By Jenny Neyman
Considering the logistical challenges to getting all her ducks in a row for the Alaska Midnight Sun Rowing Association to hold its first-ever youth event Aug. 22, Coach Nancy Saylor said that, all in all, the event went swimmingly.
“It’s gone pretty well like we planned it. I like to plan and then just let it go and see what happens and it usually works out pretty well,” Saylor said.
Saylor said she’s wanted to do a youth event for years. The Soldotna team currently only has a few youth members — more are always welcome — and it’s nice to give them a chance to participate with their peers. In rowing, it isn’t always feasible to field a whole team to travel to a race event, especially in Alaska where the season is short and participation isn’t huge. So rowers go as individuals and form teams with whoever else is looking to fill a boat.
“You get together with a group of people, you might not know everybody there but you can find ways to work together. So, to me, that’s what today is all about. I’m just really excited to have the kids here, they’re just a kick in the pants. Sometimes they’re just so funny, some of the things they do, and they’re willing to learn and try new things, so I really enjoy that part of it,” she said.
To further that goal of working together, Saylor mixed the eight Anchorage and four Soldotna teens up into three teams — the Rocky Rowers, Four Oars and Chocolate Milk. Yes, they picked their own names.
“Chocolate milk because we have chocolate milk here,” Saylor explained. “And one of the Anchorage teens was very impressed with that because there’s never chocolate milk at regattas so she was very excited, and so their team name is Chocolate Milk.”
The teams cycled through a series of stations. There was a safety relay, where they were timed in putting on a hat, glasses, whistle and lifejacket. They also rigged a bare boat to be ready for the water.
“Some of the kids here from Anchorage had never rigged anything before so a part of what I wanted to do here today is that everybody learn something and they all work together as a team,” Saylor said.
The teams also did an exercise circuit with pushups, sit-ups, jumpies and using rowing machines. The Midnight Sun rowers do dry-land training to supplement their water workouts, but it didn’t appear that the Anchorage teens had experienced that before.
“Some of them looked pretty excited, like, ‘Oh, hey, maybe we should be doing this,’” Saylor said. “ I don’t know if they would use the word ‘fun’ associated with it, but I think they could probably figure out the benefits you could get from it.”
To end the afternoon, the teams put boats in the water for a 500-meter sprint race. And that’s where things got a little off course, with Saylor in a motorboat trying to coordinate each team as they toured the lake, warmed up and got to the start line.
“Let me go grab those guys and see where we’re at,” she said, starting across the lake to team Rocky Rowers.
After directing them to the start, she’d lost sight of Chocolate Milk.
“I don’t know where they went. Oh, there they are,” she said spying them back at the launch site. “Why are they sitting there?”
“My feet were sound asleep,” coxswain Laurie Winslow explained when Saylor reached them — a common problem from being wedged into the narrow boats, Saylor said.
“This is the start, right?” Winslow said.
“No, the start’s down there,” Saylor pointed to a pair of boys midlake.
“This is the finish? OK, that would also be the problem,” Winslow said.
But which direction? The boat under Anchorage Coach Ben Loeffler had been in the right place, but was repositioning itself away from the finish line.
“Where are you going?” Saylor called. “The start line is over this way! Between the buoys! Between the buoys!”
Corralling the boats wasn’t the only organizational challenge for the race. Mackey Lake is a busy place, with several residences and a charter air business on its shoreline.
“Planes come in and out of here sometimes to fuel up, plus the planes that are on the lake and Talon Air, so sometimes you’re dodging float plane traffic,” she said, as a plane glided down from the sky and onto the water.
With the floatplane out of the way, Saylor spotted a new obstacle in the racecourse
“And there’s kayaks. That’s awesome,” she said, laughing and heading over to the women out for a pleasure paddle on the lake. “Hi. We’re going to have some boats coming between these buoys, just so you don’t get run over.”
Then Saylor needed to coordinate with the timers at the finish line, doing so by tapping a text message on her smartphone.
“My husband and kids are sitting in the brush so they have a straight line to the finish,” she said “And he says, ‘When you get to the start, beep your horn once. If I can hear it I’ll beep back once. There’s a guy mowing his lawn.’ Best laid plans, right?”
Finally it was time to get the boats nosed up to the start line.
“OK, that’s good, hold water,” she yelled to one of the boats. “Both boats sitting ready. Ben tap, it up just a bit. Tap it up just one light stroke. Hold water. We have alignment. Attention,” Saylor said.
With a blast from the air horn they were off.
“Not too bad. If we were on the side you could see when they come up the slide the stern is probably dipping in the water, which means it’s stern check, usually caused by coming up the slide too fast. It actually stops the boat slightly, so if you can do away with stern check you’re going to be a lot farther ahead,” Saylor said, watching the race. “There’s a real finesse to rowing. It takes years and years and years to really get good at it, but that’s one of the things that brings people back to it is the challenge of that perfect stroke. I always talk about it like it’s the perfect cup of coffee. E very once in a while you get one cup that’s just like, ‘oh my gosh.’ Those races I’ve had where everything just comes together and it’s like one perfect moment in time. It doesn’t happen all that often, at least for me.”
They did three two-boat races and one race with all three boats together. Saylor has tried to assign teams to be roughly equal, with the more experienced kids mixed throughout the boats. The Midnight Sun rowers had two new youth and their two experienced rowers — Mieka Chythlook, a senior this year, and Tanner Best who graduated this spring and is going to row in, even though he’s fairly new to the sport His mom rows and brought him for a learn-to-row-program two years ago.
“I liked it so I just kept rowing and liked it enough that I went down to Seattle last fall for a race and then went down toured a bunch of schools looking for a rowing school,” he said. “I like the technical aspect. There’s a lot to it. You have to have technique to be able to row good.”
He’s going to Oregon State University, a Division One, Pack 12 school.
Saylor has been encouraging him since the first time he grabbed an oar.
“Tanner was going to go to go to college to ski and I kept telling him, ‘You really need to start looking at skiing as really good cross training for rowing,’ because he’s just a natural in a boat. I mean, you look at the guy and he looks like a rower,” she said. “In college, it’s not like ‘I’m going to be recruited for baseball because I’ve played since I was a little kid,’ you can walk on and do it. If you have the work ethic and the drive and the commitment to put to it you can make the team.”
Tallying the times from the day’s events, the winners were Team Chocolate Milk, followed by the Rocky Rowers and Four Oars, each separated by just five points.
For Saylor, the event was a winner, well worth doing again.
“It’s good. First year out we’ve learned some things,” she said.
And for the participants?
Amy Cordell, a junior in Anchorage, said it was good to get together with the peninsula team.
“I think it was really fun. It was a great way for the people who haven’t rowed for a long time to really understand, like, OK, like, there’s fun people, like, it’s nice people. The people who have been rowing for a long time aren’t like mean people. We’ve all been laughing all day. It’s been great, I really like it.”
And having her favorite refreshment available sweetened the day, as well.
“They have frickin’ chocolate milk! Like, really. We don’t have that at any of our other races,” she said.
Abby Moffett, a seventh-grader at Kenai Middle School, is a beginner and learned a lot.
“I’ve learned how to row very, very fast and how to try to keep time with everybody else,” she said.
For Cooper Plumhoff, a senior in Anchorage, the dry-land workout was a revelation
“Oh, man. I might actually might have a chance at being able to work out,” he said.
Once the boats were put away, focus drifted a bit from rowing to a different priority — namely, the barbecue being set out on picnic tables.
“Eating. Eating and getting to rest after a long day,” Plumhoff said.
For more information on the Midnight Sun Rowing Association, visit alaskamidnightsunrow.com.