Student story: A morning in the life of a coxswain on WWU’s rowing team
Stillness. Silence. Pitch black. Then, a flutter in the dark. A heron takes flight, spreading its wings as it launches off a jagged stump sticking out of murky water.
Then back to stillness. Silen-
A rhythmic chunking sound breaks the silent barrier of this ethereal void. Eight oars glide inches over the surface of Lake Samish, and two boats, thin as slivers, cut through the water.
It’s 5:30 a.m., and Western Washington University’s women’s rowing team is warming up for morning practice.
“In two, weigh enough.”
From my coxswain’s seat, tucked in the bow of one of the boats, I instruct the rowers to stop, indicating the last two strokes of the drill. Squinting through the void, I attempt to gain a sense of where I am on the lake. I’ve been a coxswain on this team for four years, but the layout of the lake is sometimes still a mystery to me in the darkness.
I know I’m in the middle of a beautiful, sheltered lake surrounded by tree-covered hills. The horizon rises and falls around me, and a wispy layer of clouds rests on the trees. The water is frigid under the hull of the boat, and everything is suspended in a delicate state of quiet, caught in the otherworldly period between night and day.
It’s a strange time of day to be out on a lake. Our coaches tell us we go out so early so we can be students first, then athletes, since 5 a.m. practice can never overlap with class.
Which is true — it doesn’t — but it doesn’t make 4 a.m. wakeups any easier. When we’re up that early, it could be the middle of the night for all we know.
On clear mornings, a black sky studded with constellations watches over our practices, granting the occasional shooting star. Sometimes a full moon illuminates the lake, bathing us in its pale light.
But today there will be no such sight, as heavy clouds shroud the sky.
Orange and yellow and white lights circling the lake reflect on the water in wobbly lines. Patio lights shine on lakehouses, and headlights fly along one side of the lake where I-5 runs parallel.
“Hey, Kiana,” assistant coach Courtney Moeller calls my name. “Can you see that orange light down at the south end?”
Barely. Just barely.
Following my coach’s instruction, I turn my boat toward the orange speck, and we start another drill heading down the middle of the lake. Fully exposed in the open water, this is where the winds are the worst and the water is the choppiest.
Today’s conditions are what Coach would call “burger.” That’s short for “sh*tburger.”
Coach John Fuchs is a man of few words, so when he’s at Samish half an hour early to check conditions and they’re looking a little hairy, he texts the team weather warnings that are always brief, and not always PG.
“It started out ‘bad,’” Fuchs said, “and then it was just ‘*ss.’”
Now it’s “burger.” And it’s “burger” a lot.
Temperatures over 26 degrees and winds less than 10 mph are typically deemed rowable. Too cold and the lake starts to freeze; too windy and the boats are likely to flip.
I’ve witnessed a boat flip only once, and it was the scariest thing I’ve experienced at any practice. Seeing the bow of the boat next to me disappear and then hearing screams from the rowers splashing in the water still sends a shiver up my spine, and I didn’t even go in.
I wasn’t even the coxswain with a phobia of lakes. That would be Jonah Bettger, my friend and former Western rowing coxswain who graduated in 2021.
She also saw the flip, and she describes it as “the white-knuckling moment of ‘Ah yeah, there’s the reminder that I could just go at any point and just get slurped right in.’”
Today the forecast says 34 degrees and 8 mph winds — not enough to cancel practice but cold enough to freeze through three pairs of socks and windy enough to leave puffy pink circles on my cheeks.
We bump along the waves, and mid-drill, a rain shower starts. A bitter headwind sends the drops straight into my eyes, and I do everything I can to keep my head up, furrowing my brow and gritting my teeth.
The rain’s assault intensifies into the next drill set as the boat picks up speed, battling the headwind. It isn’t until we finish the drill that I notice icy balls bouncing off my coxswain suit.
A round of groans rises from the rowers, and I curse under my breath, hoping my microphone headset won’t pick it up. The rowers in the other boat double over, protecting their faces and hands as the hail picks up and the shoreline disappears.
The coaches say nothing from their launches, and we don’t expect them to. We’ve rowed in rain, wind, snow — what’s a little hail?
The worst I’ve seen was about this time a year ago. Pellets the size of peas came down on us, filling the boats and warranting a quick spin back to the dock, but not before several torturous minutes of rowing through the sky’s angry ambush. I can only hope today won’t be the same.
Luckily, the hail ceases after a couple of minutes, and I gingerly pat my cheeks dry with the underside of my gloves.
Practice resumes uneventfully, and by the time we’re on our way back to the dock, the sun has started to rise. The sky has transitioned from black to a dull gray, and it’s an underwhelming sunrise, hidden by clouds.
It’s nothing compared to some of the sunrises we see on Lake Samish. On the best mornings, the sunrise is an explosion of pinks and oranges expanding over the horizon. It’s mornings like those that the coaches say make this sport worth all the hard work in tough conditions.
“The mornings in the spring when the sun is coming up over the hills and the lake is flat and you can see the rowers’ reflections, it is my happy place,” Moeller said. “Those are the mornings you’re going to remember.”
We do cherish those practices, and we’re extra grateful for them knowing that other rowing teams would kill to row on our lake. Aside from the occasional fishing boat, the lake is empty and quiet, making it a prime spot for rowing, and every year teams from all over scramble to reserve days for rowing on Lake Samish.
The highly ranked men’s rowing team from the University of Washington, for example, comes to Lake Samish for a break from Seattle’s busy waterways. The team’s head coach, Michael Callahan, has traveled around the world for rowing, but ranks Lake Samish on his list of favorite places for the sport.
“It’s similar to Lake Lucerne in Switzerland or Lake Pusiano in Italy,” Callahan said. “It just seems like it's built for rowing.”
Lake Samish is as unpredictable as it is magical, but it is good to us. Sure, the windy, rainy, hailing practices are brutal, but then we’re always rewarded for our perseverance with some amazing mornings.
It’s 7 a.m., and the Western Washington University’s women’s rowing team is done with morning practice.
Piling into cars, wet and hungry, we roll out of the gravel parking spots by our garage-sized boathouse. I take one last look at the lake as we drive away.
Until tomorrow, Sammy.