“You must be bonkers,” said our juniors’ coach cheerfully, when I told him on Friday night that my sculling (and steering) debut was to be at Evesham Regatta. “Tiny, narrow lanes and a hairpin bend…” There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it, and he did later admit he’d been exaggerating, but I knew he was right about one thing. It was completely bonkers.
It wasn’t just that it was my first ever race in a sculling boat. Or that I was a total beginner at steering, with just a few week’s steersmanship under my belt – yet to row successfully in a straight line, let alone master a bend. There was the small matter of a family history with Evesham. Both my sons had had unfortunate experiences there, one enduring the launch-ride-of-shame wrapped in a foil blanket after a capsize in his first ever race, the other having fallen foul of that bend and narrow lanes. So I should have known how bonkers it was.
The truth is I did have a pretty good idea. I was more nervous about that race than I’d been in years. My heart was racing many hours before we took to the water, and a close examination of the course did little to allay my fears. I knew it could go horribly wrong.
And that, my friends, is exactly what happened. By 20 strokes into the race, I was in trouble. I was heading for the bridge (a particularly nasty one that combines concrete with an ill-timed mini-bend) at the wrong angle. Trying not to panic, I started steering one way, then the other. And soon I was veering wildly, correcting, correcting again, and over-correcting. And then….
CRACK!! Our blades smacked into a pontoon at the side of the river and we crunched to an undignified halt. It was a miracle nothing was broken – neither blades nor bones (though I do have a sizeable lump on my leg still where my oar snapped back against it).
Shaken, we restarted and rowed for our lives, gaining lost ground though knowing all was almost certainly lost. Bizarrely, we rowed better after the crash than in that first, hopeful, quarter, and when the bell went at the end we were astonished to find quite how much ground we’d recovered. We lost decisively, but not shamefully, despite my fatal error.
The look on my face as we neared the finish says it all. I was distraught. There was no getting round it – I’d messed up and it had cost us the race. But then an extraordinary thing happened. My crew – genuinely the nicest, kindest, most forgiving people you could ever hope to meet – didn’t just give me a brave, supportive, we’re-all-in-this-together grimace. They smiled. Cheerfully. “Again, again!” they cried, giving every appearance of having thoroughly enjoyed the whole debacle. On the way home they even started consulting diaries to see when we could race next.
So it’s down but not out for me. Of course part of me would dearly love to throw in the towel; to accept I’m no good at steering and leave that unenviable task to someone better and braver. The thought of having to get back into the bow seat and take charge of the steering plate fills me with a measure of dread.
But if I did throw in the towel… well, that would be quitting, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from rowing it’s that I don’t give up. A quitter wouldn’t have kept going through 34 unsuccessful races until she finally won her first pot. A quitter wouldn’t have carried on after catching eight crabs in one outing, back in the early days (though I did cry all the way home that time).
So it’s time to dry off the tears, woman up and get back in the boat. But if you do see me coming, you might want to give me a wide berth. Just, you know, to be on the safe side.
PS for excellent pics of the regatta, check out photographer Chris Roberts’ article here.