I have long admired the graceful fluency of rowing that masks the reality of the brute force being applied. This fluency is more apparent, naturally, the more there are in a boat, like in the Boat Race when eight men pull in perfect, beautiful symmetry.
We are a team of four – although possibly swelling to six – but on day one of preparation for the pivotal rowing stage of our Arch to Arc expedition from London to Paris, there was little beauty in my debut sea rowing performance. There’s only so much blame I can attribute to the force 7 weather that yesterday swept the south coast of England.
We were in good hands, nonetheless. Our mentor was Langstone Adventure Rowing’s Mike Gilbert, whose CV of Channel crossings includes John Bishop’s mega-fundraising effort earlier this year for Sport Relief.
After introductions, a health and safety briefing, land-based stretching and careful negotiation of the harbour, we were in the open water of the Hayling Island estuary, ready to row, a keen southwesterly tugging on our oars. Mike had put me in the ‘stroke’ position at the front (or is the back?) with my responsibility being to set the pace. I went off like a train, a train that accelerated, decelerated, missed strokes and, on occasions, slapped aimlessly at the water. I wasn’t a natural. Mike needed a metronome; he got the opposite: an erratic, hurried, unpredictable novice.
We swapped positions. I fared little better when following the stroke, repeatedly failing to stay in time. I did get better – slowly. I would pull 10 or 15 fluent, in-time strokes only to jump ahead or catch my oar in the water. I wasn’t consciously losing concentration but that must have been the problem.
We returned to port for a break, but we were back on the water half an hour later, briefed on how to work better as a team. This seemed to be the essential problem for me. Following years of competing in individual sports, the need to cooperate with others was alien. As much as I wanted to do my own thing, I couldn’t – and that was hard.
My rowing second time round was generally more accomplished, but, if anything my performance was punctuated by more mistakes. Mike, in the role of cox, shouted at me – again and again and again. Apart from my first newspaper editor, no-one had ever spoken to me like that before. It was refreshing – to be told explicitly that you are wrong and why. It made me dwell on pedagogy; I mused whether such a forthright, direct approach would work with sensitive children.
Back on land, we debriefed again. Physically, I was fine. My hands were a little blistered, but gloves would have prevented that. It was the technique that left me floundering. We have two potential training sessions left, both of them hopefully lasting four hours, one of which should see us into the big water of the English Channel.
I went to Hayling Island an innocent rowing novice. I remain a novice, but my innocence has been swept away. This challenge isn’t just about the doggedness of keeping going, of running unthinking over hills for hours. This involves concentration and timing, team work and technique. It is, therefore, in many ways a greater challenge than the Bob Graham Round. For that, I knew what I was doing; it was my sport. Rowing is utterly different, transporting me from all I know, exposing me to areas that – at the moment – are way out of my comfort zone. I’ve got seven weeks.