Bill Larson shows off his sliding seat rowing shells at the Annapolis… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Tired of getting beaten up on the basketball court or twisting the night — and your back — away lunging to get that low volley? Is playing 18 holes frustrating, but not invigorating enough to get the endorphins cranked? Does a walk around the neighborhood seem as old as the neighborhood?
Try rowing — or, more precisely, sliding-seat rowing.
Bill Palatore did, and it changed the way he looked at going out on the water.
Since buying a sliding-seat rowing skiff about five years ago, Palatore and one of his neighbors in Annapolis venture onto Ridout Creek and Whitehall Bay about four mornings a week for about 90 minutes at a time.
An experienced boater "in all forms", Palatore said sliding-seat rowing is the best combination of exercise and aesthetics he has found.
"Rowing is so different from kayaking or canoeing, the synchronized rowing movements you go through put you in almost a Zen-like state of mind," Palatore said. "We tend to go out early, and it's really peaceful, really pleasant. It's good for the soul. You come back tired but not exhausted, and you're not hurting your joints or your muscles, but you've cleared your head."
Palatore, 61, used to run for exercise, and his rowing partner, Howard Brooks, was an avid cyclist. Rowing is a much safer alternative to either, Palatore said, "because the roads around Maryland are just too dangerous." Palatore said he can row until the end of November.
Bill Larson, the Florida-based designer who went from building traditional racing shells to sliding-seat rowing skiffs about a decade ago, said it's a perfect sport for baby boomers still interested in taking care of their bodies but not willing to play more mainstream sports.
"They've worked hard, and they're really learning how much they need to take care of their heart," said Larson, 54. "It's not so much about big muscles. It's about taking care of your heart and living a long time and enjoying it. Playing basketball is not for everyone — they don't enjoy that environment. But everyone enjoys being out on the water."
Larson came up with the idea after competing on traditional racing shells at the University of Florida, where he started a club team in the late 1970s and turned his passion for rowing into a career. He acknowledges that racing shells have a much more limited audience.
"You sit right on it and you don't pat your hair down the middle, you tip right over," Larson said. "It's incredibly hard to get used to, so it's not for everyone."
After building racing shells, Larson branched out with a wider, more user-friendly recreational shell before eventually taking what he had seen for years in the gym and incorporating into a rowboat.
The concept is very similar to what college crew teams have used for years, dating to when Harvard and Yale launched the first intercollegiate crew teams the late 1800s. (According to Larson, the first version debuted even earlier, when rowboats used to transport merchant ship captains to shore raced each other and those in the boats tried to gain an advantage by using whale oil on the bottom of their trousers to help the sliding motion.)
It eventually evolved into the sleek racing shells Larson found himself building.
"The sport is so healthy and it has such mass appeal, but this type of craft [the racing shell] did not have mass appeal, so we began building ones that were wider that you could take a fishing pole or take your dog with you or take a picnic basket," he said.
Larson said the rowing skiff can be used on a variety of bodies of water — everything from a flat, calm bay to white-water rapids. He added that a sliding-seat rowboat is also more adaptive than a racing shell because the latter doesn't "like waves or boats or wind."
Larson said he has taken his rowing skiff on trout-fishing trips on white-water streams.
"You can do your other passions while you are rowing, you are not just exercising," he said. "You get a fantastic workout without thinking, 'I've got to work out.'"
The sliding-seat rowing skiff is also more maneuverable and faster than a traditional rowboat, with the capability of going up to 20-30 feet per stroke depending on the person doing the rowing.
Larson draws the analogy to bicycles in terms of how easy — or difficult — they are to handle.
"If a rowing skiff is a tricycle, a recreational shell is a bicycle and a racing shell is a unicycle," Larson said. "That was really holding people back from getting involved in sliding-seat rowing, and yet it's in every gym you've ever seen."
According to a study conducted by Ohio University, a sliding-seat rower who weighs 150 pounds burns 400 calories every 20 minutes, twice as much as someone out jogging or in the last game of a tennis match and four times as much as a cyclist or golfer.