Picking a summer sport: sailboat racing vs. rowing

On the way back to a yacht club, on the boat Aponivi, after a sailing race. (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

I always wanted to sail and row.

Blame it on reading too many books about East Coast boarding schools as a kid, but both sports seemed to embody a storied mystique. Each with its own vocabulary. Each a vaunted, exclusive club.

Rowing and sailing were on my bucket list, activities I hoped to try in a decade, when my kids went to college and I had more time and money. But then I learned how accessible the sports are in Cleveland.

Where can you learn to sail on Lake Erie?

I had no excuse not to try both sports.

Except for my two kids, ages 5 and 7, with their plethora of weeknight baseball games and swim lessons.

My husband kindly handled all camp pick-ups and kid wrangling on Monday and Tuesday nights, so I could row and sail. I promised him this hectic pace would last one season, and then I would pick a sport to stick with.

Here’s the problem: I like both! I love heading out to the water after work, staring at the skyline as the sun sets and the air cools.

After nearly three months on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, I don’t know which sport I like more: The relentless catch-drive-recover strokes of rowing, a balance of team synchronicity and cardio burn. Or the thrill of the wind in sailing, the adrenaline of jockeying at the start line and rush of winching the jib lines.

I need your help.

Here’s a bit about both:

Rowing: About 800 adults belong to the Western Reserve Association, which has three summer and fall rowing leagues. Think of them as club, JV and varsity teams: there are casual once-a-week sessions, an intermediate group and the separate men’s and women’s masters teams, which practice about three times a week. The 15-week summer rowing leagues fill up quickly, with Clevelanders who want to try out the sport. The one-day learn-to-row sessions on spring weekends are also popular.

Megan Patton rows from novice to veteran with Western Reserve Rowing Association: Erie Interviews

My eight-person novice team went from having no idea how to hold an oar to gliding through the river with uniform strokes, eight at a time. I’ve rowed in each seat of the boat, port and starboard, stern and bow. And I’ve got the blisters to prove it.

We row down the Cuyahoga, watching the lights of Progressive Field and passing a docked freighter. We’re far from expert. But those punchy moments when you’re pulling with all your might and the boat is speeding along? You feel like you can conquer the world.

Sailing: I spent last year on a prep boat learning how to tack and cleat with NCWSA. The organization started 20 years ago when a group of women boat owners gathered to sail, but it has since morphed into a club of 120 active members and a mission to get more women involved in a male-dominated sport. This year, I joined my first NCWSA race team, competing Tuesday nights out of Edgewater Yacht Club. 

My rowing team. (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

I still can’t read the wind. I don’t know how to trim a sail to make the telltales (the little ribbons on the sail) fly more cleanly. But I can follow directions. I know how to set up the lines and raise the sails and break when we tack. My stomach flips with the thrill of racing, the boat heeling on its side as we power through waves, the ready-set-tacking of a 180-degree turn around a leeward buoy.

I’ve learned the vocabulary for both rowing and sailng, that “way enough” in rowing means to stop and that a “halyard” holds up the sail. I’ve worked my arm muscles and my back and met new friends and reveled in the glow of post-race parties. I’ve joined once insular worlds I’d always wondered about.

So now what? I don’t know.

I won’t officially have to decide on a sport until registration next spring. So I’ll mull it over. Meanwhile, tell me on Facebook which sport you like more, and why.

Who knows? Maybe I can get one of my kids to row, and one to sail. Then I can do both with them!

Share: