In 1983 the world-renowned Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews took part in a friendly match-off on a river in the heart of São Paulo in Brazil. I was privileged to be on the sidelines watching with binoculars in hand. The grit and determination shown by those men at the prime of their college careers was a far cry from the carefree afternoons I had spent punting and picnicking along Cambridgeshire’s river Cam with family and friends. Unable to shake off the enduring legacy of those Oxbridge athletes, I took to learning their trade in 1991 on the placid waters of Lake Washington, just east of Seattle in the northwest corner of the United States. I was an exchange student looking for adventure. And rowing seemed to be just the pastime for nourishing my inner soul-need. I would clamber into an eight-man scull and spend Thursday afternoons crossing the lake. Rowing at high speed with the coxswain in front maintaining our rhythm took my mind away from the demands of schooling. Riding alongside in the comfort of a motorboat with megaphone in hand was our fearless coach-—a man of modest build with a prosthetic leg who appeared to draw pleasure from reminding us that even a momentary loss of concentration might result in oars smashing into our ribs (‘catching a crab’ in rowing speak). We had to remain alert, synching our seemingly graceful movements with those of the rest of the crew.
During my more gutsy moments I would venture out in a single-man scull. I learned how to recover from a capsized boat the hard way, deliberately tipping myself into the water and sliding back on through a delicate combination of oar grabbing and body contorting. My crew buddies got a kick out of declaring that it is better to learn safety drills in the cold of icy lake waters than in the heat of an emergency scramble. With my ever-growing confidence, I soon decided that it was time for the competitive scene. Continue reading