In The Metamorphosis, a man slowly changes into a cockroach. After reading the story, and thinking on it for a half-day, I had decided that to worry about being turned into an insect, when there were more likely pressing dangers was absurd. Yet, as we made our slow and ponderous upstream turn, our boat and all of its occupants, including myself were molting into a caterpillar. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, but like Gregor Samsa, I could not fight my fate.
Our red hull was our spiny exoskeleton. Each of us, firmly rooted in our seats became legs firmly fixed in sockets. Moreover, as a recently hatched caterpillar, we had a dainty and distinctive walk that gingerly plodded across the surface of the water. We were a clumsy hatchling. Before, when we had individual minds, our oars had skimmed the surface in fleet motions. Now, our collective fatigued brain sent conflicting messages to each leg, causing limbs to become tangled, and our motion to inch forward in a jumbled foxtrot. In the past, the wind had caught our backs and blown us gently forward. Now, a gale swept down on each exposed element of flesh, driving us away from our destination. Previously, we had been lithe and full of vigor as we chopped water away from our hull. Presently, each swell threatened to capsize our forward progress, casting us underwater and possibly drowning us.
As quickly as the mirage had started, it was over. We were lurching about in an ungainly manner, turning for the second race. I shook my head in a puzzled manner, wondering if the eight minds in front of me had experienced the same bizarre dream. I was certain of one thing: it had taken us at least two lifetimes to paddle back up the river to the starting line to compete in the final heat. Next to our boat, leviathan shaped brutes with identical haircuts and expressions sat stonily in their waiting sculls. Every atom of my arms ached with tired anger. Formerly closed mostly healed blisters had opened at some point in the last fifteen minutes and were staining my oar to match the boat.
Wearily, my eyes were drifting along waves when the starting pistol fired off. My body jolted automatically and began to pull relentlessly. Impossibly, in the first two seconds, our competitors were five boat lengths ahead. I concentrated on breathing, and ignored all else. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that our previously even rowing had disappeared. It was now as if the rear of the boat was attempting to row in an entirely different direction than all of us at the bow.
This observation caromed around in my head for five or six strokes, before I decided that it might be a good idea to listen to our coxswain for once. It was easy not to listen to him, because his attempts to motivate involved him uttering a constant stream of four letter words that quickly became white noise. This phenomenon was decidedly unfortunate, because for once, he was yelling something important.
“No! No! Turn! Pull! Port side pull! We’re going to run aground!” He pled hopelessly.
Days of practice had conditioned me to never really watch where we were going. After all, that was really the coxswain’s job. My job was to be a strong back. But when someone states that you’re going to run aground, all training goes out the window. I looked up, just in time to see the brown bank approaching. Seconds later, with a sucking non-crashing sound, the stern of our boat was aground. It was utterly humiliating. Not only were the other boats nowhere to be seen, we were way off course, and on dry land. It was exactly the sort of debacle all of us had secretly expected to happen in our first race.
For a couple minutes, all of us sat stunned and did nothing at all. Throughout all of our training, we had never covered what to do if we ran aground. Finally, we tried moving the boat with the oars. Nothing happened. The mud seemed to have set like concrete. Eventually, Party and I had to extricate ourselves from the boat, plod through the clinging quicksand silt and push the boat out into open water. Then we frantically had to swim back to the boat which was floating downstream. Eventually, mud-streaked, soaked, and utterly worn out, we crossed the finish line, twenty minutes after the competition. Afterwards, we went home in total silence reflecting on our racing record of one win and seven losses. When I got back to my dorm room, I kissed the grimy floor in delight. I swore that I was not ever going on another crew excursion again.