Even today when I see in books or magasines the names of Oxford's college boat races (Torpids, Summer Eights, Bumps, Christ Church Regatta) I get a twinge. It's nothing like the apprehensive throe I felt back then when I rowed in a crew. Then, when I looked at the races and seat names posted in the boat house I'd become nervous to the point of throwing up.
Twenty five years on and when I return to Oxford I try to time my visit for early summer - and whenever possible in the remaining term time pre final exams - so that I can watch the crews out on the water. In the afternoons it is enjoyable to walk the towpath along the Isis and lose myself in the memories of the times when I was out rowing alongside the crews, holding it up occasionally to avoid a collision.
As a middle aged spectator, watching the rowers striding out, driving their boats across the water, I am envious as much as I am contented. I suppose I'm like most "old blokes" become who haven't come to grips with it yet. The 'it' being the younger men doing the things we once did, seemingly better than we did and oh so well.
Rowing eights in summer was without doubt the best sport I have been involved with. In summer, rowing was wonderful. Rowing in winter had a beauty, but that was a weird attractiveness and in some ways it was sadistically queer. Like fancying Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or thinking that Helen Mirren might be able to teach me a thing or two.
From October until late March my rowing and studying life was geared into the club's training program and the crew selection machine; Mens, Novices, Seniors, Eights, Fours, Strokeside Bowside. Most of the time we weren't on the water. Circuit training. Weights. Runs. More circuits. Ergos. Tanks. More circuits and more runs. Always breathless. Always wondering if the arms could do more. My legs were never an issue.
I remember winter's pre Christmas slice being the worse; the times after the clocks changed and foggy Guy Fawkes Night. Cold and wet on the water. Damp, damp, damp and damp when off. Damp room. Damp clothes. Damp when cycling up Headington Hill to tutorials and library sessions with the works of Brian Goodey and Colin Ward. Damp on the way to play Tim at squash. I can't remember being warm or totally dry in the winter. I was drizzled on, rained on,occasionally sleeted and snowed on. If the weather wasn't doing the moisture then I had my own perspiration. Here in Asia, now, it is my foreheads and armpits that reminds me of the weather. In Oxford it was my ears, fingers and feet that alerted me to the English climate.
Rowing's winter tapped into a protestant work ethic, "this will all be worth it some day" sadistic pay back beauty. My rowing winter was a visual winter world painted pants-weather-white and washed-out-gray. Some green sploshed in the meadows stretching away from the river banks, as a treat. Charcoal gray lines for trees and bushes. I'm thankful that Constable and Claude couldn't paint a biting wind and that Turner was only bothered about steam. If they could I'd now need a coat and a flask every time I visited the National Gallery.
Back in my chilly basement Stanley Road flat I had my Matisse posters to colour and brighten up the gray. But the cold never left. Even in the steaming shower my naked bum or head or arms or whatever part it was that was left out of the direct water flow was tuned into the cold of the Oxford winter. The hot tap scolded one hand, the cold tap was arctic icy on the other. Getting the temperature tolerable needed the precision of a professional safe picker. The calcium smell from the pipes, condensation on the windows and walls and Stanley Road was a few notches up in standards from my previous room on Iffley Road; opposite from where Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile.
In the first winter training the crew was unstable. The crew hadn't been picked. That was what made training worse. People moved in and out of seats as the coaches assessed various combinations; bow rigged, frig rigged, trad rig and the like (that is, how the bowside blades lined up with the strokeside blades up and down the boat, and how the riggers were screwed to the boat shell to support the oars). We were competing against each other as well as learning techniques and building our strength.
Competing for a place against my own mates meant I was, as was everyone else, working out whose fault it was for the messing up; hoping the videos would show it was never me in the wrong. In winter it was about getting into the crew that was written on the wall, and then staying in it. The boat doesn't balance, who is doing that? Can't be me. Some catches aren't sharp, whose aren't? Surely not mine. Timing is off. Someone rushing up the slide. In winter one it seemed more about individuals, this individual. It was in Spring that the team really started to come together - when we were treated as a team and we stopped competing aggressively amongst ourselves.
I think the first winter went away when the trust came out.
My following Oxford winters were associated with the Head season. Heads are where crews set off at intervals and race against the clock in one long procession. Heads are supposed to test stamina. What they really do is test whether you can take more cold and more wet and more damp in various spots across the country. Up at sparrows fart, in the minibus and off to a stretch of water miles and miles away.
The last head of the season is The Head of the River.The Head is rowed on the Tideway the weekend before the Boat Race and in reverse to the course the Blues boats take. There are well over 200 crews doing it and the trail of boats continues all morning.
The first time I did The Head I stroked, on bowside - because I had this tendency to lean out the boat when tired. That twenty minutes felt as if I was locked into a never ending slog. The second time wasn't much better, but at least we were allowed to use a lighter weight non wooden shell. Although we still needed a large fin behind the bow rower to stop the Thames' waves crashing in over the back of the boat and sinking us. I didn't make a third run, but for those college crews that do it is probably the last time the men in the boat will row a head race in their lives, as after three years they are off to work and little time for winter training. When I watch the final scene of "Friday Night Lights" when the guys are in the football car park I am taken back to the last race I had at college level. Same emotions. A tight bond. A secure knot, soon to be cut.
Here is a video I lifted and edited that squeezes the twenty minutes into six, a "Soundscape of the Tideway." (A thought, all these motivation and team building books and papers that use rowing as an example sport. Take it from me. If these books don't mention the sound of rowing, the noise of a team rowing, how the sound of an organized gelled team works, then they don't know jack about / haven;t experienced what they are writing about.)
After the heads it's summer, regattas, write ups and exams.
By now I'd lost the hand problems. My palms had toughened up and my blisters had hardened into crisp leathery callouses. I could cope with body acids and exhaustion. I'd got into a cycle that balanced training, studying, training, rowing, working the lobby at MacDonalds, working the banquets at The Randolph, home to sleep, training and so the spiral went forward. Three tremendous years as a post graduate living life to the full and on five hours sleep a day.
It was marvelous and more so in summer. During marvelous, glorious summer the rowing soundscape changed. At the regattas the nine Me's in the boat had become one Us. Our energy was focused on smashing, pummeling, destroying the Thems.
After Winter One Me we lived for Summer Us.
It was Us that looked ahead and to the boat of thems as we pulled away. It was Us that exploded off the start with punchy half strokes to then take it up, shunt, shunt and stride away. It was Us that were balancing beautifully with neat blades. It was Us that made it look good for Esther and Claire and Dick as we passed the boat houses for our last time.