Learning to row


My father rowed in the 1950 and 1951 boat race crews. I’ll be posting something later this week about the toll taken by the second of these races, in which his Oxford crew sank. Here for the moment is a short extract from my book dealing with his first few weeks learning to row:

No amount of practice could have prepared my father for his first weeks rowing on the river. He would have been surrounded by dozens of other boys, also learning to row. Amongst the beginners will have been boys whose boats twisted first one and then the other, boys who lacked the strength or technique to row against a current, boys rowing without finesse their oars flapping on and against the water. Several no doubt will have capsized as they struggled to cope with the wash of steamers boating over from Windsor. The best of the new intake must surely have done little more than paddle themselves gently away from the worst beginners.

Step by step, my father will have learned to coordinate the kick in his legs and the thrust in his arms, where to place his energy, how to hold his hands around the oars. He must have learned to trust his body to come forward (too far forward, it will once have seemed) at the start of the stroke, and to fall back far (too far?) at its end.

He breathed the fresh summer air. He returned home afterwards, his face red from the sun, content.

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