I n that peaceful hour before dawn, as the Mystic River meanderssilently past Somerville, the blackness of the water is broken bythe twinkle of street lights, the serenity of the autumn morninginterrupted only by the sound of crickets playing their own versionof rap music.
While the rest of us slumber, the morning comes alive at 5:30 at
Blessing of the Bay Boathouse on Shore Drive in Somerville whennine stout-hearted men begin a curious daily ritual of jumping jacksand the stretchhh-ing of delts, quads, obliques, and other musclesthe rest of us probably couldn't locate with a 3-D version of Gray'sAnatomy.
Five times a week, members of the Gentle Giant Rowing Club limberup, launch their 60-foot shell, and climb aboard to row,
row, row the Mystic River and test their speed, strength, stamina,and timing in one of the most physically demanding of sports.
As rowers complete their warm-ups, on the dock are oars,knapsacks, and bottled water. Not on the dock - and in fact, nowherein sight - is there a soft tummy, a jellied muscle, or a dimple ofcellulite.
The rowing club started up last year with a $40,000 donation fromGentle Giant Moving Co., whose owner, Larry O'Toole, is an avidrower. The club leased the boathouse from the MDC and began rentingequipment. One year later, it owns boats, launches, and a gym for its190 members, who pay periodic fees of $75 to $473. The rowing clubalso provides subsidized classes for teenagers and offers trainingprograms, in the mornings and evenings, for adults who range fromnovice ('Hey, these seats slide!') to an international team thatwill compete in October in the largest two-day regatta in the world,Boston's Head of the Charles.
'Our company has a sense of social responsibility, or whatever youwant to call it,' says O'Toole, 51, a native of Ireland who rowed atNortheastern University and founded Gentle Giant Moving in 1980.
Along with its growth in popularity among rowers, the Mystic Rivermay be in for its 15 minutes of national notoriety with the releasenext month of Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of Dennis Lehane'sbest-selling mystery, 'Mystic River,' starring Tim Robbins, SeanPenn, and Kevin Bacon.
The Charles River was named for British royalty, but the Mystic isBoston's working-class river. While rowers on the Charles steer theirshells past the stately architecture of Harvard and the Back Bay,more and more crews are seen on the Mystic these days, musclingtheir boats within sight of factories and power plants and strainingto hear commands of the coxswain above the roar of an Orange Linetrain rattling toward Wellington Station.
What lies within the souls of rowers - otherwise normal people -that, day after day, they roll out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and into aboat to punish their bodies so?
'Well, when you hear the bubbles and feel the boat pick up speed,'says Gracio Garcia, 25, codirector of the rowing club, along withAllan Gehant, also 25, 'it just gives you the chills.'
The oldest in the boat is Garth Brown, 44, a banker and formerrugby player who rises at 4:15 every weekday to drive from Ipswichand row even in snow.
'I love the challenge, physical, mental, and even technical, interms of body position, timing, when body parts move, keeping theboat set, determining when the blade goes in and comes out, how highout of water, where your hands are, how you feather the oar with onehand and pull with the other. And after you drive, after you take thestroke with all your power, you have to shift to nice and easy forthe back-up slide.
'Think of it this way - it's the equivalent of eight guys alltrying to do the perfect golf swing at the same time, all together,400 times in a row.'
At a few minutes before 6, the crew members clamber aboard theDirigo, adjust themselves on sliding seats, and push away from thepier. Suddenly, the stillness is pierced by the roar of a 15-horsepower outboard, and the coach, Ian Coveny, 28, steers a 14-footdory from the pier and into their wake.
Most of the men have moved recently from recreational tocompetitive rowing, and they are vying with 16 other members for oneof eight seats in a second boat the club will sponsor in the Head ofthe Charles regatta.
Coveny rowed at Northeastern and for the United States nationalteam, then retired last year after suffering injuries to whichrowers are vulnerable: stress fractures in his rib and a torn rotatorcuff.
When he has observed the shell for 10 minutes, Coveny signals thecoxswain to stop, then pulls alongside, cuts the engine, and standsin the dinghy with a bullhorn.
'Looks like some guys have rowed for a while and some have pickedit up recently,' he says in the darkness. 'One thing I notice acrossthe board is a lot of tension in the upper body.
'How many guys ski? I used to teach skiing, and one thing theytell you is that your upper body is along for the ride, because allthe action comes from your lower body, from your legs. Same thinghere.
'I use the easy chair analogy. Like, you're sitting in your easychair and you want your beer from a table, right? So, you leanforward. I don't think you get your beer like this,' he says,lunging. 'You just lean forward, relaxed, OK?'
Garcia, the codirector, who is originally from Brazil, learned howto row at Brookline High School and received a scholarship atNortheastern, where the rowing team is consistently ranked among thetop 10 nationally. At Northeastern, Garcia and Gehant started arowing program that in two years grew to 350 members.
After graduation, they wanted to start a rowing club, so theycollaborated with O'Toole.
But where to locate the club?
Not the Charles River. A study by Gehant showed the Charles beingused by 2,600 rowers a day, which made it, in Garcia's words, like aslalom course for rowers. They considered Jamaica Pond and theNeponset River before choosing the Mystic River.
As they wrote in an analysis for O'Toole, 'The three rowable milesoffered by the boomerang-shaped combination of the Malden and MysticRivers is hardly the rowing real estate of the nine-mile CharlesRiver Lower Basin, but many a fast crew has trained in tighterspots.'
Downriver, meanwhile, Coveny once again pulls alongside theDirigo, shuts off the engine, and as rowers lift their oars from thewater, he addresses them through the bullhorn.
'So, guys, I know these drills are boring. I used to hate them. Itwas like, God, I'm sitting here and rowing and the guy in front of me- he's got a big zit on his back that's really annoying. But I usedto row for the national team, and we'd do these drills 15 miles at atime, because they're crucial.
'Right now, guys, it's important to get the fundamentals. A lot ofthe best rowers are guys who didn't have the biggest upper bodies andwere not the best technically, but guys, they knew how to apply theirpower. In rowing, you start with your big muscles, your legs, andthen you go with your back and almost as an afterthought, your arms.
'And guys, I see a lot of tension creeping back in, so let'srelax, OK? Six seat,' he says to James Mahoney, 'you had the mostserious look of any guy I've ever seen rowing.
'Four seat,' he says, addressing Brown, 'square your back more. Iwant to see you swing your back. That's better. That's the positionyou want at the finish.'
Out of their shell, the rowers lead conventional lives. Garcia isa financial representative for the Bulfinch Group. Coveny works forthe pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. Gehant teaches atCambridge Rindge & Latin.
'We're trying to build a competitive team as fast as we can,getting recreational rowers to the more competitive level,' saysGarcia. 'The morning program is made up of more competitive racerscommitted to rowing five days a week. The evening is for people whosee rowing as more recreational.'
Among them is Lynn Ann Hajducky of Carlisle, a teacher who took upthe sport at age 51. After four months of rowing in the evening,twice a week, she says she feels stronger.
'I've made new friends of all ages from all walks of life,' shesays, 'and it's really beautiful to be on the water in the evening.'
By 7:20 in the morning, the sun is risen but hidden by heavyclouds.
'Hey, guys,' says Coveny in the final pep talk, 'I don't expectyou to be winning Head of the Charles tomorrow, because these changesdon't come overnight. But, guys, it's good, a lot better than whenyou started, a lot more uniform, and so we'll work on the same stufftomorrow. You guys are beginning to look like rowers, so let's callit a day, and nice job.'
He lowers the bullhorn and turns to the coxswain.
'Take it in.'