(Pic by Ben Rodford, ridiculous editing by me)

With just two Vets’ Heads under my belt, I’m hardly a world-weary, battle-scarred war horse. I do, however, remember vividly what it’s like to race on the Boat Race championship course for the first time. The Tideway is a strange and confusing environment for anyone who doesn’t train in London, with its own language, familiar-yet-not-familiar landmarks (Really, Harrods? Oh, not actual Harrods), its own micro-climate and the weirdness of a tide (for us non-ridal rowers, utterly baffling). So I thought that it might be helpful for any Vets’ Head virgins to have a little flavour of what to expect at the Vets’ Head. I won’t attempt to deliver a lecture on the course, the tide, how to steer it or anything technical. This is more a snapshot of a somewhat overwhelming event that might make your first time a little easier.

The thrill

Nothing really prepares you for this. Lining up amongst hundreds of boats in such a fabulous setting, hunting down other crews (or being hunted down, in my experience), passing those landmarks you’ve heard name-checked in the Boat Race commentary – it’s a total rush. The first time I rowed under Hammersmith Bridge my heart was pounding as much from the excitement as from the exertion.

The weather

Totally unpredictable. You can get blazing sunshine and a chance to sunbathe during marshalling or waves flinging themselves over the hull and winds that wouldn’t be out of place in Siberia. Sometimes both in the same race. This weekend looks to be quite temperate, mercifully (the Vets Head more so than the HORR the day before), but be prepared for anything. And bring kit for all eventualities.

The wait

Marshalling takes for-e-ver. You’ll be out on the water for a long time and how fun this is will depend entirely on the weather. Just don’t drink a load of coffee before you boat (especially if you’re MasC and above), that’s all I’m saying.

The rowing royalty

Don’t imagine that because it’s the Vets’ Head it’s just a load of crappy, scratch crews. If you look carefully you might well spot some serious rowing elite – ex-Olympians, even – taking to the water, both rowers and coxes. Of course, being the Vets’ Head, if you haven’t got your specs on you might not recognise them, but hey, welcome to masters rowing.

The injuries

It’s absolutely standard for crews (especially, cough, further down the alphabet) to be held together with sports tape and back braces. I always, always get some twinge or niggle earlier in the week and sure enough, have had a twingey back this week (which thankfully is getting better by the day). Social media is already full of shout-outs for people to replace injured crew mates. It’s all part of the fun.

The aggro

(Pic by Ben Rodford)

Don’t be alarmed, but there is something about the Tideway that brings out the gremlin in coxes. Your hitherto mild-mannered janitor of a coxswain may transform on the day into a seething, shouty mass of aggression (not towards the crew, you understand, but towards other crews, coxes and anyone they perceive to be in the way). Roll with the punches; it seems to be a cultural thing.

(Pic by Ben Rodford)

The bragging rights

Even if you come last in your category and are overtaken by crew after crew (trust me, I’ve been there), this is a long, tough race and you should come away with a huge sense of achievement. Racing the Boat Race course gives you serious bragging rights, especially amongst your non-rowing friends. And all the more so given that this Sunday is Mother’s Day. When people ask what I’m doing to mark the occasion and I tell them that rather than having breakfast in bed and being pampered by my loving children, I’m racing the Boat Race course, it feels pretty damned hard-ass (though if anyone wants to bring me breakfast in bed on Monday I’m totally fine with that).

So whatever happens this Sunday, enjoy it. Yes, it’ll be hard. Yes, it’ll push you to your limits. But it’ll also be exhilarating and challenging and an utterly amazing way to spend your Sunday. So go out there and row like a boss. After all, they don’t call us Masters for nothing.