Is it time to put your oar in?

Bri­tish row­ing is a true and in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar am­a­teur sport – and mid­dle age isn’t too late to en­joy the thrill of com­pet­ing in a coxed eight

The Field - - CONTENTS - WRIT­TEN BY JEREMY mus­son

Jeremy Mus­son re­dis­cov­ers the plea­sure of row­ing

Row­ing is be­com­ing one of our best-loved am­a­teur sports, with a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple row­ing at least once a month. This has been buoyed up by the suc­cess of the GB Olympic crews in 2012 and 2016, as well as the an­nual glam­our of the heroic Ox­ford ver­sus Cam­bridge Boat Race on the Thames. One of the glories of am­a­teur row­ing lies in its open­ness to new re­cruits, so row­ing com­petes with speed cy­cling as a sport that peo­ple can take up and en­joy in mid-life. More than that, row­ing is also, for many, in ef­fect a coun­try sport. Most (al­though not all) crews row out from clubs in towns and cities and make their way along rivers and canals into open coun­try, of­ten at first light, through all the sea­sons of the year – and cer­tainly in all weath­ers.

Men and women can take it up in their for­ties and fifties, learn­ing from scratch (as I did), with sym­pa­thetic, ded­i­cated coaches. It takes time, weath­er­ing a late begin­ner’s nat­u­ral in­ep­ti­tude and lack of con­cen­tra­tion but then some­thing clicks and you dis­cover the rhythm and the dis­ci­pline of be­ing in a crew. Many clubs pride them­selves on in­tro­duc­ing new peo­ple to the sport.

Lots of those who row at these clubs have re­turned to it years af­ter row­ing first at school or uni­ver­sity but for the to­tal novice and “re­turner” alike, the real magic of “sweep” row­ing is that it is in many ways the one true team sport. While, as with any team, you can­not get an eight out onto the wa­ter with­out all the par­tic­i­pants (eight row­ers and a cox) ac­tu­ally turn­ing up, in row­ing, uniquely, in­di­vid­ual ex­cel­lence makes al­most no dif­fer­ence.

The ef­fi­ciency and speed of the boat re­lies not on the strength or ef­fort of the in­di­vid­ual rower but in their abil­ity to co-or­di­nate with fel­low crew mem­bers. Some have even com­pared it to bal­let in the ex­pec­ta­tion of per­fect har­mony of move­ment. Af­ter a while, you also dis­cover that crew ca­ma­raderie is

es­sen­tial to cre­ate this har­mony. So as well as the phys­i­cal “work-out”, a so­cial side is re­quired – trips to the pub to dis­cuss fu­ture com­pe­ti­tion en­tries are a sine qua non.

vene­tian ori­gins

Row­ing has a long and splen­did his­tory. For as long as there have been row­ing craft there have prob­a­bly been races of some sort – one is, af­ter all, men­tioned in Book V of Vir­gil’s

The Aeneid. Vene­tians have cer­tainly been hold­ing com­pet­i­tive row­ing re­gat­tas since the 1270s. Sport­ing his­to­ri­ans favour the view that row­ing races in this coun­try orig­i­nated in the in­tense and crowded world of the Lon­don Thames wa­ter­men, who fer­ried peo­ple across and along the Thames, be­tween grander res­i­dences, banks and busi­nesses. There were 10,000 of these wa­ter­men in the late-17th cen­tury.

Gam­bling-ob­sessed Lon­don­ers staked money on races be­tween these wa­ter­men – their rac­ing boats were even known as wa­ger boats. These pro­fes­sional row­ers pro­duced long dy­nas­ties of oars­men. The an­nual Doggett’s Coat & Badge sculling race (for ap­pren­tice lighter­men and wa­ter­men) on the Thames, founded in 1715, is a sur­vivor of this tra­di­tion. It is also the old­est row­ing race in the world and de­serves a bit more at­ten­tion from the press. The ship­build­ing cen­tre of New­cas­tle was another fo­cus for row­ing in the late Ge­or­gian age, with 50,000 to 100,000 spec­ta­tors lin­ing the banks to watch races on the Tyne. Gig-row­ers from the har­bours in coastal ar­eas (where gigs were used as the first lifeboats) were also keenly com­pet­i­tive.

The Thames com­pe­ti­tions ap­pear to have in­spired am­a­teurs to pit them­selves against each other in row­ing races and the first records of am­a­teurs com­pet­ing on the Thames, in the later part of the 18th cen­tury, seem to be crews made up of young Guards’ of­fi­cers. The first pro­ces­sion of boats at Eton is recorded in 1793 as a “regatta in honour of the Prince of Wales’s birth­day” – bor­row­ing the term from the Vene­tian us­age. West­min­ster Col­lege had es­tab­lished a row­ing club by 1813, al­though Eton’s does not ap­pear to have been for­mally founded un­til 1821.

The first Ox­ford ver­sus Cam­bridge col­lege com­pe­ti­tions also date from the sec­ond and third decades of the 19th cen­tury. The first is thought to have been in 1815 be­tween Je­sus and Brasenose Col­leges at Ox­ford, both of which were founded that year, and the fa­mous “Eights Week” in Ox­ford is traced to this com­pe­ti­tion. The Le­an­der Club – now the elite row­ing club of the na­tion – was founded in 1818 and the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge Boat Club in 1827, when col­lege “Bumps Races” were ini­ti­ated in Cam­bridge.

fo­cus on hen­ley

In these early days, both coach­ing and um­pir­ing were of­ten done from horse­back, which was some­thing of a chal­lenge

The heart of the na­tional sport to­day lies in the am­a­teur world of around 500 clubs up and down the coun­try

to idle spec­ta­tors on the tow­path. The first “Boat Race” be­tween Ox­ford and Cam­bridge took place at Hen­ley. Hen­ley Regatta it­self was first held in 1839 and is now one of the main fo­cuses of am­a­teur Bri­tish row­ing. In 1851, Prince Al­bert be­came the regatta’s first “royal” pa­tron – hence Hen­ley Royal Regatta – and ev­ery pa­tron since Prince Al­bert has been the reign­ing monarch.

Much of the heart of the na­tional sport to­day (as with vil­lage cricket and point-to­point rac­ing) lies in the wider – and en­tirely am­a­teur – world of around 500 clubs up and down the coun­try run by vol­un­teers. Only a small num­ber of clubs has paid coaches.

Some clubs are highly com­pet­i­tive, while oth­ers are much more “so­cial” – like the one I joined five years ago in Cam­bridge. But as in the early 1800s, a good deal of that so­cial “fun” comes from row­ing in com­pe­ti­tions (and train­ing for them).

Com­pe­ti­tions di­vide into the long, hard “head races” of win­ter and shorter, sprint­based com­pe­ti­tions at the sum­mer re­gat­tas. Cam­bridge has more than 10 am­a­teur clubs (as well as the 35 clubs as­so­ci­ated with col­leges), whereas other cities, such as Glouces­ter, have just the one – but all are brought to­gether by a com­plex net­work of com­pe­ti­tions, spread across the na­tion.

If you are in­ter­ested in tak­ing up row­ing, it is easy enough to find a club. The Bri­tish Row­ing web­site can guide you swiftly to a lo­cal club that runs in­duc­tion train­ing and

Just as mem­o­rable is row­ing un­der the stars on a moon­lit win­ter evening

there is usu­ally a healthy ap­petite for new crew mem­bers. I fell into giv­ing row­ing a try, in my mid-for­ties, to get my weight down and asked the ad­vice of a friend who turned out to be the in­duc­tion coach for the Cham­pion of the Thames (Cam­bridge) Club. It was a bit of a leap for some­one who had made avoid­ing sport a fine art in his teenage years but reg­u­lar ex­er­cise is sur­pris­ingly ad­dic­tive. Row­ing on the Cam is much en­hanced by the qual­ity of the river set­ting, the chang­ing skies, the empty fields (graced by an oc­ca­sional cow) and early morn­ing mists and sun­rises. Just as mem­o­rable is row­ing un­der the stars on cold but moon­lit win­ter evenings, wil­low trees sil­hou­et­ted against black skies. No sin­gle row feels the same, so var­ied is the ef­fect of weather, sea­son and time on the river ex­pe­ri­ence.

That first year, I joined a scratch crew of mostly novices and we were en­tered for the Town Bumps (boats chase each other in sin­gle file, each crew at­tempt­ing to catch and “bump” the boat in front with­out be­ing caught by the boat be­hind). From a low start we “bumped” on each of the four days and “won Blades”, against all the odds – an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence. It hasn’t hap­pened again but I have rowed in nu­mer­ous com­pe­ti­tions since, in­clud­ing trips onto the Thames and a fi­nal in our “vet­eran” age group at the Na­tional Wa­ter­sports Cen­tre near Not­ting­ham. Best of all, the hand­i­cap­ping sys­tem is based on age and ex­pe­ri­ence, so this of­fers row­ers of all ages the chance to com­pete on equal terms.

Last sum­mer, we were coxed through Bumps week by naval sur­geon-com­man­der Jane Ris­dall, an ex­pe­ri­enced cox. She had coxed our orig­i­nal blades-win­ning Bumps crews a few years be­fore while bat­tling can­cer. Sadly, she died in the au­tumn. Sharp as a pin, with some of the clos­est steer­ing pos­si­ble on the bendy Cam, she en­joyed ev­ery mo­ment of the Bumps, de­spite un­der­go­ing treat­ment at the time. “The adren­a­line makes up for a lot,” she said, words I will al­ways re­mem­ber as they go to the heart of the am­a­teur row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Left: com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors en­joy­ing the fi­nal day of the Cam­bridge Town Bumps. Above: Ox­ford stu­dents tak­ing part in the an­nual Tor­pids bump races on the Thames. Be­low: the Ox­ford men’s crew cel­e­brate win­ning the 2017 Boat Race

Above: fierce com­pe­ti­tion on the fi­nal day of the Cam­bridge Town Bumps. Right: blaz­ers are the or­der of the day at Hen­ley Royal Regatta, which was first held in 1839

Above: a Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity women’s crew wait­ing to com­pete

Be­low: crews hope to earn their blades

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