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
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.
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