Kentish Express Ashford & District
Magical world of rowing
Richard Huggins is into his fifth and final year as chairman of Maidstone Invicta Rowing Club.
The 60-year-old has been rowing all his adult life, winning national masters medals.
Describing himself as a “bit of an organiser”, he was perhaps destined to become chairman of a club he joined about 20 years ago. Huggins talks us through “the ultimate team sport”.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?
Britain has become one of the top nations in rowing and that’s rippled down to club level.
We’ve had some brilliant sportsmen at the top, like Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, who have won multiple gold medals at the Olympics.
That’s generated an excitement in the sport and an interest in the sport and it’s made people work harder to become better.
We’ve won an inordinate number of gold medals at the Olympics compared to the size of the sport.
When I was a young adult, I rowed for a club in Greenwich, and we trained maybe two or three times a week.
Now it’s more like four or five, so people are training double and it becomes part of your life.
It’s something you will always remember, whether you do it for a couple of years and you win your novice pot at a local regatta, or you do it for a lifetime.
For me, it was important because I was a little bit wayward when I was younger and I didn’t have something to ground myself on.
You need to have discipline, it’s the ultimate team sport, and it really disciplined me when I was younger and I was a better person for it.
Through hardship you gain camaraderie which results in lifelong friendship and I think it’s a wonderful sport.
Most of us want to be in a crew boat. The best feeling in the world is a racing eight which is moving together and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s magical when it works. When it doesn’t, it’s horrid.
IS WINNING EVERYTHING?
We’re quite different at Maidstone in that we pride ourselves on being a community sport.
What we mean by that is we don’t just do it to be competitive, to go to the national championships or Henley, and win.
There’s a section of us who do that, but we’re very strong on people who just want to have fun messing about in boats, and we call that our touring section or our social section, so there’s no competitive action at all. We teach them how to row, we put them in stable boats - we’ve got the second largest fleet of touring boats in the country - and they go off and have fun. They go up to places like the Lake District, we’ve had trips to Paris and Amsterdam, and have fun with like-minded people. We’re strong on that, it brings people into the club who otherwise wouldn’t consider rowing. We’ve found that’s been a big win.
To be at the top level, or even a good level, you’ve got to maintain a level of physical fitness that many other sports don’t achieve.
A lot of people don’t have the time because nowadays they have other priorities in life. We recognise that.
We also have plans to develop an indoor rowing section as well. There’s a big market for that.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Maidstone is the biggest club in Kent, and the most successful.
Success is judged by a lot of things but we are the most successful club in the south east outside of London in terms of competition.
We’ve got the largest junior section in southern England outside of London, and one of the most successful.
It’s very well-run and last year we had 80 juniors which is quite a few. From word of mouth, people know Maidstone are good at managing juniors.
When you get a reputation, and it’s maintained, it generates more people wanting to come to the club. We’ve had a superb reputation over the past 10 years, it’s built up and built up.
A junior who’s slightly wayward, like I was as a young adult, will more than likely turn out good and stop smoking! I’m proud of every one of my juniors.
YOUNG OR OLD?
You do get people who start later and end up doing pretty well.
Andy Ripley was a top rugby player and he played for England, a really big guy, and he converted to rowing and was quite successful.
But when you’re younger, you don’t have fear of the water so much, your balance is natural, so it’s easier to train younger people.
I’m retired but I have a parttime job as coach for Kent College, Canterbury, and it always amazes how the kids pick it up so quickly.
If you train somebody who’s older, they take longer to get the knack of it, to get the technique and lose the fear of the water. It will take longer for someone to get there but they can get there.
It can be easy to fall in and I think it’s fear of being embarrassed coming back to the club, wet.
It’s always a bit of a laugh when someone goes in. The older you are, the less you want to be embarrassed.
John Clayton, our chief founding member who died last year, was a major influence on the club.
He didn’t come from a privileged background and he wanted this community spirit to happen.
One area we just haven’t made much in the way of inroads is to go outside the public school and grammar school niche.
Rowing just isn’t promoted in comprehensives.
We did have a spell with Swadelands School in Lenham but that stopped.
It cuts both ways. We want to bring these kids on but the comprehensives tend to view us as an elitist sport.
John wanted us to break away from the elitist aspect and in many ways we have.
We’ve got adult members from all walks of life and that’s part of our success because we’re never short of electricians, plumbers and builders!
We have that but we haven’t been able to engage people outside of the public schools and grammars.
COPING WITH COVID?
In lockdown, we can’t row, it’s as simple as that.
Outside lockdown we’ve had to put in a lot of protocols to ensure safety, sanitiser and things like that, washing down the kit before and after you go out. We can only have 12 people on site and they’ve got to keep socially distanced.
We’ve put in place all those protocols and beefed up our booking system. That means, outside of lockdown, we’ve been able to function.
It’s not as we’d like, because there’s the social side, and we can’t have the kitchen open and stuff like that.
We’re lucky as a club that we don’t pay rent or mortgage so our costs are quite minimal.
Our other costs we’ve just stopped, like buying boats or blades, because we’re not using them.