The Sacramento Row

By Susanne Friedrich

Call it serendipity. Someone dropped out the day before the row started. I got his spot in the boat. That evening I rushed to gather the gear they told me to gather: a sleeping bag, T-shirts, sweaters, a hat, sunscreen, gloves, and food for the trip.

It was June of 1996. I had joined the Dolphin Club only five weeks before. Of the infamous Sacramento row, I had only seen some pictures tacked up on the wall of the gally that showed sunburned rowers in funny outfits and someone told me that the experience would redefine pain for me. “Good enough,” I thought.

At 4:30 am the next morning, I arrived at the club. It was still dark, the Bay lay quiet and black and the lights of Ghirardelli reflected on the water. Twelve sleepy and dishevelled rowers got their gear together, packed the boats and assembled for the traditional picture on the dock. I was to be one of only two women on the trip. On the dock I met Deb Henning, and she whispered to me: “Have they told you about peeing in the jug?” Actually, no one had mentioned this delicate detail to me and it was too late to spend much time pondering its implications.

At 5 am three boats, the “Cronin”, the “Farrell” and the “Hughes”, glided out onto the calm, dark waters of the Bay. The sleeping city slowly retreated into the distance as we passed Alcatraz and rowed toward Tiburon. I was first on the oars with Gabe Scurlock, our boat captain, at 22 the youngest one aboard. Steve Counsellman and Padraic Doyle sat aft and stern. After 30 minutes we switched and rowed on past Angel Island, Tiburon and toward the Richmond – San Rafael Bridge. Dawn came, but the sky remained cloudy and grey and there was a cool breeze. Our boats slowly made their way through Carquinez Strait toward San Pablo Bay. I began wondering, what I would talk about with these virtual strangers, who were to be my companions for the next 3 days.

At noon we reached our first destination, Benicia Marina. We docked, used a real bathroom and had a quick lunch. Then we continued rowing. The sky gradually cleared and the water began to look aqua. We rowed past islands covered in tall grasses, and all I could see was the grass, the water and the sky. Sometimes fish leapt out of the water and fell back with a splash. My companions talked about past boattrips and fishing. I listened to their voices while the water of the bay lazily drifted by. Padraic knew the names of many birds we saw: blue and white herons, swallows, pipers. He told the story of the dyslexic, insomniac philosopher, who is up all night wondering if DOG really exists.

We rowed 14 hours that day. 30 minutes rowing, 30 minutes resting in the bow. After a few hours my wrists began to ache and I had blisters on both hands, in spite of the gloves I wore.

Rowing became Zen. I focused on how my hands gripped the oar, how the oars entered the water, how my back muscles felt pulling through, how my thighs pushed. I listened to the sound of the water gurgling past the hull and the “clack-clack” of the oarlocks. Breathing and being completely in the moment. “Be one with your butt” as Gabe put it.

At 7 pm, exhausted, we reached the first day’s destination, Brannon Island, and found a beautiful campsite overlooking the river. We dragged our gear from the boats and broke out the food and the beer. I took a shower, 5 minutes for a quarter. Jimmy Sancimino started to barbeque sausages, and Jon Bielinski was passing around wonderful poundcake, but I was too exhausted to really get excited about food. One by one, we began rolling up in sleeping bags on the grass. As I drifted off to sleep I could see the stars overhead and hear the wind in the trees.

Day 2

The next morning dawned sunny and warm.
Everyone was up and ready to go by 8 am, motivated by the promise of breakfast in Rio Vista, just a few miles from our camping spot. I wrapped both my hands in tape as a protection against further blisters and we launched the boats once more.

In Rio Vista we sat down for breakfast at Stripers Cafe. After bacon and eggs and lots of thin coffee, we headed for the bait and tackle store, where Steve bought a rubberworm and 60 lb testline, to try to get some of those fish that were jumping around in the river. Back at the dock some of us jumped in the water for a swim, clothes and all, we said goodbye to the assembled locals who had come to check out our boats, and we were off again.

It was around 11 by now, the sky blue as watercolor and the sun warm on my skin and it was good to be out on the river. Slowly we got into the rhythm of rowing again, changing teams every half hour. When I wasn’t rowing I sat in the bow, watching the water flow by. We entered the Sacramento River and someone spotted, in a thicket of trees, a fig tree, full of fruit, dark and ripe. We steered right into the bushes and Gabe and Steve climbed up there to get a bag full of figs.

We rowed on and there by a dock a man and his little daughter were pulling a basket full of crayfish from the water. I had never seen crayfish, and we pulled up to get a better look and chat with them. The little girl had blond curly hair and a sweet face and she brought me a crayfish and said: “Now you know what Crawdaddys look like.”
When we took off again, the man called after us: “If you get buzzed by an airplane in about an hour, that’s us.” We waved good bye and I thought this was starting to become an interesting day.

Soon we were distracted again, because Steve let out a yell and began pulling in his line and to our amazement, there was a huge striped bass hooked on it. We were all very excited and Steve killed the fish by hitting it over the head with an empty Anchor Steam bottle. I took a picture of Steve and the fish and the guys talked about Lunker Junction, which apparently was some mythical fishing spot they all knew from a previous trip.

Meanwhile our boat had fallen way behind the other two boats. Maybe because it was a larger and heavier boat than the “Cronin” and the “Farrell”, maybe because we strategically slowed down to troll under the shady trees by the riverbank for more fish and maybe because the river had by now become some big playground with so many diversions, that being ahead of the others didn’t seem that important any more.

At lunchtime we finally met up with the other boats and Steve had to show everyone his great catch. We went swimming, chatted with the others and took off again in good spirits.

It wasn’t long, before we heard a noise in the air and a blue ultralight airplane appeared. We recognized our crayfishing friends. They flew so low that I could clearly see the man and his daughter in the open cockpit waving, then they made a steep turn, went way up in the air and dove down again to buzz us one more time, and we all waved and shouted.

We met up with the other boats again further up the river, where there just happened to be a first class rope swing suspended from a very high branch of a tree. John Kortum was the first one to try it out. He climbed onto the exposed root of the tree on the riverbank, grabbed the rope high up and leapt into the air. The rope made a graceful and long swing, John let go with a yell and splashed into the water. Then Steve and Gabe and I had a turn. The trip began to feel like summer camp for adults.

We were now looking forward to the famed Crayfish dinner and Margaritas at “Delilah’s Cortland Docks Marina”, and did some serious rowing and consulting the chart. At 3 pm the three boats docked at “Delilah’s” and twelve hungry, thirsty rowers descended on the shady porch overlooking the dock and ordered pitchers of Margaritas. We toasted a great trip. Delilah herself brought plates full of bright red, boiled crawfish, with little dishes full of melted butter and sliced lemons and baskets full of french fries. She taught us how to break these critters apart and eat some parts and suck out others. Jimmy Sancimino claimed, the brown gooey stuff in the head was the liver and good to eat, but some of us were suspicious of a thing whose liver was in its head and preferred the tails, which were like small lobstertails. The conversation was enlivened by alcohol and Jon Bielinski made us get back on the river before we could become too loud and obnoxious.

We still had 15 miles to row that day.

The evening was warm and we all were tired and started looking at the chart more often to see how much further we had to go. The two other boats had pulled way ahead of ours once more and had apparently spread word of our catch every chance they got, because fishermen, who were camped out by the banks of the river, often called to us: “A boat came by here about 30 minutes ago and they say you caught a fish”. Then Steve pulled out “The Fish” from the cooler, where it rested among the remaining Anchor Steam bottles, and proudly hoisted it in the air to the astounded onlookers. So we became part of the river lore, known and revered before we even arrived.

We became tired and silly and giggled endlessly. We rowed through the dusk and watched the moon rise in the darkening sky. The fishermen and women on the shores lit lanterns. We shortened our rowing shifts to 20 minutes, and pulling the oars became more and more difficult. The last mile or so we did one final, incredible sprint into Freeport Marina. I had dinner by flashlight with my boat mates. We discovered that Padraic had stashed away great delicacies: smoked turkey and a good loaf of bread, avocado and Asiago cheese. We made huge sandwiches and there was more beer. It had been an incredible day and now the trip was almost over. Before I could get sad, I fell asleep.

In the morning, we set off on an easy 9 mile row and arrived in Sacramento at last. It was very hot and we spent a long time unpacking our gear at Miller Park Beach, where dozens of jetskiers zoomed about making a lot of noise. Bob David set up everyone for the official picture. We packed the boats on top of Paul’s and Jon’s trucks and then headed for the park. There we had a BBQ picnic, consisting of Italian sausages, sourdough bread, fresh peas and fresh corn, green salad and salmon. We finally ate Steve’s fish, grilled to perfection and had time to all sit together and talk about our incredible experience and compare blisters. There was more beer, more champagne, some speeches, another swim and we finally piled into the cars to drive back to San Francisco.

All agreed, it had been a wonderful Sacramento Row.