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29 October 2016 at Queen's College

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A Novice Rower’s Reflections on the Cam

2014-12-31 19.41.20
“As one!” calls the cox, giving voice to that lofty ideal to which all eights aspire – absolute interpersonal synchrony. Our blades catch the viridescent stream, regress unseen before emerging once more, only to repeat ad infinitum this faultless imitation of the dragonfly’s beating wings. “Hush!” the boat seems to admonish, as our seats glide sternwards in counterpoint to our blades. Lost in the clockwork of interminable motion, an oarsman surrenders his ego to the water, and does so to the betterment of that same unceasing act. Rowing, it soon becomes apparent, is a team sport in a sense more profound than one might recognise prima facie. In the doctrine of rowing, team spirit is a basic tenet, a principal so fundamental as to underpin the very mechanics of the sport.
Tom’s head bobs subtly with each heave, and from this tell I know to heave too. Don’t look at his blade, I remind myself, don’t look at your own.1 Those wing-beats remain tightly synchronous, a uniform percussion to which the manifold accompaniments of oar gates locking, seats sliding, riggers creaking, introduce a plaintive melody. But the boat now sits ever so slightly awry, and we risk digging our blades and ruining this harmony that took such attention to cultivate. I sit up taller and inflate my chest, assuming a military posture to help right the boat. Number six, whose eyes are evidently fixed upon my head as mine are on Tom’s, follows suit on seeing me rise. The boat sits well in consequence, a fact which manifests as a relief of tension in my abdomen. We’re going just about as fast as one’s permitted to go on this stretch of the river; everything is effortless now, and I feel that sense of communion between man and machine which one often experiences first on a bicycle. Just as the gyroscopic forces at play in the dynamics of cycling thrill the soul, so too do the anisopteroid mechanics of rowing. “As one…”
Five weeks prior. “Bow, a stroke please,” the cox intones, ”two, back it up…” Sat in a sort of foetal position in the stern, the cox plays puppet master, pulling at strings both figurative and literal.2 “Bow, another stroke…” he’s coordinating the racing eight with incantation. We’re turning the boat around now, rotating about a point, and taking minutes where any respectable crew would take just seconds. At length orientated, parallel to a stretch of the Midsummer Common bank, the boat sits askew on the still water. “To backstops and ready, bow four…” arranged in-line as we are, I can only assume that the man in front wears now an expression of vexation to equal my own – has our cox suffered the very apoplectic malady he speaks of so often? Has he acquired in turn some Oliver Sacksian disorder which jumbles his words beyond comprehension? His alien lexicon is one we’re apparently assumed to learn by osmosis, but thankfully – as we set off with oars in anti-phase – I’m not the only one hearing double Dutch. “Hold it up!” We come so close to colliding with First and Third Trinity, which glides past oily slick carrying a team whose concordance extends even to its navy unitards, that our cox is compelled to reveal by way of apology: “we’re Learn to Row, first day on the water, sorry Trinity.” My fellow beginners and I sit as do children on the naughty step, with rounded shoulders and guilty grins. 
The Learn to Row course is run by the City of Cambridge Rowing Club, an institution whose boasts are proud and two-fold, to wit: theirs is the oldest city (i.e. non-college) club on the Cam, and is one of just two clubs on the river with a licenced bar. Here, the emphasis is on so-called sweeping, as opposed to sculling – the former involving one oar per man, as exemplified by the University Boat Race, and the latter requiring that each man work two oars, as instantiated by some crews of the Henley Royal Regatta. I had thought, I admitted shamefully to our coach, Phil, that the transition from sweeping to sculling was a graduation, as from stabilisers or arm bands, on mastering the basic technique. Not so. A kindly, affable man of middle-age, just three years ago Phil stood at the other, receiving, end of this pedagogic relationship. “As I say,” instructs Phil, rocking forward through genuflexion as he gets the erg2 whirring, “not as I do”; Homer nods. This Miyagi-esque aphorism is received by a boathouse full of attentive faces; Phil’s showing (or, rather, telling) us how it’s done. Phil would later inform the group that all the finesse one might develop on an erg will invariably go by the wayside the moment one gets on the water. He wasn’t kidding. 
Tap down. Arms away. Lean forward. Break the legs. Reverse. Similar instructions might be made of walking, an activity at once simple and, when you think about it, infinitely complex. Arms, back, legs; legs, back, arms. That’s rowing, it’s really that simple, and yet just as consciously directing one’s legs in the fashion of walking makes for a rigid series of discrete, off-beat movements like some parody of the intended act, so too does arms, back, legs; legs, back, arms. With something of a patting-head-while-rubbing-belly feeling, our limbs become foreign things, autonomous appendages which do precisely as we will them not to. 
Rowing, it seems, even at this most novice of levels, represents also a psychic challenge for some. The mellow water’s reflected distortions, of what is today a cloudless cerulean, work to hypnotise the boatman. With his eyes resting in near focus, and ears deaf to all but birdsong, the sedate rower misses a cox call, or else throws the boat’s balance by rubbernecking to take in some scene on the bank. He’s a misfiring cylinder, a deadweight and little more. “Four, wake up!” But four hasn’t yet internalised his number, it’s not indelibly inscribed on his cortex like his Christian name. “Four! Set the boat!” Four is enjoying a Proustian moment, musing poetically on the similarities between love and rivers. Both can be beautiful or shallow, and invariably the result of confluence… each can be fallen in, and to potentially disastrous effect! Aha, and… Four gets a sharp prod in the ribs from three and suddenly drags his unwilling attention back to the boat; he is roused from a blissful reverie with the harsh authoritarian tones of the cox – like waking from a dream in a house fire. The frequency of this issue is limited in part by the fact that boat makers subscribe to the same disciplinary philosophy as schoolteachers, namely: make the seats so intolerably uncomfortable as to hold all but the most virtuosic daydreamer’s attention vicelike.
Things are starting to come together now, and we gain a brief intimation of what we would later recognise as a Golden Moment. A feeling which represents a transcendence of the self – to be thoughtlessly, vacantly, almost metronomically, lost in unified motion. There’s something vaguely Newton’s-cradle-ish, something pendulum-like, about this feeling. I submit that such Golden Moments are to be found in all sports, but none more so than those which are characterised by ‘flow’, another New Age-sounding difficult-to-define-without-devolving-into-poetry state, and the essence of the ever elusive and ephemeral Golden Moment. It is the prospect of these Golden Moments, no doubt, which sees the devoted rower rise with the sun for weekday practice, and keep on pushing even when his legs are brimming with lactate. These Golden Moments are, if you will, the carrot to the cox’s prodigious stick. Indeed, if she weren’t so diminutive, the average cox would put most drill sergeants to shame, but it is the Golden Moments which proffer chronic incentive.
By the end of the first session, ours is a fatigue as much of the mind as of the body. Even the process of returning the boat to its rack is one steeped with ritual. A series of steps, each elicited by another obscure call from the cox, brings the boat finally to our shoulders. We hold the boat4 with a sepulchral reverence, pallbearers marching as if to a slow tattoo, mourning the flesh of our palms and the sensation in our shoulders, we set the boat down on twin trellises and go about washing it off. Once the boat’s condition meets the tacit satisfaction of the cox, and the oars are safely stowed, we gather about the coach for “debriefing”5. It’s standing in this circular congregation that I first take note of the social achievement CCRC makes, twice p.a., in assembling such a culturally diverse group of people6 and inspiring in them a passion for the team gestalt. This is an especially grand achievement when one considers the modal temperament of the group, which is decidedly shy and introverted. That this dispositional barrier was surmounted, as was necessary for the performance of the sport, is testament to the utility of CCRC and other such institutions in fostering social cohesion and integration – concepts whose realisation has never been more urgent. I’m painfully aware of how gimmicky it might sound to suggest that learning to row in an eight might make you a better employee, or spouse, or even that on some abstract level it might make you more aware of group dynamics. It’s most unfortunate, therefore, that these claims should be true. It is yet more inconvenient that my experience is best decocted to a single trite phrase: we are better “as one…”
  1. Rowing, like so many sports (think cycling, running etc.), is one performed best with eyes ahead (or behind, w/r/t the direction of travel, rowing being perhaps the only sport performed backwards), away from the business end of the procedure. To look anywhere but 12 o’clock is to offer up your attention to irrelevant stimuli, and, perhaps more importantly, to unbalance the boat.
  2. A small and mostly ineffectual rudder is controlled by the coxswain via two wires emerging in the stern.
  3. Erg being a contracted form of ‘ergometer’, a posh word for ‘rowing machine’ favoured by the initiated. 
  4. Of whose monetary value we are at all times acutely aware (approximately £12,000).
  5. One gets to thinking of whether “debriefing”, as deployed here and in common rowing parlance, might be a nod to the term’s usage in studies of psychology, after which (often confused, psychically-manipulated and perhaps even traumatised) “participants” are converted back to regular old “people” through an explanation of the study’s goals and methods. Our coach takes a similar tack (pun very much intended), to the effect that we forgive him his voice-raising and stern (I can’t help it) demeanour, and don’t harbour (I’ll stop now) enmity for him.
  6. 16 rowers and as many nationalities in the case of my cohort, many with names which, to the English sensory apparatus, seem to have either too many vowels or improbably few - perhaps this is why we were assigned numbers.
‘A Novice Rower’s Reflections on the Cam’ was originally published at atimeformanywords.wordpress.com, where other such articles by the author may be found. 

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