Canot à Glace

Feb 28, 2011


Can you handle the True North? That is, can you handle rowing in Canada in sub-zero temperatures? Last month, I tried exactly that. I was initiated to a historical sport, “Canot à Glace,” which is practiced in Quebec City on the St-Laurent seaway. The easy translation would be “Ice Canoeing,” but with all due respect, it’s rowing and not canoeing since we go backwards and use Concept2 oars instead of wooden paddles. However, given the oral tradition of the sport and how the passionate winter rowers in Quebec City have passed it down from one generation to the next, I will uphold the tradition and call it as it is in French, “Canot à Glace.” It is now part of the culture of Quebec City. There is a competitive league for the sport and the die-hard winter lovers say that it’s the best winter sport!

When asked if I would like to try the sport, I immediately jumped at the opportunity, thinking it’s just rowing in a coxed four with lots of icebergs. It turns out I was wrong!

“Canot à Glace” is actually a crossover sport between bobsleigh (bobsled) and rowing! I would even consider it more bobsleigh than rowing; from the icy shore to the open water, the four rowers and the coxswain kneel with one knee in the boat while the other leg is propelling the shell on the ice. My adventure on the St-Laurent with the DB-Zion crew was unparalleled in my 14 years of rowing and my newfound teammates showed me that rowing could be exponentially more difficult at -20 Celsius, with current and oncoming icebergs!

The peculiarities of “Canot à Glace” go beyond the obvious climate differences and can be summed up in five distinctions that are interesting to any casual summer rower:  

1. Shell: There are no official boat makers for the sport. The die-hard winter rowers in Quebec City tinker with engineers in their garages to design shells that are sturdy enough to crush through the icebergs, stable enough to row in and that have the kneeling position (la “trotte”) for all four rowers and the coxswain. The only requirement for the competitive teams that race in the five regattas each winter is the weight of the shell—a women’s hull must weigh a minimum of 225 lbs. 

2. Oars: In my DB-Zion crew, we had four Concept2 sculling blades, not only used as sweep oars but also outfitted with a 3-inch ice pick! The ice picks on the blade are necessary when the boat approaches sheet ice or iceberg. It allows you to get a good grip on the icebergs! Also, from the shore to the open water, when the crew is kneeling in the boat, the oars are stored inside the boat. It is only when the coxswain yells “à la rame!” (to your blade) that the rowers rotate 180 degrees to their sitting position and take their blade from under their seat to place it in the oarlock. It should also be noted that the coxswain has a paddle and not an oar, as she looks straight ahead, maneuvers the boat and yells out when there is an iceberg ahead! Almost like at the lookout of the Titanic…

3. Gliding seat: My teammates introduced me to their reliable Jig-a-loo can! The science is by no means extensive, but it gets the job done: plastic coated shorts, silicone lubricant and a polycarbonate-gliding seat! “Canot à Glace” have gliding seats and not sliding seats. As any rower that rows in early spring knows, a drop of water in a metal slide forms slush and/or ice and rowing then becomes a tough workout for the hamstrings!

4. Padding and cleats: “Canot à Glace” is a very physical sport compared to rowing. As I dressed for my adventure on the St-Laurent, I thought I was heading onto the soccer pitch as the Michelin Man! Under my scuba diving neoprene tights and boots I had pads to protect my shins from the edge of the boat and the crashing into icebergs. My life vest also provided me with extra-insulation and padded my torso from any falls. As for footwear, I strapped on some incredibly aggressive cleats. These ice-pick cleats make soccer cleats and golf shoes look pathetic! 

5. Sound of the crushing ice: From the shores, the St-Laurent setting was picturesque and calm. But once we were propelling our boat along the ice and rowing amid the icebergs, I was overwhelmed by the sound of the ice crushing under our hull and the speed at which the ice was floating down the seaway. I could barely hear our coxswain Catherine as she gave us the tempos to our striding bobsleigh propulsions or our rowing strokes. The sound was just deafening! I certainly felt small, weak and humbled in this demonstration of nature’s power!

I would like to reiterate that this type of winter rowing is far different from rowing in March in New England and in Canada where the racing shell breaks through paper-thin ice. This is rowing as an EXTREME sport! I loved every minute of the adventure on the St-Laurent and, who knows, maybe I will be recruited to join the DB-Zion team in 2013!

To see a live video of my adventure (available in Canada only, minute 18 onwards): http://www.tou.tv/tellement-sport/S2010E19

Tags: Oars

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