Every now and then something happens that shakes a club to its foundations. So it was last year, when Colin, one of our most stalwart members, was diagnosed with cancer. He will hate me making this all about him (sorry, Colin), which in itself tells you all you need to know about him. He – and his whole family, for that matter – are the ones who are always there, putting in the hours on the erg and on the water, sweeping the steps to get the silt off, wielding the brushes when the gym and toilets have flooded (again), organising all kinds of stuff behind the scenes. It was unthinkable that anything bad could happen to any of them.

Colin at Llandaff, not letting the diagnosis stop him from racing - or lugging blades around.

A very wet Colin at Llandaff, not letting the diagnosis – or the rain – stop him from racing

It was equally unthinkable that he would let the illness get the better of him. So as soon as he had got a very welcome all-clear, following various rounds of treatments, he was back at the club and doing ergs that put the rest of us to shame.

And now he, and a frankly unhinged group of other rowers (including his daughter), are about to embark on a challenge to raise money for the Velindre Cancer Centre, where he received treatment. They are off this weekend to race 90 km through some of the loveliest bits of Holland in the Heart of Holland race.


Even the sight of these won’t make it easy.

If you read that quickly, I urge you to go back and read it again. 90km. That’s 55 miles. Or 18 x 5k sessions. Or 9 x tortuous 10 k sessions. In one go. Think of the blisters. And the rest.

For one of the rowers, it’s a mere hop. The whole crazy endeavour was prompted by an old friend of our club, the pint-sized and frankly astonishing Helena Smalman-Smith, who rowed the Atlantic five years ago (I wrote about her here). Every year or so she rounds up some old pals and – with persuasive powers they struggle to resist – talks them into doing a rowing challenge.

What Helena failed to disclose in her original invitation to the gang (mentioning it only once everyone was on board) was that not only is it a heck of a long way, it involves some fearsomely difficult navigation. Wrong turnings are a distinct possibility. And as the crew are taking it in turns to cox, they’re all under the same navigational pressure. Not to mention the fact that some of them (including Colin) have had to learn to scull in order to compete.


Don’t be fooled – it’s not all this straight…

So why did they all get talked into it? I asked a few of them. Here’s what Eric, who is rowing alongside his wife, Lisa, had to say:

“It was easy to agree when Helena asked us to join her for the Hart van Holland because she is a master of organisation and logistics. I have done other long distance rows at her suggestion – round Lake Geneva and in Finland last year in Church boats. Helena also coxed the MRC ladies 8+ at Boston a few years ago so Lisa felt she should repay the favour and has not actually rowed with Helena before which was also an appeal.

 “The fact that Colin wanted to scull and raise money for Velindre (the clubs charity this year) following his recent treatment there made it more compelling.”

Then there’s John, who only stepped up two weeks ago when another member of the team had to back out because of an injury.

“Our Chairman James has such a lovely persuasive manner. He assured me that I would spend a fair proportion of the time coxing, which would give ample time to feast from the picnic hamper, tend one’s blisters and admire the tulips and windmills in the spring sunshine, while occasionally urging on the crew of sweating 50 year olds to greater efforts.

“Then I saw the course map: waterways like roads branching all over the place, signposts, if any, in double Dutch, right angle bends, bridges so low the crew has to lie flat, big locks, a dyke so narrow that paddles are needed, crossing the Rhine twice. Too late, I’ve agreed to do it. What a privilege anyway for a lightweight ancient mariner to be able to row with such superb MRC oarsmen.

“I don’t enjoy fundraising, but most of us know friends or relatives who have been affected by cancer, and as an ex medic I know how wonderful it is for a hospital to receive charitable donations. This row will be a huge challenge for all of us, and to raise some money for Velindre cancer hospital will make it even more worthwhile.”

Most importantly of all, here’s what Colin himself said:

“In the summer of 2015 I was diagnosed with cancer. I raced at Llandaff knowing the diagnosis but not the prognosis, effectively I thought that was it for my rowing. The prognosis was as good as it could have been, the prescription – chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I was spared the need for surgery.

“I attended Velindre as an inpatient for a couple of weeks for the chemotherapy, then for six weeks as a day patient undergoing radiotherapy. Treatment was completed on 6th November 2015.

“My time at Velindre was no picnic, but all of the staff – cleaners, food servers, doctors and nurses – treated me with dignity, empathy, and humour. I have the greatest admiration for the staff and their dedication.

“Since the treatment finished I have been challenged by the side effects, but with the help and support of my family and friends (particularly those at MRC) I have made great progress.

“The message I received loud and clear was that I should not let cancer dictate my life, so back to rowing. It is clear Velindre needs money, I needed a new challenge to put my two fingers up to cancer, and the two come together with Utrecht. Big challenge, learn to scull, get some fitness, put some weight back on, and raise money for Velindre. Work in progress on all fronts!”

I dare say all of this has given you pause for thought. Perhaps, like me, you’ve discovered something in your eye. So instead of wiping it away and moving on, I urge you to make a donation, however modest, to help the guys put two fingers up to cancer. It’s a brilliant cause, and the money is being raised by some brilliant people. Go on, just do it – just click here.

Just do it.

Just do it.