I’m reading the new book by Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal. One of the protagonists endures tragedies that change him so profoundly that he only walks backwards—seeing only where he’s been, not where he’s going.

For most people, moving backwards makes them move carefully, tentatively. I seem to have lost that tentativeness somewhere during my rowing career. I move furniture as the "walking backwards person." I can run backwards and back my car down steep hills with perfect ease. And, dear Novice Rower, the day will come when you too will be comfortable (and, dare I say, feel almost safe) moving in reverse.

When you learn to row, it's likely that your boats (8+s, 4+s) will have a coxswain facing forward to steer the boat. However, as you progress, you’ll row in “blind boats”—like the 4x, 4-, 2x, 2-, and the single shell (1x). These boats rely upon the person in bow to steer while rowing at the same time.

Make no mistake—backward-ness is one of the more difficult and disorienting aspects of rowing. There are times when you will steer a boat—in fact, race a boat—on a lake or river you’ve never navigated before. An added challenge is that you must do this with only quick glances over your shoulder to guide you. You’ll learn to size up a situation, adjust your course quickly, and trust your instincts.

When I first started rowing, steering while moving in reverse seemed completely daunting.  My home river is stunningly beautiful, but also well-stocked with rain barrel-sized buoys, debris, bridges, barges, fishermen, fellow rowers, sassy geese, and ducks with deathwishes. My quick glances to see where I was going never satisfied. I second-, third-, and fourth-guessed myself constantly. And so I rowed poorly, tentatively.

(Some fellow rowers recommended a small mirror that attaches to your hat…but I couldn’t really get it to work for me. And this little device seems interesting…but almost like cheating.)

Thankfully, experience has made me not question myself as often.  I learned how to point my boat in the proper direction when stopped, then square that point up with something on the shoreline in front of me. My rowing route up and down the river are points on a line, rather than a free-flowing course. (My favorite "points" include a church steeple, the corner of a tall apartment building, and a river marker that tells me it’s 800+ miles to the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers.) With this system, I’m fairly certain to miss the stationary obstacles.

The moving targets (geese, ducks, debris, teammates) are a little trickier. But as time has gone by, and I’ve become more confident, more sure of myself, I look less, relying on my gut more.

I’ve never talked with my fellow rowers about this, but I feel we have a sixth sense—something that tells us when the boat we are steering is heading toward disaster. Don’t get me wrong—I still look every 5-10 strokes—but I also know in my heart when something dastardly is coming upon me. I can feel it. I look, and adjust my course with time to miss whatever it is that’s strayed into my path. It’s a pretty cool trick.

This is not to say that a well-timed, well-intentioned warning from fellow rowers or a coach isn’t appreciated—it most certainly is. But this “backward sense” is a lovely thing.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the advantage moving backwards offers competitive rowers—an advantage our running and swimming friends don’t enjoy. Actor (and fellow rower) Hugh Laurie described it this way:

“Winning a rowing race is not like winning anything else. Here's my theory: you're facing backwards, so you're looking at the people you're beating—and there's something exquisite about that.”

So have no fear--moving backwards will unsettle you less with every over-the-shoulder glance, until you too are gliding in a line worthy of great literature. 

photo credit: looking back via photopin (license)