I came up to Oxford in 1983, never having touched an oar before and nearly never did. Standing in the Lodge, contemplating the 6.30am start, I turned to walk away – far too bloody early! Then something made me stop - my father had rowed at school in Perth, Australia - so I turned back and put my name on the list. I didn’t realise at the time that this would have such a big effect on not only my university life, but for a long time after.
I got through the first term, picking up the basics and racing in Christchurch Regatta only to find myself and another novice, Richard Moody, asked to join the 1st Torpid the next term – to say the College was a bit short on senior talent was an understatement! But what a way to learn! After an introduction to real pain at Torpids, where we acquitted ourselves reasonably, we then embarked on a training camp on the Tideway and the experience of long outings including my first visit to the Pink Lodge at Richmond and the 40 minute steady state row back to Putney. It made the Isis seem tiny when we returned, which was the whole point! Eights Week was mildly successful as we moved back into the first division. And then came the challenge from our former Oxford Lightweight stroke, Mike Henderson, when someone suggested I go for a trial with OULRC the next year. “You’ll never make that” he said, and so the gauntlet was laid.
After 6 months of gruelling trialling and training (yep, six days a week even in those days!), I made it to the start line at 6 in the OULRC eight, only to lose by a canvas. The next year, as President, I presided over a 3 length loss at stroke. I couldn’t face another loss and returned to full time College rowing for my fourth year as Captain of Boats. After a year of rowing post Lincoln at Putney Town Rowing Club at Mortlake with another Lincoln man, James Chalmers, life moved on with marriage etc and that was it – rowing was over - or so I thought!
14 years later, beginning a career break, I was determined to get fit again and started back on the ergo, but there’s only so much erging a man can take, and when the aforementioned James suggested I go rowing again, I contacted my local club, Bewl Bridge Rowing Club in Kent, which was only a mile away. Invited down for a quick scull (I’d done a bit of sculling whilst at Lincoln and in London), it took all of a minute in the boat to get hooked again, and I have been rowing again ever since – that was 12 years ago. I quickly joined a crew and by the end of the season I had raced at Thames Ditton, Henley Veterans and the World Masters, racing VIIIs, IV- and 2x. The oldest person in the VIII was 70!!!
Veteran rowing, or Masters as it is now called, is separated into age groups (you take the average age of all in the boat), starting as young as 27 and going on, well, until you are too old to breathe! Masters A (MasA) is 27-35 and overlaps very much with senior rowing, but MasB (36-42), MasC (43-59), MasD (50-54), MasE (55-59) and upwards with 5 year ranges to MasJ (80+), all offer a competitive challenge within an appropriate age range. Age is after all a massive determinant of strength and stamina as all sportsmen and women know as they watch their performance measurements drop off as they get older. There are frequently Masters categories in local head races and regattas, either run as separate categories per age group, or combined using a standard handicap system. There are also major Masters only events in the rowing calendar, the big ones being the Veterans Fours Head, Veterans Eights Head, National Masters Championships, Henley Masters and the World Masters, the latter being held at various places around the world, some accessible and some less so (the last one was in Ballarat, Australia, but next year is in Hazelwinkel, Belgium).
And of course, it’s not all about competition. There are many recreational rowers and scullers who get out once or twice at the weekend for the joy of rowing, but rarely if ever racing.
After a bit of a hiatus for a couple of years caused by a bad back (treating your body like that of a 24 year old is not a good idea, but you soon learn!), I have now competed for a number of years at the UK events, but only sculling as sweep rowing is not good on my dodgy disc! I see plenty of faces I recognise and know from earlier rowing days, and the camaraderie of crew and Club are great. Success makes it more palatable too, of course, and drives you on in the long winter training programmes, which I still manage to fit in on average about 5 days a week. In fact, 2013/14 was the most successful season yet, starting with a second place overall in the Vets Fours Head in a MasC quad (missed out on the Headship by only 3 seconds!), a silver in MasC quad and bronze in MasD double at the National Championships and a crowning victory by 3 feet at Henley Masters in a MasC quad.
Rowing has in some ways changed a lot since I was rowing at Lincoln. Wooden boats have nearly totally disappeared. Wooden blades are only used in coastal gigs in Cornwall and Macon spoons are history. Even “big blades” or “Cleavers” have morphed in shape a bit. Technology has arrived with StrokeCoaches and the like, and carbon fibre is the best material around for boats, blades and even riggers. Training programmes for the serious are far more structured, and I now know what “core exercises” are. But what hasn’t changed is the thrill of racing, the wonderful glide of a well rowed boat, the joy of a boat firing on all cylinders and of course, if all goes well, the exhilaration of crossing the line first, having emptied the tank and given it all you can.
So, if you remember some of that, give it a try and come back to rowing – you won’t regret it!