Nine Men In A Boat

Those of you who have bothered to read my book or some of my previous blogs shall know that I am keen rower. I use the term ‘keen’ to indicate a willingness to get up at ungodly hours of the weekend to get cold and wet, rather than any level of proficiency. I must admit, however, that it all started out as a marriage of convenience.

I gave up football at the age of 19 when my left foot and hip had a difference of opinion and the anterior cruciate ligament was the victim caught in the middle. This happened just weeks before Gazza snapped his – neither of us were quite the same again. Back then it was a massive operation to replace the ACL and I didn’t want to take a year out of university to do so. The game was up, literally.

I dabbled with running but I’m not built like a Kenyan and the knee grumbled, so I bought a Concept2 rowing machine, which at the time was the most expensive thing I had ever bought in my life. It has also turned out to be the best purchase of my life as in some ways, if this isn’t too melodramatic, it may have saved it. In the last 20 years I have covered untold millions of meters, and without it who knows where my already alarming BMI might be now.

People say rowing machines are boring, but I am strangely drawn to them, and I don’t think it’s because of some twisted Darwinian instinct that it may help me survive long enough to dribble into my mashed potato at the local care home. For someone as emotionally intelligent as a stone, the world is filled full of confusing subjectivity, but for that small window of my day I am immersed in its brutal objectivity. In 20 years, my ergo has never lied to me.

Why then, 15 months ago, did I take the eccentric step of joining a rowing club? I’m still not entirely sure, but there was definitely a sense of adventure and exploration to it, perhaps even the last throes of my mid-life crisis that began a year earlier when quitting teaching to embrace the insane idea of watching horse racing at all the British courses in eighty days. Opportunities to do something completely new in the midst of middle age are rare, and secretly exhilarating because of it.

I now realise quite how new it was, having naively thought that my mileage on the machine would help. They are chalk and cheese – the piston motion of an ergo does not prepare you in any way for the multitude of new variables encountered whilst working around a pivot trying to control a moving blade in moving water. The phrase about old dogs and new tricks is so very apt in this situation. It has been extraordinarily frustrating at times, and that I continue to attempt something that I am really rather bad at tells you a little of the strange allure of the sport and, very occasionally, the exquisite joy of getting it right.

It is also undeniable that I have been inspired by the deeds of my eldest, who continues to embody the word commitment in his approach to the sport (less said about his studies the better….) He has grown physically and emotionally, in confidence and stature, in self awareness and humility through his immense dedication over the last three years, and if I put half as much into it and get half as much out of it over my first three years on the water I shall be proud of my efforts.

He came home on Monday very pissed off. He had done his first 2k of the season and his time was 6:58. It was a personal best, but at the age of 16 personal bests are not good enough when you know you can do better. I suggested it was a fantastic achievement and that he could progress from there, which only seemed to piss him off more. I know now that I must let him simmer in his discontent and use those bitter juices to fuel further advancement through pain.

Let me tell you, with everything I have achieved on an ergo (and I pompously credit myself with plenty) I have never got anywhere close to a sub 7 minute 2k. 7:13 as a young man, 7:18 as an old and fat man yesterday in honour of my son, is as close as I have come. With each year that slips past the goal becomes more unattainable. 18 seconds may not sound like a lot, but in rowing it is a mile away. I shall try, of course.

Back on the water, and last Sunday I rowed in only my second ever race. The Vets Head, named to indicate a time trial for veterans (or Masters as we are now called, meaning old rather than any form of mastery of the art of rowing) and not an unusual pub name, took place on the Tideway over most of the Boat Race course.

The Vets Head 2017

Somehow, and I’m really still not sure how, we won the Men’s Novice category by a narrow margin. I had rowed (in the loosest sense of the word) and won (in the vaguest sense of the concept) over a stretch of water that I had watched on TV for almost 40 years. Perhaps the stern of the boat was filled with so much ballast that we effectively surfed the flood tide rather than rowed it?

The Boat Race, or now the Boat Races as they should be rightfully described (try telling me that the Cambridge women finishing the race last year despite rowing significant parts of it literally underwater wasn’t one of the most courageous and extraordinary sporting spectacles of last year!) can be viewed one of two ways:-

1) An elitist antiquity that is contested by a mix of Hooray Henries and international rowers on made-up degree courses.

2) A supreme test of physical and mental endurance that surpasses anything else in sport for total commitment.

I’m in the latter camp. I must admit that growing up near Cambridge gave me an early interest in the event that others may not have had, but some of my favourite sporting memories come from this sadistic slog over more than four miles. Try reading the brilliant Blood Over Water without being absorbed by the intensity and passion of the 2003 encounter, or try watching the brutal contest from a year earlier when Sebastian Mayer collapsed and Cambridge tried desperately to cling to their lead with only seven men.

That moment encapsulates the unique demands of this sport – other athletes may show similar levels of devotion in training, some may even get close to the lung-bursting, leg-burning exhaustion, but none have the requirement that you operate perfectly in unison under such duress. I’m sure poor Sebastian Mayer isn’t proud of what happened, but to me the real surprise is that there aren’t more episodes like it. If a cyclist or runner are about to pass out they can slow down; a rower can’t.

Perhaps the GB success at recent Olympics with many athletes plucked from relative normality, and who may not have even sat in a boat before being spotted by the extensive scouting set up, has done much to dispel the stereotype of rowers being posh. However, it is an undeniable truth that if you are a state school kid living not very close to a river you are very unlikely to sit in a rowing boat. In that sense, football can rightly claim to be the national game. So, what is club rowing really like?

I come from a state school education and modest background. The members of my club are an eclectic bunch. I pay £28 per month for access to a hanger full of boats, some sporadic but excellent coaching, and a relatively open and straight section of the Thames. It is an amateur organisation run by volunteers, with its own curious brand of characters and politics, but posh it aint and it has been remarkably generous in encouraging someone whose rowing style is similar to a dyspraxic jellyfish and who has turned single sculling into a new swimming discipline.

I would urge anyone thinking of it to get down to their nearest club and ask to go on the Learn To Row course. Through the cold, pain and frustration you may just find moments that will stay with you for the rest of your life. And now I have achieved my dream of racing and winning on the Tideway shall I be getting up 6am this Sunday morning to start all over again? You bet.

(The Boat Races are this Sunday, with BBC coverage starting from 4pm.)