I have been watching the rowing at the Olympics. The squad has done Britain proud, and it makes me all emotional. You see, long, long ago in a land far, far, away, your humble scribe had the good fortune to be part of a pretty good crew.
It was the typical story of a Grammar School kid from an ordinary family. I was the first of any of my family who went away to University. Naturally, in the way of such fairy tales I went to Cambridge, with a scholarship.
Although to be precise, I went to college. Such is the collegiate system, and the loyalty it engenders that I always refer to myself as going to college, not to Cambridge, unless it as a necessary shorthand.
I arrived at a college with a particularly strong sporting tradition, which had recently blossomed in the sport of rowing. In fact, I ignored rowing at first. I had met some Eton educated rowers before I “went up” (at the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre at Lympston, to be precise, but that is another matter) and they had seemed huge, and both physically and socially out of my league. I suppose I felt intimidated on both levels. On arrival every “freshman” was invited to learn rowing in the dreadfully early morning sessions, but I focused my efforts on my traditional sport of boxing, though I was not very good.
But at the end of my first term I went to see a race, and I watched as one of our college boats glided seemingly effortlessly and silently through the water, and that was that. I was in love. So I had a go. Fortunately, I was reasonably tall (still am), reasonably fit and slim (ahem, not quite so) and this proved a useful combination.
And so ultimately I found myself perched at bow in the College First VIII in a Lent (January – March) term.
Many club oarsmen tended to deride Oxbridge collegiate rowing. They had a point. Certainly, we considered Oxford collegiate rowing to be all but worthless. There was a reason for that, apart from innate Chauvinism. You see, the Cherwell is not particularly suitable for training. It is too small. Quality rowing demands miles, and more and more miles. We went to a regatta in Oxford once, and I still have the tankard and medal that I came back with tucked away somewhere to prove the point. But the Cam is a slightly different matter because it allows for reasonably serious training, and some of the select Cambridge college crews could be pretty handy.
The photograph above is my crew. Some of us had bizarre aliases by which we were commonly called. In no particular order: Jim, Charlie, Jez, “Eddie”, Tom, “Woolly Hat”, “Party Hat”, “Gus” and ob. There is your humble scribe, perched like a fairy on top of the moving Christmas tree.
Now, devotees of rowing may notice that there are some technical deficiencies in the crew which I will not bang on about here but there is an explanation, if not an excuse. That picture was taken at the Peterborough or Bedford Head (I can’t remember which) in late January or early February.
A “Head” is simply time trial, rather than a side by side race to the finish line. Whilst I can’t remember where it was now, what I can VERY clearly remember was the day, because as you may just make out from the picture, there was heavy snow, it was utterly freezing, and it was blowing a very nasty gale so that the boat was hard to control and sprays of icy water would dash us all, but particularly your fairy at the pointy end. I can still feel the spray, and recall my numb and blue hands, and hear the curses of my number two man in front of me as waves broke across the front and side of the boat and showered us with freezing water and ice. The wind howled like a demon across the open fenland and swirled along the long, featureless “drain” or “cut” which formed the course. It was a pig of a day. I heard afterwards that it was minus twenty or some such when the wind chill was taken into account, so please forgive some strange alignments, Team GB.
The Head was a major event, with all the ranking crews from the east of England and some from London too. As I recall, we completed it in just over eighteen minutes. The results came out that evening and were posted on the Boat Club notice board. We had beaten all comers, including the “Senior A” rated rowing clubs, and an admittedly scratch “Goldie”, the Cambridge University Second XIII, albeit by just a few seconds. We were officially quite fast.
The crew in the Lent term is not usually the best a college can put out. That is because the best of the College’s rowers will be away with the University Blue Boat Squad, and not available for selection. However, this crew contained three or four up and coming rowers who were to go on to University honours in due course, and some pretty handy technical oarsmen who were not quite big enough, but could give any one a run for their money. And me. But more than that, the crew had one of those magnificent qualities which happens just occasionally in team sport: it was something greater than the sum of its parts on paper. It just had a natural balance and rhythm. A lot of that was down to Charlie, the “stroke”. He had a natural rowing tempo and was one of the guys who went on to University level. More, the physical attributes of the crew complimented each other. There were some big lads in there in the engine room, and some gifted technicians who translated the rhythm to allow them to use the power. It was a well balanced boat, and it was actually a beautiful boat in which to row. And it had a fabulous name. Champion college crews at Cambridge get to celebrate by burning a knackered old clinker boat in a mock Viking ceremony. With half an eye on that ours was named the “UpHellYaa”.
(Thanks, Gus, you clever bastard).
We trained hard. There were no silly dawn starts for the college 1st VIII. The training programme was devised by a certified psychopath called Graham who used to stroke the Great Britain boat. Usually we would spend about and hour and a half or more in the afternoon on the water, six days a week, with weight training and runs or an “ergo” (indoor rowing machines) in the evening. Sometimes there would be two sessions a day. It was always cold and bleak in the fens.
Essentially, training involved two matters, technique, and pain. Without technique it is a pointless exercise. A boat like this is called a racing shell, and the hull is a narrow, smooth oval. Unless there is complete cohesion of movement and balance the boat will heave and pitch about and a clean stroke is impossible. The oarsmen must move as one on a narrow plane. The oars are not just for pulling, they also act to balance the boat just like a tightrope walker has a pole.
So there were hours of technique, usually what we called “steady state” No flat out but just within ourselves, refining the stroke: speed and timing at the catch, and a long, accelerated push to the finish as the boat surges, always to the vital 2:1 ratio. Twice as long on the recovery as the blade takes to punch through the water, at whatever speed you are doing. We rowed until we could row in unison with precision in the dark with our eyes shut. Which occasionally, as I now recall, we did.
And pain. Rowing is a sport which invokes pain. It is a given that you will take the boat and yourself to the maximum, and hold it there, lungs and limbs screaming. You note the pain, keep the technique, and push on. The aim is to physically and psychologically break the crews you are rowing against. You keep going until you are virtually catatonic with pain and fatigue, but must maintain your technique. Accept it, get over it, deal with it.
We went to London for a training weekend. We went to a restaurant that offered an “all the chilli you can eat for five pounds” deal, and consumed everything in sight. We all bedded down on the floor of a flat in Chiswick, and the farts were mighty and awesome. The next morning on a stunning spring day we boated at about 7.00 am on the Thames at Putney. The river was very low and there was no wind, and in the dawn light the Thames looked like highly polished glass. We were set to row a series of ten minute long practice pieces against the formidably professional and elite Thames Tradesmen Rowing Club. The idea was not to race as such, but hold a defined rating of strokes per minute (about thirty), and push each other, squeezing out every last drop of technique and power. We formed up side by side, paddling “half pressure”, and then we squeezed on the power. The cox made the call. Three quarters pressure! We stepped up a notch. Firm pressure! The two boats surged.
It was almost completely silent. The only noises were the sharp “crack” as the blades of the oars bit the water in perfect time, the “whoosh – thud!” as the oars cleared the water a second later leaving huge bucket holes of air in the water, and the hiss as the bows sliced the water. It was effortless, beautiful and joyful. It was idyllic. In the pieces we held the older and stronger rowers for about eight minutes, before their age and power told and they were able to push slowly away. At the end of the session the Tradesmen nodded their respect. We nodded back. If there was a Desert Island disks of my memories, that morning would make it in.
One day, our “seven” man was unexpectedly unavailable for practice. We borrowed “Nick” from neighbouring Emmanuel College to fill in. He was a pretty handy rower and even though this was technically treason because they were major rivals he was not rowing in a crew that term, and he was up for it. As I recall we had a half decent session, nothing over the top. When we got back to the boathouse we all hopped out as normal, ready to “throw” the boat up on to our shoulders and put it back in the boat house.
Nick didn’t get out of the boat, though. He sat there, ashen, looking rather tired, and shaking his head. His only comment, after a few minutes was a rather pithy one.
“F******g hell,” he said, crawling out of the boat and squatting down on his haunches, “Does it always go like that?”
No, it usually went faster.
We retired to the Boat House. This was a civilized place above the shed where the boats were stored with a balcony, ancient sepia photographs of former rowers, names of crews engraved in oak panelling, and battered old sofas upon which to recline during de briefing by the coach. There was a communal shower. When we were happy we used to sing in the shower. For no particular reason that I can remember we had adopted “Come Back My Love”, by the appalling “Darts” as our crew song. It was not even current. It just worked for a bunch of young men, innocent and happy.
It was now time for the “Lent Bumps”. For four consecutive days we would have to defend our college’s position as “Head of the River”, pursued by all and sundry in a strange game of tag with boats over a roughly two kilometre course. As we got changed “Come Back My Love” echoed out over river in the watery spring sunshine, and onto Midsummer Common. Passing crews could hear us. They knew who we were. We were ready.
Gildas the Monk