Joining the Thames at Kew Bridge today for a cycle down to Hammersmith, I quickly came upon an unusual scene. The river on both sides was flanked with hundreds of boats – foursomes – all pointing upstream, poised to do something, but what? The lines started just after the bridge and went on almost down to Barnes. I checked on my iPhone and found that it was a veterans’ race from Mortlake to Putney – four and a half miles downstream. Some of the crews looked a bit young to be classified as veterans, but maybe that’s just a reflection of my own advancing years.
Took a while for my brain to twig that yes, my iPhone did have a camera, and I took a few shots from Hammersmith Bridge and the surrounding area. See the end of this piece. Lacking a zoom, the boats seem a bit far away, but you’ll get the picture. I think there must have been a load of mini-races. The first boats I saw in action seemed to be moving pretty swiftly; a few that I saw from the bridge were wavering a bit.
It reminded me of the time I tried rowing at university. I trained for a term in the summer of the second year, as part of the college football club eight. We got to participate in a tournament called “Rowing On”, a prelude to Eights Week at Oxford when the top crews from each college slugged it out. The best crews in Rowing On qualified for Eights Week. The rest of us had our own internal competitions. For us footballers, beating the rugby and hockey eights was all that mattered.
It was the toughest sport I have ever taken part in. Training was early in the morning before the best crews took over the river. Every muscle in your body seemed to have a part to play. It was the best hangover cure I’ve ever encountered. You were ready for bed by 6pm the same day. Knackering.
Rowing On was the most intense sporting challenge I’ve undertaken. You are going flat out for the whole length of the race. But the intensity comes from the need for absolute concentration, because if you don’t “feather” your oars properly before they enter the water you will “catch a crab” and your boat will stop. You will have let your entire team down. Not like football when you can score an own goal, but go up the other end and score. Not like cricket, when an error might put an end to your innings, but not the whole team’s. In rowing, your mistake will terminate the whole team effort. It is the ultimate team sport.
We got through – no crabs and we beat the rugby and hockey boys. The latter crew did come to a halt. How we gloated. The muscles on my right forearm had swelled to twice the normal size. It was the wrong arm, I should have been pulling most with the left arm, for an oar on the right hand side of the boat. Oh well, at least I didn’t mess up. We were dead pleased – the best of the college “joke” eights!
So, big respect for those rowers today. Four and a half miles and all ages. You did it!