A group of Catonsville mothers are taking the nursery rhyme 'Row, row your boat' to heart.
Erica Mah, Trish Miller, Kathleen Cummings, Julie Baldi, Andrea Sommers, Christy Durst, Barbara Schuessler, Kelly Fox and Maureen Rosenbloom are part of a group that has taken to rowing like a bird takes to flight, despite having little previous experience with the sport.
The nine women have 21 kids, ranging in age from three to 19, which means trying to find peace, tranquillity and exercise in their lives during the school year was nearly impossible.
That's why Mah decided to organize the 'Row like a Mother' crew last fall.
The women practice under the guidance of Catonsville resident and coach Karyn Shackelford or Baltimore Rowing Club President Jeff Ditter on the Patapsco River off Middle Branch Park twice a week during eight-week sessions in the fall and spring.
The group meets every Wednesday and Friday during those sessions from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., which gives the moms a chance to drop their kids off at school and pick them up by noon if they are in pre-school.
Although the spring session, which included 24 rowers, ended with the close of the calendar school year in mid-June, the aforementioned eight mothers and Mah competed in the Charm City Regatta on June 29. The nine were selected based on their availability on race day.
The crew had to compete in the Women's Novice 8+ Division against just one other boat and they finished just five seconds (about two and a half strokes) behind the boat from the Capital Rowing Club
That said, competition is not solely what drew these women to the water near the Hanover Street Bridge.
"We do competitive rowing, but it's more for fitness," said Mah, 38, who along with Cummings are the youngest of the rowers.
"When you get out on the water, it is so peaceful," said Fox, mother of boys 9 and 7. "You are not thinking about what you have to do. All you can think about is what you are doing in that boat."
New rowers have to take an initial introductory course and, if they want to continue, their is a $125 fee for a yearly membership and $150 for each session.
Included in the spring group is Schuessler, 48, who isn't afraid to admit she was the oldest of the Catonsville moms to compete in the Charm City Regatta.
"My kids are old enough to be baby-sitting their kids and that is what they do a lot of times," said Schuessler, who runs her own music studio at her home for the past 25 years.
She can certainly relate to the synchronized rapture of the rowers.
"It definitely has a rhythm to it," said Schuessler, who never played a sport before she started rowing. "I've never done anything athletic before."
She said she was "petrified" when she first started, but knew it was for the best.
"Mid-life, you feel like you need to start venturing out of your comfort zone and trying new things and stretch your boundaries a little bit," she said. "Otherwise, you kinda get stuck in a rut — and I didn't want to do that."
Schuessler's 19 and 17-year olds appreciate her new venture.
"I know my family thinks this is the coolest thing mom has ever done," she said. "Around the house they are always saying, 'Row, mama, row.'"
Being a part of a team makes it even more special.
"I've played basketball, volleyball, soccer and field hockey, but this is so intricately dependent upon every single member of the team," said Rosenbloom, whose family, that includes kids 14,12 and 7, moved to Catonsville from New Zealand about a year ago.
She hoped by joining the group she would meet more people, but has been rewarded in many other ways as well.
Nevertheless, challenges abound on the river, mainly because the wind doesn't always cooperate.
They also have to negotiate through fishermen and crabbers crowding the docks. Even worse, were the blisters the women accumulated on their hands and fingers after the first few practice sessions.
"Every one has seen it on the Olympics, and they make it look so easy and beautiful. When they are out there, they realize it's more of a team sport than any other sport I can think of," said Mah, whose children are 7 and 8.
Getting out there also requires the women to lug 60-foot boats — often referred to as shells because their hulls are rarely more than a 1/4 of an inch deep — weighing 250 pounds down a ramp and into the water.
"That surprised everybody," said Mah. "I don't think they expected that the first time they saw those long boats. You don't see that on the Olympics."
"We are well-trained from lifting kids," joked Miller, a mother of three kids.
Carrying the boat pales in comparison to rowing it in unison with each rower assigned to a single oar.
"It looks so easy, but it's not. There are so many tiny variables that go into it," said Miller, who has water skied, wind surfed and paddle boarded, but never rowed before. "Every little move that you make affects every little thing that goes on in the entire boat."
"I like being part of a team and working together, and it's kind of fun doing something new," said Durst, who joined the squad after her youngest of three children started kindergarten.
Like Durst, Cummings wanted to try the sport, but was reluctant because of the busy mornings and evenings that conflicted with her three kids, ages 10, 7 and 5.
"We kept saying, 'We can't do it in the evening with kids and I wish there was something during the day when the kids were in school,' and that is how it started," said Cummings who is an athletic trainer. "It's like a mini-vacation. You send the kids to school and you are back home before lunch to still do all your mommy things before the kids get home."
There are no cell phones on the water and very little idle chit-chat. Focus is on the guidance of Mah, the crew's coxswain and the only person on board facing the direction the shell is heading.
"It's a very technical sport, so you have to focus on what you are doing," Cummings said.
Even though some of the moms entered a 5,000-meter race in Occoquan, Va. in the fall, most of the crew seeks more personal benefits from their efforts.
"For us, this is one of the first things many of us have fully committed to in our motherhood that is about us," Mah said. "There is a calming thing about it. It's like getting therapy and exercise all in one."