It’s Eights week in Oxford – a week in which the Isis is filled with crews from Oxford University colleges attempting to bump each other (quite literally in many cases) in order to win the coveted Head of the River.
Now back in the day, when Girl on the River was a scruffy student with distinctly dodgy hair, I thought I’d have a go at rowing. I was resolutely unsporty and shockingly unfit, but this didn’t stop me from signing up at the rowing club at the beginning of the summer term. I thought that rowing in Eights Week would be a nice thing to add to the list of Things You Should Do Whilst at Oxford and had an idea that rowing might be a little bit like punting, only with everyone joining in.
Before I knew it, I was a proud member of the Worcester College Women’s Second VIII. Not bad, you might think, except when seen in context: there were only 16 women in my year. God only know who was in the Third VIII (I don’t think I ever met any of them).
The difference between the First VIII and the Second VIII was pretty stark. The First VIII rowed most days, got up at 5 a.m. for early outings, ran down to the boathouse as a warm-up, trained on the erg, kept the drinking and partying to a minimum, went to Henley and even wore some weird stretchy stuff called lycra. More importantly, they could actually row.
The Second VIII couldn’t have been more different. I don’t recall how often we trained, but it wasn’t very often. We didn’t do early mornings. Our warm-up consisted of a gentle cycle. We never went near an erg. We kept the drinking and partying to a maximum, never went to Henley and wore whatever tatty T-shirt we could lay our hands on. Oh, and we couldn’t row. We really, really couldn’t. Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at this:
Girl on the River, in case you’re wondering, is at 7. See what I mean about the hair?
There are several things to note here, if you can, for just a moment, drag your eyes away from my bad barnet and even worse technique.
1. There’s no cox box. Coxes were made with powerful lungs in the olden days, and ours was no exception. I’ll never forget her shouting “Just 10 more strokes” when there were in fact about 80 to go.
2. We are in time. This was rare.
3. No lycra or matching kit. Bet even the third eight have all-in-ones these days.
4. We are down on bow side. Some things never change.
So how did we do? Well, I’m afraid it’s a sad story. We failed to qualify for Eights Week by about a second (hardly surprising, really), precipitating my first bout of rowing tears. And soon after that we decided to call it a day. It was nearly 25 years before I picked up an oar again, but somewhere a seed had been planted.
It was worth the wait, though: I can safely say that adult rowing has been a much more rewarding experience. Rowing without a hangover has proved a revelation, as has being fit enough to survive an outing without risking heart failure. Oh, and I think we can all agree that I have much better hair.