast. Where I saw a hermit’s asceticism, I now see a craftsman’s affluence–almost a hedonism. The boats are beyond huge. Standing beneath the trainera on the rack, it’s like looking into the heart of a redwood. This fourteen-person boat holds six rowing pairs, the patron and the proel. The port and starboard rowers that make up each pair sit adjacent to each other, the distance between gunwales measuring almost a meter. At twelve meters long, the entire hull weighs 200 kilos. The proel has two oars, one on each side, and sits alone in the narrower bow.
There’s so much room that the crew can take an extra oar with them on the water.
It lays down the center of the boat, disturbing nothing, nestled with an extra estrobo or two. The patron and I, as I will come to learn later, can share his space without even touching. I try to calculate how much carbon fiber and kevlar was used to make this powerful hull. Even the splash guards are carbon fiber. Reminiscent of a whale’s mouth, they come in two sizes to protect the boat and rowers against the mighty waves in which they regularly compete and train. They snap on in an instant, attaching to pins on the bow gunwale.
But here, in the harbor, with the infantiles (junior) remeros, there are no waves. Andoni explains that the harbor, long ago a hub for whaling, is the perfect place to teach rowing and the art of being a patron. The water is completely flat and void of traffic. The girls and boys in their separate boats begin making short passes back and forth in the harbor. Jone and the other patrons are precise in their language and even more precise in their steering. It is a whole body affair. The patrons’ left arms apply constant pressure to their oars. They push and pull to counteract the currents, tide and wind. They use their cores to balance on their knees, both absorbing check and fighting to stay stable. Without a cox box, their commands are efficient, technical and clear. Unlike Olympic rowing, there is little time for complicated motivational phrases. In trainera racing, the patrons provide a rhythmic call that carries down the long boat and over the noise of the ocean: Ohhhh—ah, ohhhh—ah. They reinforce good work with a terse but energetic eso es, [“that’s the idea”].
I am eager for the boats to turn around. I’ve seen the patrons manage a ciaboga [stake turn] on video, and I expect it to be more dynamic in person. What I am not prepared for is its grace. As the batels approach the end of the harbor, the patron adds in, perfectly in time with the boat and with the same technique as the other rowers. The boat pirouettes without slowing down, the ciaboga a seamless part of the workout. Like a crew establishing its swing, pieces begin to click together for me—forming questions that I think I know the answers to. I put my translator to work.
By the end of practice, I’ve confirmed a few things. Patrons, like coxswains, are small. As the novices begin their rowing careers, the entrenadores [coaches] are looking for students with smaller builds. All patrons begin as rowers so the coaches can see whether they are also athletic and so that the patrons can learn the stroke. While patrons do have to stay smaller in order to continue in that role, they must also be very athletic. The professional patron, Iker Gimeno, whom I meet later in the week, is built like a modern gymnast. He has huge quads and strong arms. He trains, he must train, not only to be strong enough to handle the oar that steers the trainera but also to execute the fastest, most efficient turn he can. The patron of a trainera stands instead of kneeling. His quads are in constant flexion to maintain his balance and leverage on the oar. When the boat is at speed, he looks like he is riding the back of a whale.
The patron progresses from the batel to the trainerilla and then to the trainera. Watching the young patrons learn how to balance, I can see how the progression makes a lot of sense. But I know there is more to the art than just a patron who doesn’t fall down during practice. José sets me straight.
Trainera races are three nautical miles long and include one ciaboga. Races are won and lost in this turn. A patron without good rowing technique will fail. A patron without seamanship will also fail. Though the sea is calm today and these young rowers will not leave the harbor, races take place on the sea. Waves, current, tide and wind are technical components of the race. Riding the crest of an incoming wave or getting stuck in its trough can spell victory or disaster. A wave can also push a boat onto the turn buoy or push it wide away from the turn–again, victory or disaster. The tides can change during a race–victory or disaster.
A few minutes later, I become jealous of my Basque coaching counterparts. I discover that they connect to their patrons by headset. Literally–they are the voice in their patrons’ heads. As a coach who relies on mental messages during racing and rarely gets through, this is a dumbfounding fact.
Like the Director of a professional cycling team feeding the riders' information from the coaching vehicle, the entrenadores provide a massive amount of information about the racing conditions.
They make recommendations to the patron, for example, about when to begin their turns, but it is up to the patron to make a good decision and then to execute it correctly. Ironically, the radios are one-way and the patrons cannot talk back.
For this reason, the coaches explain that the relationship between the coach and the patron at any level is of maximum confidence. The patron must be able to understand, diagnose and affect technical changes in an instant. Pello adds that he must also be able to communicate accurately the boat’s mistakes and successes to the coach at the end of practice. “The [coach and patron] must agree with each other,” he emphasizes, “for the good of the team.”
Like a coxswain, the patron must also have, as these coaches call it, “a firm psychological maturity.” They often drive rowers of mixed ages—sometimes the crew is twice the age of the patron–and they must command the respect of the crew. Pello, for example, is working on developing his authority. His coaches believe that this is the last piece he needs to make the step to the next level of competition. He describes a successful patron personality as serious and firm and makes the astute observation that “off the water, you are everyone’s friend but on the water you are nobody’s friend.”
Both Pello and Jone believe that steering the boat in windy, wavy seas is one of the greatest challenges of their positions. The sheer physicality of it is daunting. “You must carry the oar very firmly in case a wave or a gust of wind changes your direction,” explains Pello, “You must always find the course where there are fewer waves or wind.” Unlike rowing development in the United States, remo vasco follows a graduated size and speed development which is standard across the rowing schools. Juniors begin in the smallest boats and only when they show competence are they allowed to move to a larger hull. With increased size comes increased speed and with increased speed comes a larger physical demand from the patron–it takes more strength to handle the larger steering oar as well as execution of the ciabogas. When I ask Andoni how long before a patron has sufficient skills he first responds “nunca”–never–but later, he and José explain that there is no set timetable for improvement. A patron’s physical development needs to dovetail with his mental and nautical development. Those that master the skills and have physical growth at the same pace can move up easily and swiftly. Those that lag in the strength area might spend more time in a smaller boat before moving into the trainera. Remember this–it will be important later.
While the rowers return their equipment to the racks, I return to my daydream. The whaling boats, almost identical in size to the trainerillas, surge toward the bowhead. One patron has artfully ridden a breaker close to the doomed animal. The proel throws his harpoon and after a violent battle and several more harpoons, the bowhead, like its over-fished relative, the right whale, floats to the surface. The catch, a massive quantity of meat and blubber, belongs to the patron that got there first. His crew and his whaling company will take all the spoils.
If my visit had concluded here, it would have been amazing. But, it continues and I cannot believe the extent of hospitality that Jon Basabe, the president of Club Deportivo de Remo Kaiku extends to me. He informs me that I should return on Saturday, to interview José Luis Korta, head coach of Kaiku’s professional senior team. And, Jon adds, I will get to drive the trainera filled with professionals. I am tickled… and terrified.
Korta is Spain’s first professional rowing coach. A pioneer in the field, he began coaching in the 70s and is on the frontline of coaches to this day. He also holds the Flag of the Shell which recognizes him as the most distinguished sportsman in history. With 40 years of experience as a patron, trainera remero, and Olympic-style rower, he has won more than 20 national titles as a competitor or coach and participated in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in the single scull. Oh, and he’s a reality TV star on the show Conquistador of the End of the World which is similar to our Survivor.
When I meet him on Saturday, he is filling those battered water bottles with the hose. He takes one look at my footwear and disapproves. He strides off and returns with rubber boots that are several sizes too big but which are better, in his opinion, than my sneakers. At some unseen signal, the men carry down the trainera. Everyone piles in–it reminds me of a clown car but all the clowns are actually long, lanky and wearing dri-fit.
We head up-river toward the Guggenheim Museum in the heart of Bilbao. The river projects its liquid light onto the building’s surface. Korta, the showman, maneuvers the men and our launch so my pictures will capture his art and Guggenheim’s together. The Patron, Iker Gimeno, and Korta have been working together for fifteen years. Like several other professional patrons, Iker has been under Korta’s tutelage since he was a child and made his debut in the trainera with Korta as his coach. He has followed Korta to his recent appointment at Kaiku. They are a quintessential example of the entrenador-patron relationship, reading each other’s minds and knowing what the other expects from the crew. Iker manages all the fine detail coaching while Korta gives the broad technical changes he wants to see. In this case, the attack at the front end is weak. He tells them that they must shave two seconds off their drive by engaging the attack as soon as the oar is in the water. Iker and the men get down to business.
The route to Bilbao is dotted with the crews of other competitor clubs. A few of the men shout insults to their friends on other teams. Some of the boats are fixed-seat, others are Olympic style. Immediately, I can see a drastic difference between the Kaiku professionals and the other less skilled clubs. Just under 100 years old, Kaiku is perennially in the top five clubs in the region. They fly three Flags of La Concha–the highest achievement in remo vasco–in the boathouse for Kaiku’s three titles. Korta says his secret is that he rows twice a day and the other clubs only once. Then he laughs.
Described by the media as a controversial showman, Korta is not shy about sharing his judgments on his sport and the rowers in front of him.
"They are just crazy," he says, "that is why they win all the time. They are very crazy. The crazier you are, the better you row."
Meanwhile, Iker sits down to rest. Korta stands and starts throwing water bottles at the crew. They catch the heavy bottles one handed and hydrate. Korta seems to think this might be a sign of weakness, that they need water. But, he tosses them out just the same. Later I learn that he usually is more critical of the crew but that he has curbed his vulgar insults partly because it is the first day but mostly because there is a lady in the launch.
Korta got his rowing education in his fishing hometown. As a boy, there wasn’t money for anything, not even soccer balls–the country’s signature sport. He and his friends would take their parents’ fishing boats out for play. Every day they raced each other, these tiny boys in giant boats, learning all aspects of the sport. I ask him whether he prefers Olympic rowing or fixed-seat rowing. He is quick to say Olympic–remo vasco is too much like his childhood.
By this time the men are warmed up and doing hard steady state. I am hypnotized by the flawless synchronicity of the thirteen men. The number of oars, side-by-side pairs and asymmetry in the bow distract my typically disciplined eye. How can anyone be unified with all this visual chaos? But, I have learned that the Basque are very precise people: on our way to the city from the airport, the bus left exactly on time, despite the fact that my husband was only halfway boarded. A video on the art of making the estrobo is textbook Basque as well–each sisal fiber painstakingly and patiently wrapped into place, in one try. The precision comes to life in front of me, the trainera a massive machine and its personnel the gears that fit together to the millimeter. I have nothing but admiration and respect for this sport, its coaches and athletes. After a while, Iker performs the ciaboga and we head back downriver. He calls out eso es as the boat leaps along and punctuates the strokes with his carrying cry of ohhhh-ah, ohhhh-ah! He looks like he is dancing on the water.
As we near the convergence of the two rivers, Korta calls the men to a halt and tells me it is my turn. I am a very confident and competent coxswain but from everything I have seen and learned about the skills of the patron, this is a very, very bad idea.
I began learning Spanish five months ago using Duolingo, an on-line learning app.
I’m pretty good at telling you that my cat drinks milk and my elephant does not. But, I have no words to express my terror.
I don’t even know the word for fear. I do the only thing I can–fake it ‘til I make it… or fall into the river.
Iker shows me how to stand in the patron’s compartment. I am in a strong, athletic stance–feet shoulder width apart, knees flexed. It doesn’t seem too bad. Then he puts my hands on the giant wooden oar to my port. I am thinking I can use it for balance. This, I quickly discover, is not true at all. It moves around too much and I am responsible for supplying the oar with stability—not the other way around.
Nonplussed, Iker reclines in the stern as though we are out for some kind of ride in the country, and calls out to the crew. I’m glad one of us is comfortable. We start moving. I know that it’s not that bad but I’m convinced I’m riding an untamed mustang. I have two hands on the oar, struggling for balance. Iker swats away my right hand. My feet are moving inside my borrowed boots. I feel like I’m going to fall over so I take a step back with my right foot for stability. Iker kicks my foot back into position. At this moment, I’m not sure how much I’m going to like him.
The one rower who speaks English explains that the steering is just like an eight. “Push to go starboard and pull to go port.” Yeah–umm–it’s really the opposite. Not that it really matters because I don’t have time to process it. I experiment and every two strokes Iker has to grab the oar and make a drastic steering correction, which yep–you guessed it–affects the set. Finally he realizes that he just has to hang onto the oar all the time. I can’t tell if what I am doing with the oar is correct because it seems like it doesn’t matter whether I’m pushing or pulling, the boat goes in the same direction. I’m being pushed by the swirl of the converging currents which I can’t read. Korta feels the wind shift and pick up. He says “oh no, no, no” to the translator but there’s nothing to be done. My left arm burns and my quads are useless and within five minutes I want out. Is there a bell I can ring? Some way I can tap out?
It’s at least 20k back to the boathouse, or at least that’s what my mind and body believe. It’s really only about fifteen minutes but I was done long ago. Since my Spanish has devolved to sí and vigorous nodding, when the English-speaking rower tells me that they are going to go más rápido and I will drive solamente, I am out of options. Just moments earlier, I had lost my balance and fallen down. Luckily the patron ankakas [stern pair] find this amusing. Más rápido? Like Korta said: crazy. Iker builds the pressure and the cadence.
I know I’m flopping around like a fish. I know I’m a hot mess. I know that the rowers are probably going to have some really good laughs over their cervezas. But I also know how Katie Couric felt when she coxed the US Men’s eight right before they left for Barcelona in 1992. This… is… fantástico.
As we near the boathouse, Iker steers toward the dock. Korta barks angrily–they have five more minutes of practice. The men yell back about an appointment they have to keep. Korta barks again. Then they yell the truth: la patrona! They do not want me to execute the ciaboga. I am in complete agreement. First of all, there’s a bridge we could crash into. Second of all, I have no idea what I’m doing. And third of all, did I mention that bridge?
Iker instructs the proel who casually switches oars. Iker stands behind me, and, hands covering mine, he pushes the oar in rhythm with his rowers. We back the stern to starboard as the bow gracefully comes around. I feel a unique physical connection to the remeros and my contribution is oddly rewarding.
At last, I can speak oar.