The sight of Karachi’s old landmarks and mangroves, and the undying spirit of women rowers from the Karachi Boat Club make for an unforgettable sojourn into the seas.
“Oars in the water, 90 degrees catch and row!” commands the coach. “Fixed seat rowing, full body lean, quarter seat, half seat, full seat! Row with 25 per cent power, 50 per cent power, full power! Kill yourselves! Balance! Timing, crew! Clear your oars! Kick power! Square your blades!” he fires.
“Bow side pressure, now stroke side pressure! Set your pace! Check your puddles! Hold, catch, drive, finish, quick recovery and flick! No feathering! No crabbing! Control, crew!” It sounds like a re-enactment of Ben Hur’s famous rowing scene with the galley slaves: “Ramming speed! Battleship speed!” When we are close to collapsing, it becomes “Easy, crew. Good job! Back to the club. Light rowing.”
So, who are ‘we’? We are Tariq’s Angels and Cherub. We row in winter, summer and winter again, on weekends and weekdays. We row for pleasure, practice and a purpose. We have friendly races between ourselves (not so easy when we all want the same thing, but we manage) and club regattas (by the way, we fall in the Masters category). We have warm ups and cool downs, we have drills and races; we row up to the Native Jetty Bridge and then down to the Pump House, and stop at the Karachi Boat Club (KBC) after a few rounds. The Black Pontoon and the mysterious old Nusserwanji Sea Scouts Headquarters, now almost down to its knees, are milestones in trackless water. Sometimes we row along the six kilometre perimetre of China Creek, around the nucleus of mangrove islands, with Boat Basin up ahead, and then down the settlement of Gulshan-e-Sikandarabad along the bridge and the port, heading back to the club at the end. Once in a while, we would do a special unforgettable traipse into the Karachi Port waters.
We were just some random women coming to row and gym at the KBC. Then entered Coach Tariq, with his passion to take on insurmountable challenges, and we became his next mission: a women’s Masters team. He recruited us from the boats and the gym. If he hadn’t taken me on board, I would not have been rowing today the way I do.
Tariq brought us together in a team and gave us a purpose. He inspired, enabled and empowered us to believe that we could row competitively and make up a national team (we won gold and silver at the Quaid-e-Azam National Regatta held this year in Islamabad). His passion pulled us out of bed and into the boats armed with sunblock, sunglasses, caps and ORS. Tariq rowed with us and alongside us, sharing tips and tricks. He gave us our rowing, drill and gym circuit regimens and charts. He monitored our progress on the erg (indoor rowers) and the boats. He filmed us to point out areas of improvement. He paired and raced us. He briefed us on a sportsman’s diet, overseeing our early morning intake of nuts, bananas and milk.
At first we were shaky and nervous. It was scary navigating in the water in those small shells. We would constantly be on the watch out, afraid of colliding with another boat. We would backsplash so much that we would be soaked right through with dirty water in our eyes, ears, nose and throat. We would row into mudflats when we did not recognise the shallow water ripple effect and then would have to get off into the squelchy sludge to retrieve the boat. Sometimes, we would be driven with the current into the mangroves and, sometimes, into the pillars under the bridge. Some of us collided and capsized. Our hands would be covered with scratches, bruises, blisters and bandages as we learnt to balance the oars. But, slowly and surely, we rose to the occasion.
Now it is sheer joy to command the boat, to make it change direction with just a turn of the oar, to hear the gentle whoosh when the oars dip in water and slice it, propelling the boat with a kick, to watch it glide across the water, and in the end, taking the boat back home to the club (which I can manage better than parallel parking!).
Simeen is our glue and organiser/facilitator/spokesperson; we call her Momma, and she often brings us home-baked goodies. Annabel, the rowing machine, manages to smile — through gritted teeth, I suspect — at the idiosyncrasies of laid-back sub-continental life. Shehla goes for gold like a predator does for the jugular. The club resonates with her effervescent laughter. Sabina, the layman, encourages and guides us with her experience. Maliha has learnt from life to not sweat the small stuff. Khadija’s relaxed temperament matches my own and we often pair up for drills. Aamir, the cheeky Cherub, lightens up the place with his humour. Harris is our volunteer photographer; his outstanding shots make it look like we row in the Amazon. With my oversized sunglasses and straw hat, I look more like a nature lover than a sportsman, and can easily wander off on an exploration into the mangroves if left on my own.
I can’t help it, really. It’s the creek’s fault. You’ll feel that way too if you see the fabulous early morning sunrise through the mist that glimmers on the sublime scene of China Creek dotted with mangrove thickets. From between the columns of the bridge you get glimpses of Karachi Harbour. The water is alive with shoals of fish creating magical, shimmery and mesmerising patterns just below the surface as they fight to devour loaves of bread thrown from over the bridge by sawab-seekers looking to cleanse themselves of sins. When flying fish breach the water right next to your little row boat, it’s as exciting as Atlantic whale sightings.
The mangroves are a sanctuary for over sixty species of resident and migratory birds (gulls, coots, terns, pelicans, flamingos, osprey, waders, herons, egrets, stilts and cormorants) that wade in the low tide and vie with fishermen paddling in the marshes with nets trawling for fish and shrimp: Nusserwanji crumbles like the mysterious castle of Shallot.
“By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers”
Add some rainfall and monsoon winds hurling waves at your boat and you’ll get the picture. That’s not to say it’s Olympic standard. The creek is constantly under threat, and on bad days it looks and smells like a sewage drain. Footwear, used diapers, bottles, the odd matka, bread, Styrofoam, plastic bags, clothes and other such garbage sails down the creek. You can tell when there’s been a holiday and people have flocked to the beach when their trash flows into the creek the next day. Sometimes you can see blotches of oil/chemical and dead fish in their wake. Thankfully, Karachi’s winds soon send off the garbage on a tide to its next unfortunate destination. Sewage and chemical waste have made the water toxic, but the creek continues to fight back.
Arif Ikram, the Master of Boats at KBC, keeps the show alive and kicking. The coaches know everyone by name and train them patiently. The khalasis (port workers) run the cycle of taking the boats out, launching them and bringing them back in smoothly. The rowing calendar is booked chock-a-block with in-house, interschool, national and international regattas. The events are organised by the Regatta Committee, which is a group of dedicated volunteers from a wide range of industries, and supported by the Managing Committee of the KBC.
While the seniors bring their skill, school children bring in fresh blood. Newcomers test the waters nervously while the oldies smile and watch knowingly. They know there will be no turning back. The School Rowing Programme has initiated a growing number of students and schools into the sport, including students from the Karachi Grammar School, Bayview Academy, D.A. Public School, Habib Public School, The Citizens Foundation School, The Lyceum School, SMB Fatima Jinnah School and the C.A.S. School. The fourth Inter-school Regatta, held this year, had more than 200 participants from 17 schools even though it was restricted to only A teams. Through the School Rowing Programme, students have even gained scholarships to foreign colleges like Mount Holyoke and Notre Dame.
Rowing teaches you important life skills. It re-enforces the spirit of teamwork, co-operation, sharing and caring. It teaches you to help others and also to accept and ask for help. It encourages you to reach up to those above you, and pull up those below you. It trains you to watch out for signs of trouble, like mudflats, and avoid them. It teaches you that when other boats leave dirty water that may topple your boat, you hang on to your balance and sit it out, and hence you survive without capsizing. On the water you have to manage with what you have, whether you’ve got a heavy or a light boat, the junior oars or senior oars, a rickety gate, loose seat or oversized shoes. You have to finish the course as best as you can. It takes luck, skill and hard work to succeed, and even if you have all three, somebody else may win. You have to accept it and try again.
Above all, it teaches us the most important lesson: no matter what happens, don’t stop rowing.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 25th, 2012.