The biggest crew race of the season for us was against Cal. The University of California at Berkeley crew had a legacy of winning three Olympic gold medals and ten national championships. I was a member of the eight man rowing team for U.C.L.A., and Cal was one of the giants in the sport.
As the race official uttered the traditional phrase, “etes-vous pret, partez!” to begin the race, the two teams burst from a standing start to an explosion of high speed human machinery in the narrow Marina Del Rey estuary on the coast of Southern California. Sixteen rowers pulled their oars at precisely a rate and intensity commanded by the coxswains in each shell. The coxswain, who is physically small and lightweight, is the single voice leading the team and is responsible for steering the boat in a rigorous straight line as it hurtles through the water propelled by eight oarsmen, each pulling a single oar in synchronicity with the others. The rowers must continually listen to the coxswain and heed to his direction for the crew to have any chance of racing fast and winning. The coxswain orchestrates the massive harmonized strength under his command by communicating with the rowers through a microphone and series of speakers mounted in the shell. Stroke intensity, stroke rate per minute, correction to who may not be pulling hard enough or with a proper technique, information on distance, and, motivation to dig further within your strength and capabilities to eek out more distance between you and the competition, are all directives barked out by the coxswain.
Rowing requires unity. Without unity in both relationship and function the crew simply cannot row the boat as designed for its intended purpose, and certainly not race. A rowing shell has no keel, which means that it is extremely prone to tipping over. At only twenty one inches wide and about twenty one inches from the floor to the top of the side panels, it is a trim fit for each rower. A key factor in stabilizing the boat and generating speed is that each of the rowers must execute every stroke in determined synchronicity.
But unity of the stroke is only part of the method. It is critical that while sliding back and forth on their movable seat and pushing with their legs, and, pulling with their arms and back with every stroke, each rower sustains their center of balance directly down the midline of the boat. If a rower leans even slightly to one side, it can cause their oar to dive vertically into the water and tilt the boat, or worse, catapult the rower out of their seat and into the water. Add to this compulsory precision the judicious application of strength to a twelve foot oar in order to rip through a remorseless body of water with each rowing cycle. Add to that, sprinting for two thousand meters at the same anaerobic physical intensity as if you were running for your life while a mountain lion was chasing you across an open field.
The second dimension of unity required is the relationship between the coxswain and the rowers. Rowers conform to what the coxswain tells them to do. As the leader of the crew, the coxswain sits facing the rowers at the stern of the shell where he or she has full view of each person and the course before them. This is the vantage for him to communicate with the crew. In order to conserve weight and space only a slight person can be a coxswain. The fifty-seven foot torpedo shaped boat carrying 8 powerful rowers is steered by a diminutive rudder controlled by the coxswain sitting at the helm.
The remaining dimension of unity required is between the “Stroke” and the rest of the rowers. The Stroke is the rower sitting in the first seat directly in front of the coxswain. When the coxswain commands the stroke rate (set at specific strokes per minute), it is the Stroke that establishes the pace to this rate, and the other rowers must follow in precise unison.
On this race between rivals, our boat was dead even with Cal after one thousand meters of a two thousand meter course. As we listened to the voice of Henry, our coxswain, we yielded to his instructions as we felt our legs seer with the pain of acute exertion. Our job was to row, and Henry’s job was to lead us. So unlike Henry, we were not able to look away to see what the other boat was doing, as rowers can’t see where the boat is headed.
As we approached the twelve hundred meter buoy, Henry told us we had gained the lead by a quarter of a boat length. Then at fourteen hundred meters we extended the lead to a half a boat length. We were on the cusp of a huge upset, as U.C.L.A. had not beaten the Cal Crew in many years and we all knew it. At fifteen hundred meters we were still holding, but at about sixteen hundred meters something strange happened. As Henry was yelling out the stroke rate, I felt a slight reduction in power output for the whole boat. We were at the stroke rate he wanted, but our puddles were not where they should be.
Puddles in rowing are very distinct whirlpools that flow from the tips of each rower’s paddle and travel along the water surface at the completion of each stroke. It is actually very simple for the coxswain to assess the amount of power from each rower - the bigger the puddle, the greater the power. So at that moment, our puddles had gotten smaller. It seemed as if we had stopped listening to Henry while we had the race seemingly in hand, and could fractionally ease up for just a few seconds to catch our breath.
As Henry screamed at us over the internal loudspeakers to increase our puddles, he informed us that our lead had shrunk to one-quarter-boat length at the eighteen hundred meter mark. Realizing the sudden magnitude of our situation, we tried to re-engage and follow Henry’s lead, and found ourselves dead even again at nineteen hundred meters, with only 100 meters to go. Continuing to try to regain momentum for the last stretch was not enough, as Cal pulled ahead and won by two meters at the two thousand meter finish line.
In The Heat Of It
As I’ve replayed that race in my mind over the years I have always come to the conclusion that we, or at least I, stopped listening to Henry and acting on what he was obliging us to do in order to win. Instead, when we reached a point where the race appeared to be under control our engagement with Henry’s direction seemed to dissipate, and we decided to pull back on our intensity, if just for a moment.
As you know, the rowers only view was that of looking toward Henry. Henry was the only one who could see where we were going. He was the only one who could see the threats of other boats in the race. He was the only one who could steer to maintain course. He was the only one who could peer into the contorted faces of each rower and know their level of alliance to the expenditure they were engulfed in. Henry spent thirty hours a week with his teammates and understood the source of their countenance. He encouraged and corrected.
The rowers understood the priority of his heeding words, and trusted him as the leader.
Neglecting Henry was a choice, and the unfortunate consequence was the boat did not function for its intended purpose. It’s an interesting corollary to rowing, that for the times when I pull back from God and try to do something on my own, I am operating in a manner I was not designed for.
In the end, just a few seconds of choosing not to stay focused on Henry’s leadership and his ability to see what we could not see, ultimately cost us the biggest loss of the season.
The memory of this race has endured over the years and is a reminder to me how this same type of attentive listening, but on God’s voice of direction is my desire. I yearn to fully give myself over to the pleasure of a wise loving Father who knows me intimately and can see where I am not able to.
In Psalm 25 David pours out his heart to acknowledge this when he said “My eyes are continually toward the Lord.” David sought and talked to God for counsel, praise, gratitude, joys, griefs, and everything in between. In actuality David did take his eyes away from God at times and made decisions on his own, and the consequences were detrimental. But David learned that abiding with God in a relationship that was more intimate than any other was the only path he desired. In this same Psalm he cries out:
“O my God, In You I trust, … Make me know Your ways O Lord; Teach me Your paths.”
David was always sharing his deepest, most penetrating thoughts with His Creator, the Lord of Heaven and Earth. It was in Him that David looked to for counsel, to worship, and to cry out in his darkest times.
When Jesus came to Earth and lived among His disciples He modeled the same kind of dependence as David with His Father. His deference was to God. His counsel was from God. Jesus was immersed in His relationship with His Father. His unimpaired communion with God prompted His thoughts, words and actions.
Jesus was fully aware of His intended purpose for the journey He was on that would leave an indelible imprint on all humanity. His journey took Him down a path where he would pour His life into a small group of men who would later impact the history of the world - not by their own abilities, but by the power of Christ in them. He articulated piercing truth and instruction, healed many, and ultimately sacrificed his own life to redeem a humanity that had turned their backs from God.
Indeed God desires for us to be a journey that shapes us to be more and more like Him. Not because we are compelled by what someone told us we should do, or out of guilt, or any other external prompting. It is not something we strive for. Rather we are compelled because of our love for Jesus. If I think about my relationship with my wife Lauren, every day I can’t wait to talk to her, to understand how she feels, and to share my heart. It is a perpetual back and forth we have. But it’s not striving for me to do this, rather it is because I love her deeply and want to be close to her. That’s how it is with our relationship with God.
But just like David, unfortunately our eyes will not be continually toward God at all times. What makes me take my eyes off of Jesus and not process my struggles with Him? It is my old nature I know, but I still don’t like it. The relationship is still there, but I don’t relish the opportunity lost to include God.
Just like rowers, we can’t see where we are going. We have the privilege to depend on God while on a windy road full of blind corners. Around one curve the view could be saturated with joy beyond expectations. Another corner could lead to pain and heartache. During those times of pain and heartache sometimes we naturally cling to Jesus, yet at other times the handles fly off in a panic as we try to solve circumstances on our own.
Taking this even further, think about those you may know, or even yourself, who may have a lifestyle of self-made decisions and actions. I’m sure there have been times when you have observed those that have experienced a perpetual condition of arduous wandering because of the choices they have made, choices made from their self. It’s a lifestyle of autonomous determinations based on a dim understanding instead of a life journey in an intimate relationship with Jesus sharing our innermost thoughts, singing His praises, crying for help, and seeking His counsel.
Dependence on our Creator is not only for the big things. Our sojourn also provides us the volition to depend on Him for the smallest things, even something as simple as the words we speak. Think about abiding in Him to a point where His words are yours, and it is as natural as breathing.
Like a rower who is engrossed in what they are designed to do, they must depend on the person in front who can see what they cannot. Indeed we look toward the face of our Creator, immersed in His presence knowing He has saved us. We can trust and walk with Him as none other by the power of the Holy Spirit. The bestowal to our walk with Jesus is compelled by love. It’s a love where we instinctively listen to God’s heart through prayer, where we are sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us, and we absorb the inexpressible grandeur of His Word and Creation.