`Rugby on the water'

Rowing: As a top national team from Annapolis can attest, racing an Irish currach can be a bruising, bloodying endeavor.

August 15, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Sweat coating their faces and dripping down their backs, three members of the Annapolis Irish Rowing Club were taking a breather after racing down Spa Creek in their curious canvas contraption.

"The girls are beating you," teased a nearby power boater. He had seen another long canvas boat cut through Annapolis Harbor, propelled by a female crew, and he knew the boats were two of a kind.

There is nothing in the harbor, or the Chesapeake Bay, quite like the 25-foot Irish currach boat. The workmanlike design -- black canvas stretched over wooden ribs -- hasn't changed in 2,000 years. Nor has its source of power.

Mostly, that's the rowers' backs.

The backward-facing rowers -- four to a boat, usually -- start their stroke sitting upright, then lean back until they're flat, driving the boat through the water. Then they lift the skinny oars up, snap forward and start over again. They average about 30 strokes a minute.

"There are at least 10 different things to remember," says Ron Sroka, a 23-year-old law student, as he rows the boat past glittering white yachts. "And if you rest for a second, you screw everybody up."

Still used for transportation and fishing in Ireland, the currachs are primarily racers here. There are eight Irish rowing teams in the United States, and the one in Annapolis, consisting of 20 men and women, is among the best. This weekend, they'll head to Milwaukee to butt heads -- and oars -- with their competitors.

"It's like rugby on the water: Whatever happens out there, happens," says Egan Nerich, 49. "But it's all good-natured, because by nighttime you're drinking and you're eating and it's over with."

This is real rowing, they say. Competitors, who sit on stationary wooden planks, emerge with sore butts, bloodied knuckles and, occasionally, bruises on their back from less-experienced rowers sitting behind them.

"It hasn't really taken hold as well as we'd like," Nerich said.

His grandparents immigrated to New York in the 1920s from County Galway in Ireland, but Nerich hadn't heard of Irish rowing until the Annapolis club started 20 years ago. He quickly took to the sport, which he calls a rougher, more working-class version of typical rowing and sculling.

"Sculling -- it's a good sport," Nerich allows, "but it's filled with too many rules. We don't like that many rules."

The eight U.S. teams each hold one regatta a year (Annapolis is holding its event Sept. 14 at Sandy Point State Park), and points are awarded to the top three finishers in each race. Races for male, female and mixed squads are held at each regatta. The points add up over the season to determine the top Irish rowers in the country. The Annapolis team placed second last year, behind the perennial favorite, Boston.

It's a point of pride for the Irish rowers that they can handle the choppy waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and even the ocean. That's why their oars don't flare out at the bottom like others do. Irish rowing oars are 9 1/2 feet long by 3 inches wide, even at the tip.

"You're getting like four feet [of the oar] in the water, so it acts as balance when you're out in the choppy waves," says Nerich, coach of the Annapolis squad.

This week the hot, sticky weather kept most pleasure boaters off the water, and the rowers pretty much had it to themselves. On Tuesday evening, they pushed their two currachs into Spa Creek behind the Charles Carroll House and set off into the warm, sun-dappled water.

Captain Shane Boyle wanted Dan Black, who was in stroke position, where he controlled the direction of the boat, to keep it on line with a traffic light on a bridge. Rowers often use such markers to maintain a straight course.

"Hold the light! Hold the light!" Boyle barked.

They did a two-mile route to where the Severn River meets the bay. It was nearly dark by the time they finished, and they were exhausted. They usually practice Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Anyone can join. The Annapolis team includes a mortgage loan officer, a systems analyst for the state, a construction firm superintendent and an empty nester. Black, a member of the team since 1999, joined because he couldn't stand the idea of getting up at 5 a.m. to practice with a traditional rowing team, and because Irish rowing is "fun in that medieval sort of way."

But it irritates Black that his sport hasn't received as much publicity as other forms of rowing.

"Our dream," he said, "is to be on ESPN2."

Sun staff writer Jackie Powder contributed to this article.

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