Rowing in Tandem

This past summer, my boyfriend and I were in Halibut cove, a tiny island of about 100 residents off the fishing town of Homer. (A story from this trip was shared in a previous post titled Mommy and Momma.) In the late afternoon, our hosts took us out on the beautiful still water in the cove, in kayaks. Both of us had minimal previous experience in kayaking, and I was still nervous, so I insisted on being in a tandem – a 2-person kayak. So our hosts, who only had single-person kayaks, borrowed a tandem from their willing and kind neighbors, a beautiful bright yellow, sleek long thing with two spots for bottoms to fit snugly into.

With some effort I managed to fit into the front as my boyfriend took the back spot, all the time feeling as if we would tip over. I took one of the paddles while he had the other, and I began to move the paddle awkwardly – it seemed that I had completely forgotten everything from the previous time I had been kayaking in Seattle’s Lake Union several years ago. Kathryn, our host, showed me how to paddle in the right motion, and then, seeing us not making much headway, she said, “You know, the principle of rowing a tandem is that the person in the back steers the boat while the person in the front sets the pace. Both people cannot do both things!” Sure enough, my boyfriend was steering with his feet, while the strength of my paddling was setting our pace. This meant that we could get somewhere fast or slow depending on me, but where we went depended on him! Soon we were moving more smoothly together, getting around little pieces of land and vegetation, opening ourselves to gorgeous views of the cove, birds and the colorful cabins dotting the landscape at the water’s edges.

This little lesson struck me as being rather profound – like a life lesson. I realized that a partnership (romantic or otherwise) is much like rowing a tandem. So often when we move in life with a partner – growing, exploring, finding, choosing and changing directions, getting somewhere, then shifting paths again … we become confused and forget how to move in tandem. We either get dragged along, or we push too hard, or we feel like we’re going nowhere, or maybe we feel as if we’re going it alone. We forget how to move together, smoothly, easily, harmoniously, deftly, intelligently and joyously.

Rowing in tandem also means being able to identify individual strengths and leveraging them to a collective advantage, as well as to know when to switch roles. Between my boyfriend and I, at times I am good at setting a direction with my visions and ideas, while he is a natural at setting the pace. I can get over-enthusiastic with my ideas, and his pace-setting seems to modulate and ensure that there is sustainable energy for the ideas to be implemented. At other times, such as when we are hiking or exploring in the outdoors, he is usually staking out the direction, while I am, being slower, setting a collective pace. Such clarity and alternation in roles seems to help balance out a relationship, leverage our individual strengths and move a couple in a direction they together want to go. If both of us wanted to steer at all times, or set the pace at all times, most things wouldn’t work out. I can only imagine that such practice becomes even more critical as a relationship grows from couplehood to parenting.

So, a little thought for the new year – the next time you’re feeling stuck, imagine that you are rowing a tandem and ask yourselves – Which way do we want to go together? How slow or fast do we want to make it? (How much does either matter?) Am I steering or am I setting the pace? What is my partner doing? And perhaps the answers to such simple questions might help move you along.

I hope 2009 brings all of us much joyous rowing in tandem!

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Anonymous

    Happy New Year to you, Tana. Heres to more writing!

  2. Anonymous

    Oh! It is a great lesson told simple way! I think all of us should row row row our tandem at some point ofour lives! Great!Have a happy new year.

  3. Anonymous

    This post reminded me of the poem ‘Row row row the boat
    gently down the stream
    Merrily merrily merrily merrily
    life is but a dream’

  4. Khushi

    I loved this post. I read it when it was posted, and since then have been trying to figure out who does what in my marriage. I think we both try to do both things. I am not able to figure out what I do better. But we do need to have a conscious decision not to do both together – i think that will help. But both have to agree.

  5. Tana

    Hi Khushi,
    Thanks for the candid thoughts. Yes, I observe that whenever both of us want to steer (or set pace) we get into trouble also. I don’t think it’s solely about being better at one, but more so about being able to switch in and out of the roles, especially if both people have vision and both have natural paces of follow-through. Good luck on everything.

Leave a Reply