Women Through the Lens: Tuf As Nails

Story by Leif Whittaker (whittakerwrites.com)
Photos by Freya Fennwood (fennwoodphotography.com)



“When it gets fun is when you’re all together and the boat kind of takes on a life of its own and picks up off the water and flies,” says Dianne Roberts, a member of Tuf As Nails, a women’s rowing team based in Port Townsend, Washington.


Dianne Roberts surveys shells at the Northwest Maritime Center boathouse.
Tuf As Nails originated in the late 1980’s as a group of local women training for the Rhody Run, an annual 12k race held in Port Townsend. Since most of the women had jobs, or children, or both, they decided to meet at 6am, which was the only time they were all available. For the next 15 years, the running group, called “Eat And Run”, met 6 days a week in Northwest darkness and ran until the sun came up. They competed in long-distance relay races, traveled the country together, and ran. Today, the group does essentially the same thing except for one vital difference; instead of running, they row.
Dianne Roberts looking through oars at the Northwest Maritime Center boathouse.
One crisp morning at sunrise, the group was running through downtown when they noticed a sleek wooden shell gliding through the water. “It was just so beautiful that we said, ‘we have to learn how to do this,’” says Roberts.
Nine years later, Tuf As Nails is going strong. Their name may allude to a sense of playfulness, but there is nothing casual about their aspirations as rowers. “The idea is that you can be a badass rower and still have a good manicure,” says Roberts.
Putting the boat in the water at sunrise on Port Townsend Bay.
These women, most of whom are over 60, are certainly badass. The team practices between March and October in the rough saltwater of Port Townsend Bay and, unlike many rowing teams, they often go out without a safety launch. In winter, when the water is too rough and the mornings too dark, the team still meets to lift weights or row indoors on mechanical ergs. Every season the team competes in national regattas like the San Diego Crew Classic, Head of the Lake, and the Rat Island Regatta, a long-distance open-water race. This year, Roberts will travel to Boston to compete in the Head of the Charles Regatta, which is one of the largest and most renowned races in the United States, if not the world.
Pulling away from shore on a calm morning in Port Townsend.
So what motivates Roberts and her rowing friends to get up in the morning? “It’s so beautiful, and it’s so challenging, and it’s so amazingly fun when it starts going good. And it’s so infrequent that it goes really well. It’s like completely intermittent reinforcement widely spaced,” says Roberts.
Sunrise rowing, looking for the perfect stroke.
She also says that, unlike other team sports, if one member is absent, the entire team is unable to row. The guilt of letting her teammates down is a big reason for her diligent commitment. “The social aspect of it is just absolutely wonderful. I think with our group it’s extremely rare because of all the years we’ve been together. We’ve been through cancer, and deaths of parents, and teammate’s deaths, and children have been born, and people have been divorced and remarried. You know, it’s really been…life.”
Tuf As Nails with the Cascade Mountains behind.
Through all of this, Tuf As Nails has remained together, devoted to an active lifestyle, and in search of that moment when the boat picks up off the water and flies. “You’re constantly on the hunt for that perfect stroke. And then if you get one stroke that feels pretty good, you gotta do it again, 200 times in a row.”
Lifting the shell out of the water after a morning row.

Programming Note: This is the first entry in a monthly series that will explore women of all lifestyles who follow their passions in work and play. 


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