“Nobody ever took time out in a boat race. There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the [person] in front of you and row until they tell you it’s over. Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.’’

 

— Royal Brougham, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

 

The University of Minnesota rowing team had been on the Mississippi River at 6:45 a.m., before daybreak, and 90 minutes later the temperature still was in the 40s.

The coolness seemed to be appreciated by this crew of eights. There were several women in short sleeves, revealing the biceps and forearms required to compete in an activity not made for softies.

“It is a power and endurance sport,’’ Wendy Davis said. “I’ve had men tell me the equivalent in physical demands is wrestling.’’

Davis has been the coach of the Gophers since rowing was added to the list of women’s varsity sports offered at the university in 2000.

On this late October morning, Davis was in her motorized craft, following one of the sleek, 60-foot shells occupied by her athletes as it headed north past the team’s dock.

“Shift into top gear now,’’ Davis said. “Go for it.’’

There were also directions coming from the coxswain, the captain of a racing shell. Outsiders have a tendency to chuckle at the presence of this smaller person at the back of the boat giving orders, but the ability to read the water is only one item that makes an able coxswain vital to a successful crew.

This is particularly true in the predawn of a fall autumn when several U of M boats already are on the mighty Mississippi. Someone has to make sure these Gophers don’t collide with a tug or other watercraft in the darkness.

“You have eight women sitting backwards and rowing relentlessly,’’ Davis said. “The coxswain is the eyes for all of them. She steers, she sets the pace. Meredith Kelly is with our ‘A’ varsity boat and a very good one.’’

There can’t be a college rowing team in the country with a more interesting practice arena than the Gophers. The boathouse (finished in 2007) and dock are located on the river shore below campus.

The workouts on the water take place on a 5-mile stretch of the Mississippi starting below the locks at St. Anthony Falls. There is always current to fight when heading back north. When the water gets high and the current turns extra strong, the Gophers haul their boats to Medicine Lake to work. When the current is merely strong, they remain on the river and go to battle with it.

Haley Bagley, a senior from St. Cloud, recalled a morning workout from the past:

“We went down in about 10 minutes, and it seemed like it took us 50 minutes to get back. I was thinking, ‘We’re never going to make it. We’re going to need a tow.’ ”

•••

I’m so old that I still read books in print on airplane trips. Early this month, I had finished the book started on the departing flight, and needed another for the return.

The selection in this airport was modest. My wife pointed to a paperback, “The Boys in the Boat’’ by Daniel James Brown, and said: “I’ve read that one. It’s very good.’’

It was a terrific recommendation, to read this chronicle of the University of Washington crew that won the rowing gold medal in eights at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

They were eight strong young men with little rowing background, culled from a herd of other strong young men by a hard-driving coach and turned into a group that could embarrass Hitler’s mighty machine of rowers in Berlin.

It is a wonderful look at sports that were able to transfix America before the age of television. It also was an overwhelming look at the mystical powers that a boat crew can find through thousands of hours of ardor, when the stroke of eight athletes becomes perfection, and when the narrow shell of a boat feels such power that it wants to lurch from the water.

“It’s called ‘the swing,’ ” said Bagley, smiling widely. “When you find it once in a while, it’s like good music … it’s transporting. It is what makes you come back every morning and battle the Mississippi, makes you spend all winter on the ERG [rowing] machines.

“The swing is when the stroke and the boat are communicating perfectly with each other. We have a boat now, a Hudson, that is what we call ‘sassy.’ It tells you what you’re doing wrong. A little list one way, ‘OK, the Hudson says someone’s stroke is off … maybe it’s me.’ ”

The fifth seat occupied by Bagley is the power position on an eight-woman crew. The eighth seat is the vital “stroke,’’ the rower who picks up on the command of a coxswain — “Give me 10 hard!’’ — and sets the stroke for the rest of the boat.

Anna Greene is a senior from New Brighton and the stroke for the “A” boat. Her athletic activities at Irondale High were golf and marching band. She was at a campus event for freshmen early in the fall when a rowing assistant approached and said:

“You’re a tall girl [5-foot-11]. You should give rowing a try.’’

Greene did so. She was among dozens of novices who joined a select few recruits in that first-year group.

“There are eight or nine of us left,’’ Greene said. “Some mornings you say, ‘I should have stuck with golf,’ although not often. Most mornings, the river is beautiful. Like this morning ... I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.’’

Bagley said: “A couple of weeks ago, when the trees along the river had their full color, it was like rowing through a tunnel of fire.’’

That view was paid for by the fire in the shoulders, the arms, the back, the midsection that is part of a daily workout for collegiate rowers.

As Royal Brougham wrote 80 years ago, it’s no game for a softy.