`The Greatest Fitness Exercise That Exists'

In each sport there is one perfect moment, and always one perfect word that describes it. In sculling it's called flow, and like all things perfect, one works for it always, sometimes closing up on it, but seldom obtaining it--and even less often holding it. To be in flow is to match oars to water, body to boat, in perfect balance and motion, such that each stroke seems to move the scull faster.

Flow used to be one very expensive perfect moment--reserved for those of privileged schooling and the sort of discretionary cash lying about to buy and maintain the sleek, delicate shells of ultrathin hardwood skin.

EASY UPKEEP. Now, it's almost cheap. These days, one can buy a decent scull for about the price of a fine racing bike, $2,000 to $3,000. That includes everything but oars, which may run several hundred more. You can cut the price in half if you buy a used boat. Maintenance is almost nil, since almost all sculls are now made of fiberglass or composites. Club dues, if you join one, may set you back $200 a year, and figure in another several hundred to rent a rack at a boathouse. (You could hang it in your garage, but you'll need a deep one--25-plus feet--and then you must tow it to the water.)

Healthwise, the investment is easy to justify. "With rowing, not only do you use every damn muscle you own, you use them in a full range of motion," says exercise guru Covert Bailey. "It's systemic, and it's probably the greatest fitness exercise that exists."

Rowing is a booming sport, attracting some 100,000 participants, twice what it drew a few years ago. Many are former college rowers who are returning, often to race in Masters adult competitions run by the U.S. Rowing Assn. (317 237-5656). But it's also drawing hordes of baby boomers, men and women, whose battered bodies are forcing them to quit running and other highimpact sports. Rowing, like biking and swimming, is trauma free. A workout can actually strengthen joints damaged in other sports.

Another reason for rowing's new popularity is growing accessibility. The exclusive ivy-draped boathouses still exist, but they are far outnumbered by clubs whose only prerequisite for membership is a passion for rowing and modest dues. Some 650 clubs are spread across the U.S. Many are in coastal cities, but a surprising number of them are in the Midwest and the South.

But one needn't join a club. Local governments have dumped billions into developing riverfronts and lakefronts for boating--building ramps, docks, and even boathouses that serve rowers. One can scull just about anyplace in America where there's water.

The real trick to the sport is buying the right scull. Generally, there are three types: racing, ocean, and recreational. Ocean boats are the clunkiest, weighing 40 pounds or more and measuring 25 feet in length and 2 1/2 feet across. They're also the most versatile. They can be rowed in the ocean, and they are raced in open waters such as San Francisco Bay. Recreational sculls are lighter, narrower, and a foot or so longer, too tipsy for open water but just fine for lakes and rivers. Last is the racer: At 27 feet, 10 to 12 inches wide, and a scant 22 to 25 pounds, it is a marvel of speed and engineering.

Conventional wisdom says only competitive rowers should consider racers and everyone else should start on a recreational scull. That's bum advice, say experts. A common mistake of new scullers is buying shells they quickly outgrow; the scull that seems impossible to handle on the first outing can feel like a tugboat by week's end. As with skis, buy ahead of yourself and choose the scull you'll find challenging two years from now.

SOLITUDE. One smart way to sample different shells is to join a club and try out those of other members. Another is to attend sculling camp. Craftsbury, in Craftsbury Common, Vt. (800 729-7751), offers a week's schooling for less than $700, including meals and housing, and weekend courses for about $400. Other schools can be found in American Rowing, published by the U.S. Rowing Assn., which also lists coming regattas and runs ads for used sculls and equipment.

Rowing has its drawbacks. You need a body of water at least a mile across, and that's only good for five or six minutes before you have to turn around. Rivers are better, but they can't be very busy, as it only takes a little wake to swamp a scull. Also, sculling is time-consuming, when you consider the hours and effort of getting the boat to water. And the sport is solitary: only one butt per boat.

But these are minor impediments in pursuit of the perfect moment. Some things in life you just have to do by yourself to get them right, even if it means spending an entire summer afternoon out on the water.

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