Rowing the blue

Learn to skim gracefully across the bay ― or watch from shore
HARRIOT MANLEY
It's a calm fall morning out on San Francisco Bay, and a mere toothpick of a boat ― more than 20 feet long, less than 1 foot wide, and powered by two lean oars ― skims across the surface like a giant water skeeter.

Shirwin Smith, founder and former owner of Sausalito-based Open Water Rowing, is out for her usual morning workout. "Here I am in this major urban area, and 1/4 mile offshore, there's no one ― just me and the birds and the seals. It can't get much better."

Around the Bay Area, a lot of folks agree with her. Roughly a dozen rowing clubs ring the bay and bordering waterways. Though enthusiasts ply the waters year-round, many ramp up their activities now, when the fog of summer gives way to warm fall weather. It's a great time to give the sport a try; several local clubs offer inexpensive lessons for beginning rowers of any age (see below).

If you're not inclined to take an oar (or two) in hand yourself, you can still get a good introduction to the sport by watching a regatta. Often 60 boats or more compete in local races, which can spread out for miles; catch them at or near the start for the best on-the-water action.

Around the Bay Area, you're likely to see three kinds of boats. There are the most traditional crafts: dories, shells, and plain old rowboats, designed for rough surf. Then there are the fast, lean racing shells (like the one Smith rows) for cruising calm, flat water on lakes, wide rivers, and creeks. And finally, more stable and compact open-water shells handle the choppy waters of the bay and beyond.

As for the rowing itself, there can be one to eight people in the boat. There's sculling, when each rower has two oars, and sweep, with rowers in the boat manning a single oar each. All rowers sit on sliding seats on metal tracks, allowing for a smooth, clean stroke that uses leg, back, and arm muscles ― a total, nonimpact workout.

Just ask 54-year-old Smith. "I've had three hip replacements ― not due to rowing ― and I'm still out on the water almost daily. Like I said ― what could be better?"

Local rowing clubs and events

Get gliding at these locations (listed from north to south). All offer inexpensive or free instruction for beginners, and several sponsor fall regattas.

PETALUMA

North Bay Rowing Club. Hosts the Petaluma River Marathon on Sep 19. www.northbayrowingclub.org or 707/769-2003.

LARKSPUR

Marin Rowing Association. www.marinrowing.org or 415/461-1431.

SAUSALITO

Open Water Rowing Center. www.owrc.com or 415/332-1091.

SAN FRANCISCO

UCSF Rowing Club. www.recsports.ucsf.edu/clubs/#rowing or 415/675-9744.

Bridge to Bridge Regatta. Sep 12. www.south-end.org or 415/661-7676.

OAKLAND

Lake Merritt Rowing Club. www.rowlakemerritt.org or 510/273-9041.

Head of the Estuary Regatta. Oct 31. www.jlac.org or 510/208-6060.

REDWOOD CITY

Bair Island Aquatic Center. www.gobair.org or 650/474-2247.

LOS GATOS

Los Gatos Rowing Club. www.lgrc.org or 408/566-9406.

SANTA CRUZ

Santa Cruz Rowing Club. Hosts the annual Lobster Row on Oct 3. www.scrowing.org or 831/438-1451.