This photograph was taken on a Wednesday afternoon in late February or early March 1985 on the river Cam in Cambridge. It is Downing College Men’s 1st VIII going at full tilt, trying to defend their College’s position as “Head of the Lents”. I think it was taken somewhere along what is known as Plough Reach, shortly after the race began. If so, I would take a guess that would have just wound down from an initial 44 strokes to the minute hit a “stride” of about 36 to 38. We don’t look perfect, but it is not bad, allowing for the adrenalin.
Some months ago I posted about my rowing days at Cambridge:
I left it at the point where we – this crew – were getting ready for the “Lent Bumps”. “Bumps” racing is, as far as I am aware, unique to Oxford and Cambridge. I understand it came about not because of nascent Oxbridge genius, but because in both places the river is largely too narrow to allow for multiple lanes racing. The ingenious solution to this problem is to play a kind of game of “tag”, but with boats.
Imagine a line of matchsticks all laid out in a line, one and a half match sticks apart. On the starting signal all the match sticks start to race along to wards a finishing line some way off in the distance, all trying to catch and touch, or “bump”, the one immediately in front, apart from the one at the top of the queue, who is trying to stay there. You just do the same but with boats. The aim is to catch and make contact with any part of the boat ahead – a “bump”. If you do catch the one in front, the two drop out of the precession, leaving the other boats top carry on and fight their own individual battles. The next day you start again in with catcher higher up the league or procession, in the place of the one who was caught, and vice versa. It is a form of snakes and ladders on water. In bumps racing this is over four days, with the respective crews working their way up or down the procession, with the ultimate aim of being on top of the pile on the final day. The boats are ranked in divisions, with Division 1 being the top division. It may take some years for a college to work its way up to the ultimate top of the pile, the Head of the River.
In the lower divisions where the 3rd, 4th and 5th boats and the odd novelty crew row this type of racing can result in mayhem and general chaos as the boats plough into each other, like this:
Sometimes there can be a bit of a “crunching tackle”. Here is a Downing College crew giving a crew from Queens College a bit of a “shove” into the bank:
And here is another Downing crew, leading the way at the top of men’s First Division, whilst Caius is in the process of hunting down Emmanuel behind:
It all gets a bit massy when you get up close and personal with a boat in front, by the way, because you are rowing directly in their “puddles” as we say, and the water gets hellish choppy and the blades lose traction.
As you can now tell. Downing was my college. By the early 1980’s Downing had established itself as a college with a very strong reputation in three disciplines: medicine, law – and rowing. Just a few years before the college had finally achieved the coveted position of Head of the River in the “May” or summer term. In 1984, a physically powerful Downing crew had rowed down Trinity Hall and done the same in the spring or “Lent” term, and three other Downing boats had “won their oars” – the right to claim a painted and decorated oar recording names of the cox, the crew and the coach, and which crews they had “bumped” by achieving the feat of making four consecutive “bumps” in each of the four days. I recall that because I had been in one of those boats, the college 2nd VIII, hunting down the boats ahead and moving remorselessly up the Second Division. The oar I claimed is still in the garage.
Now I was in the college 1st VIII, or I think we simply referred to ourselves, “Downing 1”. We rowed a gleaming white, ultra modern “Janacek” boat, the “UpHellyAa!” which went very well with the distinctive and rather war like magenta coloured oars. Our task was to defend the position as Head of the Lents won the year before; to remain uncaught by Emmanuelle College, who started immediately behind us as second in the division, or anyone who might catch and replace them. This was called “rowing over”. As a “Head” crew you had the advantage of rowing through “clean” water which had not been churned up. You had the disadvantage of having to complete the 2,200 meter course every day for four days at hell for leather speed.
Bumps racing is an odd thing. Whilst it is full of comedy and chaos in the lower divisions, at the serious end there is something almost cruel about it as the boats hunt each other down, or frantically struggle to get away. There is also a real sense of drama about the starts. The start is regulated by a small but very loud cannon which fires, from memory, four minutes before the start, then again one minute before the start, and then as the signal for the start itself.
The nerves really start to kick in with what I recall being the “four minute gun”. By the time of “the one minute gun” the boats are marshaled by the bank of the river at their starting points, lined one and a half boat lengths apart, and ready for the off. Each cox holds a long chain which he can’t let go of until the start of the race. It is attached to a peg on the bank. Just after the one minute gun the boats are pushed away from the bank into the flow of the river, ready for the off, but the cox has to keep hold of that chain. This is a delicate task and requires judgment. What I remember most about that last minute is slow guide as the boat is pushed out into the river, terse instructions of the cox hissing out telling the what to do to get and keep the boat in position – “Touch it bow!” “Touch it two and four!” and the gut wrenching nerves. And the almost complete silence; utter, tense, wet Fenland silence, apart from the monotone from the coach, counting you down.
“Thirty seconds….twenty seconds….ten seconds…five, four, three…”
They usually stopped at about three. And then there is a percussive “BOOM” as the cannon fires, and all hell breaks loose as the boats spring off and the spectators break into baying cries and calls and shrieks like a pursuing pack of hounds.
Here is Downing Women’s 1st VIII actually doing a bumps start this time last year on day 2 of the races, defending their own hard one Headship of the women’s divisions, and starting from the same spot we did. I have to say, looking mighty impressive:
And here is last year’s Downing men’s Lent crew practicing a start, and I have to say looking strong too:
Actually, I can’t believe I used to do that, but I suppose I must have…
I wrote in my previous piece about the training, the dedication, and a touch about the ethos. A College like Downing was a very close community, very different from a campus university. I have blogged before on the subject of Spartans and their harsh regime upbringing in the “Agoge” schools:
In hindsight, there was more than a whiff of Sparta about Downing, even down to the magenta and black College colours. It was very simple; all that was required and expected to be “socially acceptable” was excellence, academically or sportingly, but preferably both at the same time. It was not necessarily a very “nice” place. It was highly competitive, and in fact, it could be harsh and intolerant, even cruel, and just as the Spartan students underwent a fair degree of rough treatment, it left its marks on me for a lifetime, for both good and ill. But it was a collection of very high achievers with a strong pride in performance and excellence. It was what it was. Brilliant minds were welcome, and there were many. Mere “intellectuals” were not. Ed Miliband would have hated it.
But back to the rowing. This was quite a fast crew. Let me be clear that I was the weakest of the rowers, so it wasn’t down to me. I was just allowed the privilege of sitting on the end, not getting in the way and just trying to keep the time. In fact, in the picture above my right leg has been thrown out of line slightly, weakening the subsequent drive – so there we go, typical. Some the guys were to make progress into the University squad and one had had already been there as a member if the lightweight crew. It had some very strong “home grown” boys, and a couple of classy rowers trained at public school too; including one with one of the sharpest and most brilliant minds I have ever met. The stroke – a novice like me when he went up to Downing but who went on to represent the University – had a natural rhythm and was hugely strong. The guy behind him in the “seven” seat was an accomplished lightweight rower at University level. He used to run marathons, as I recall. I know that about a year ago four members of this crew met up back at college, and in their late 40’s gave a crew from the present generation more than a run for their money. That is actually rather impressive.
The thing about this crew was that it had the one quality that makes some team sports special, in that it was greater than then the some of its parts on paper. It just seemed to work. If it wasn’t University “Blue Boat” standard it was because there were one or two weaker links, mainly me, and we were smaller. I would guess the average weight of the boat was around about the twelve stone six pounds, whereas even in those days when crews were lighter than today, you would expect the average weight of the University boat to be over fourteen stone. That is a lot of extra grunt and torque.
Anyway, by the time the Lents arrived we had beaten all comers from the east of England in ferocious weather at the Bedford Head time trial, and cleaned up at the Oxford Regatta. We had put in training sessions on the Thames alongside the elite and ultra professional Thames Tradesmen club, and hours in the gym and on the river.
What I remember most about the boat was it was so stable. Somehow, the various shapes and sizes of the crew complimented each other. A “racing shell” boat is very hard to balance, but this boat was and incredibly balanced platform and that allowed precision and full power with each stroke. There was a remorseless rhythm thanks to our brilliant stroke and seven man: catch, surge, “thud” (as the oars cleared the water in unison), recover, recover, catch, surge, thud…
Did we successfully defend the Headship? Of course we bloody did. Emmanuelle College, who were chasing us were, in our view, no great shakes I would not normally be so ungracious after all these years, but my beloved friend Dr (as she is now) Firenza Pesta has been telling me lately of the patronizing and arrogant attitude of the men of that college to her. You see she was my contemporary at “Emma” (as it was known), and when the men of her College offered no assistance in her and the crew’s efforts to improve – in fact they were positively unhelpful and nasty – she turned to Downing for help. And that is how we met, and I became friends with a French woman of aristocratic Norman blood. Together with another good Downing lad called John we gave her and her crew a tough time. No “there, there dear, that’s quite good” from us! In our view, anyone in a boat was a gender neutral instrument of maximum ergonomic production – period. When the work was over, fine, but on the river, we rowed to win, the crews we trained we trained to win, and that meant hard work and high standards. Firenza Pesta was and is no wimp, I can most solemnly promise you. She was a nuclear energy ball of energy with more guts and grit than her College’s men’s VIII put together. She became a hell of a good rower, and in that regard I must also mention her now husband, “F”, then a research fellow and scientist of genius brain and himself no mean oars man. And I have learned – all these years later on – that having coaches from the hated and feared “Nova Sparta” that was Downing College really pissed off her patronizing, Chauvinistic male colleagues at Emma. That pleases me greatly.
But again, I digress….there I go, rambling off again.
The Men’s First Division kicks of last on the last day, in the late afternoon and before the East Anglian dusk draws in. It is a grinding, winding course, 2concluding (assuming you get there) with after the seemingly interminable Long Reach, and past the Pike and Eel
As I have mentioned, rather ironically the men’s crew from Emmanuel College were second in the division and chasing us. In the event, they posed no real threat, and we simply rowed away from them and cruised. No one was catching them either so it was a bit dull, but that was fine with us. Pembroke College were really quick, and worthy of immense respect, precise and nimble in their blade work, and with a powerful bear of a man, an ex rugby player called Geoff at the number 5 seat in the middle of the boat giving extra oomph, and they were scything through the boats ahead of them, but thankfully they were too far down the Division at that time to be a danger. I respected and even feared Pembroke. I wouldn’t have liked them on my tail for 2000 metres or more at all. I am not sure what would have happened.
So, in the event we “rowed over” clear of the pursing pack for all four days, Wednesday through Saturday. The first day, Wednesday, had been nervous and adrenalin filled. I suspect day two was the same. In fact I can’t remember much about them at all, really.
My abiding memories of that time are two fold. Of the final day, Saturday, I remember crossing the finishing line, rowing back down the course – as was the custom with our cox bearing the college flag, as Pembroke, who had duly “won their oars” by bagging four “bumps”, were parading theirs. We nodded in respect, and it seemed mutual. And I scanned the bank, hoping that my parents had made it. I had never been able to do much sport at school, and this small triumph meant a lot to me. They were not there, and I remember the bitter pang of disappointment.
But the special memory is the Friday afternoon, the third day. As I have mentioned above, a boat that completes the whole course has to row around 2,200 metres. It is a not insignificant distance, and takes, as I recall, just over six and a half or seven minutes of lung burning, muscle screaming effort. At the finishing line, it is the convention for the boats to “wind down” to allow the crews gulp in some air, and perhaps be sick, and then after a rest to paddle off back to their boat houses some way further up the river. I can promise that after 2,000 or more metres of full on rowing, that is a very sensible convention.
But that did not happen to us on that Friday. As I recall, we were well ahead of the Emmanuel VIII as we rolled inexorably up the Long Reach.
The steady, powerful rhythm had kicked in. I can’t speak for anyone else but I am clear that was not out of breath, not because I was not flat out but because the rhythm and balance of the boat made everything very smooth. We had pushed Emmanuel far behind, and reached the finish line several lengths clear, rowing at an easy pace, around 32 strikes to the minute. The usual order from the cox (Jim, a heavy guy but brilliant water man and race tactician, so worth the extra weight) would be “wind down!” I can’t remember if gave the order or not, but whatever happened, the boat did not stop. As I say, I can’t remember the precise details of how this peculiar and irrational decision was reached, but although the boat did not carry on at full power it simply switched instead we used to call “steady state”, the slower but rhythmic pace by which we trained for conditioning and technique. The boat simply rolled on and on, not resting, relentlessly leaving the other finishing boats, and, I think. some astonished spectators and coaches, far behind. On an on we went, as if by some collective osmosis a decision had been reached to display utter domination. It seemed effortless.
We made it back to the boat houses well before anyone else, without stopping. Nobody seemed tired. The river was empty of boats and following spectators had been shaken off. They had all been left far behind. It was very, very quiet. I can distinctly remember “throwing” the boat (lifting it out of the water in a clean lift), parking it on its rack in the Boat House, and going up the stairs to the changing rooms. We were already in the hot showers before the other boats came past, as almost all had to do to get to their own boat houses. We were singing out adopted “signature tune”, “Come Back My Love”, by “Darts”. Heaven alone knows why we had adopted it, but the raucous rendition, amplified by the show room walls, echoed out through the open windows of the boat house and pot across the river as the other boats passed by, trudging to their homes. I think we knew they could hear us.
It was later reported to us that the coach of the respected Pembroke boat had watched our progress up the Long Reach and wryly observed to a bystander:
“Now that is a very smooth machine.”
And so, on that day, it was. And so, sir, was your boys’ boat.
It was a long way from the best Downing crew ever produced. The next year later in the summer or “May” term the boat that was put out was both the most powerful and by far the most technically accomplished College crew that I ever saw at Cambridge: a beast of a crew. Would it have given the Blue Boat a run for its money? Oh, yes, and it included two full Blues and who some who were to go to become so. I still remember the sound of that boat. It was like an angry and by a rather menacing steam train. But I have the special memory of my one personal glimpse of excellence.
On a footnote, I mentioned the rather impressive start from the Downing Women’s boat above. I have an interest there. Just as at Sparta women were involved in the athletic excellence, so it was at Downing, and the women’s racing was being developed, and it is now the pre eminent women’s College for rowing, I believe. That pleases me very much. I would like to add that for a couple of terms I was given the job of “finishing coach” to the newly established Downing Ladies, and to St Catherine’s College Ladies too. The St Catherine’s College Ladies won their oars two years in succession as I recall, and at least two of their member went on to represent Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club as Presidents. I also had the distinction of being one of the few, or perhaps the only, College oarsman to row for in the Cambridge University Women’s Blue Boat. But that is another story…
Soon the “Lent Bumps” will start again. This year, there may or may not be a rather portly figure on the Bank who has not attended for many years. If so, I will keep out of the way. But I would like to hear that gun again, without too many of the nerves. I would like to see Downing Women 1 row: I am very, very pleased for and impressed by them. And perhaps hum a song quietly to myself an obscure and frankly awful song, “Come back my love”.
This post is dedicated to the memory of “Eddie”. We weren’t friends, but we were comrades for a while. Good row, Eddie.
Gildas the Monk