The Vineyard’s two Cornish pilot gigs, Grace and Cassie (named for the late Steamship Authority board members Grace Grossman of Nantucket and Kathryn “Cassie” Roessel of Vineyard Haven), were built between 2004 and 2006 by community volunteers under the direction of Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven. Pilot gigs, open-sea rowing boats, date back to the late seventeenth century. They measure thirty-two feet long with a beam just under five feet, oars up to thirteen feet long, and seating for a team of six. Since 2006, the gigs and the year-round rowing program have been owned and operated by Sail Martha’s Vineyard in Vineyard Haven.
Beth Kramer moved to the Vineyard twenty years ago. Before becoming the director of the West Tisbury Free Public Library, she and her husband, Douglas Reid, a former chef at Chilmark’s Beach Plum Inn, owned and operated Biga bakery in North Tisbury (they still sell Biga’s baked goods at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market). A former yoga instructor, she joined the West Tisbury Library staff in 2006 as a circulation assistant. She’s a regular participant in the rowing program and talks with CK Wolfson about the overall experience, which is open to women and men.
Did you begin rowing as a test of your physical ability?
No, not at all. I used to watch the boats from the ferry and was really intrigued. Then, when I became library director in 2007, I got so focused on my work, it was easy to forget that I was on an island. This was a way to get me on the water and into nature. My co-worker Nelia Decker [the children’s librarian] is a rower and suggested I come as a guest. It was just before Thanksgiving, cold and crisp, 6:30 in the morning, and a beautiful way to start the day. I liked it immediately, liked the way the oars felt in my hands, liked sitting in the seat, and liked being on the water – liked everything about it.
What is the typical routine?
It’s absolutely different each time according to the water, what’s happening that day to each of us, the wind, and where we row – something the coxswain [who assumes charge, navigates, and coordinates the rowers] decides. We usually meet at Gannon & Benjamin at 6:30 in the morning, row for an hour. I go out two mornings a week, but some row once a week, others three times a week.
What skills do you need to do this successfully?
You need to be able to stretch forward and back. Your arm strength will develop. You don’t even dip your oar all the way down in the water. You’re just supposed to skim it. We have women in their seventies doing this.
How important to the experience is being part of a team?
It’s huge. It’s the team that moves the boat. I love that the six of us together make this beautiful boat move. If there’s a day when any of us can’t make it, we get a substitute. The boat needs at least four to row and a coxswain. I row Wednesdays and Thursdays with two different groups. I’m not the world’s most social creature, but this is a great way to meet interesting people.
Has the weekly rowing changed you?
I’ve learned a lot about the water, about wind, tide, currents, safety tips, and boating etiquette. It makes you feel you’re part of something important. It’s a lot more fun that I thought. I thought it would be having someone yell, “Pull!” through a megaphone, but it isn’t like that at all. On the whole, it’s just enjoying being on the water. The days that I row versus the days that I don’t row are as different as night and day. I feel much more energized after the row.
How do you deal with winter rowing?
You learn how to dress – gloves, hats, scarves. We bundle up in layers. We do wade out but we wear boots so our feet don’t get wet, and other than that, we stay dry. For years I wore rain boots with a lot of socks, but last year my husband bought me a proper pair of Bogs [insulated, waterproof boots]. My mother, Joanie Hopkins, who’s eighty, knit everyone colorful wool hats with pom-poms. We also have rules: When it’s below twenty degrees or blowing more than twenty knots, we don’t go out. We do go out when it snows but not when it’s really raining. We carry a lifeboat when the water gets below fifty-two degrees, and we have a training session in cold-water submersion given by Dr. [Michael] Jacobs [of West Tisbury] – a great class, something I recommend for anyone who’s on the water.
What’s the hardest part?
Sometimes if you’re tired, it’s just waking up in the morning and doing it.
Have you had any unusual experiences?
I’ve done some goofy things. One time I was the coxswain and we rowed out to the edge of where the Steamship is and suddenly we bounced backward – I’d neglected to untie the line. Another time, I think it was my second time as coxswain, I was holding the two lines that work the rudder and I’m calling directions but we’re not moving in the right direction. It was because the lines got twisted behind me and I was pulling the rudder in the wrong direction.
What keeps you doing this?
One thing that keeps me connected is being part of a group of people who know you and care about you and who expect to see you. And it’s magical. You watch the moon go down and the sun come up. I love it. In the winter when it’s cold and it’s dark, it’s even more amazing. It’s the real joy of being on the water.