At the start, up to 17 eighteen-metre long boats are lined up along the bank with a boat-length-and-a-half between them. There’s a countdown of a four-minute canon and a one minute 'gun' when a coach on the bank will start to push the boat out into the river with a long pole. The cox holds onto a chain to prevent the boat getting an unfair advantage.
Then when the starting canon fires, the cox drops the chain and the crews row as hard and as fast as they can. The start is frenetic, splashy and can be full of panic. The idea is to try to ‘bump’ the boat ahead before the boat behind bumps them. You’re rowing as hard as you can, not knowing how well you are gaining on the boat ahead. (Sometimes coxes lie). Meanwhile, you can see the boat behind and think, are they gaining on us?
The challenge our crew had is that we are what my youngest son, Ʃ, would call a ‘seasoned’ crew and worked out we were about 250 years older than the boat that chased us on the first night. They were lithe sixth-formers (dressed in white) from the local girls’ public school. Predictably they got us, but the event goes on for four evenings. Any boat that ‘bumps’ is promoted further up the start order, while ‘bumped’ boats move down. The aim is to end up ‘Head of the River’. We were full of hope on the second night but again, a younger crew got us. Their start was faster, though we had plenty of comments on how neatly we rowed.
Third and fourth nights were going to be ours, we felt. Setting off rowing as hard as you can is all right, but the difficulty with this race is that you start as if you are running 100m, but have to keep going for over 1000. We kept away from our rivals the third night but by the time we reached the Plough at Fen Ditton, we wanted it to stop. ‘Stoke’ was beginning to whimper. I felt I couldn’t go on. But then I registered that the chasing boat had fallen apart. They had died completely. Suddenly the energy returned and we powered over the finishing line, and an honourable ‘row-over’. Fourth night too we rowed long and strong and again managed to maintain our place. It felt as if we’d done all right, AND we avoided serious collisions with other boats and even the bank.
And it is a great feeling working in metronomic harmony with women you know you can rely on, pushing through beyond fatigue, until finally there is the satisfaction of the end of the race – even if the whole event is mad and pretty pointless.
(With thanks to A and Ʃ for photography)
(I'm rowing at the 7 position)