Devils Tails from the Riverbank 10

Stourport Regatta – 2019

I started writing this way back at the beginning of August. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to finish it. It’s like taking a very long trip down memory lane now.

Sunday morning (11th August 2019 – see what I mean?). The new day dawns and I’m sitting here at home in my jim-jams, first pint of tea in hand and thinking of the rest of my friends who will all be just in the process of poking their heads out of their tents and camper vans in Stourport-on-Severn (the Birmingham Riviera). I tried to persuade my wife that it’d be a good idea for us to camp too, but she said she‘d find sitting on the bank all weekend watching other people racing boats too boring, so that was that really. She tends to say more or less exactly what she thinks, which can be a good thing – sometimes.

Yesterday (now near the start of last month  – Sat 10th Aug) started pretty early for some of us who were riding shot-gun with (chairman) Jim, towing a trailer load of our boats down in time for our first race of the day, which happened to be Jim and I in our double scull. As it happened, we needn’t have bothered because our competition scratched their crew for some reason. They were there but didn’t want to race us. They probably saw us bringing our trailer in and were so over-awed by our strength and athleticism that they just gave up on the spot, or something like that. So, we got a ‘by’ to our final at mid-day and we rowed OK but were out-classed by a much stronger (and even more athletic) crew from Birmingham Rowing Club. Advancing age (in this case ours) is known to undermine performance in lots of ways and British Rowing does operate a scheme for accommodating our deteriorating faculties by classifying the boat according to the average age of its crew. Ageing rowers can be classed as anything between a ‘Masters A’ crew (if your average age is between 27 & 36) and a ‘Masters K’ for anything above 85 years old. They don’t seem to bother much after that for some reason. Jim and I felt the brunt of this at Cambridge Regatta last September when our opposition (who averaged Jim’s age) had a 9 second head start on us because of my relative youth. That’s a very long time to have to wait, poised like a coiled spring while you listen to the splishing and sploshing of your opposition receding into the distance behind you. It’s fair to say that I didn’t see anything of that race, bearing in mind that we rowers spend our whole life on the water gazing fixedly into the past. I could definitely hear them again approaching the finish though and we finished a second behind them, which sort of proves that it works as a system. We were racing in an ‘Open’ category yesterday though as there weren’t any other ‘Masters’ around for us to play with, so we weren’t able to fiddle any advantage from our seniority over those young bloods from Birmingham. I don’t so much mind being beaten though, if they deserve to win and they’re pleasant about it.

As we were racing down, we were cheered on by (young) Darren Hickman (well, it’s all relative) in his single scull, making his way up for the start of his race. We were back at the bank to cheer him on to the finish and it looked a pretty even match to me, though I think he’d probably lost a bit of ground steering in the gusty conditions. I was a bit concerned that he might have hit the near bank as he was coming through the bridge, but he salvaged the situation and made a good strong finish, gaining steadily as he headed for the line.

Our next race was our men’s cox-less quad (4x-) against Derwent Rowing club, with Jim, Jeremy Greenwood, me and Darren in the boat (in that order from bow to stern). We had a 4 second head start on them (for the reasons explained above) and we got off to a fairly good start but we could see them gaining on us steadily once they were unleashed. Four seconds seems to pass very quickly when you have the advantage of the handicap and it’s unsettling to see your lead being steadily eaten away. Being unsettled is the worst thing you can do though. You really need to switch yourself off entirely from what anybody else is doing and concentrate on your own business. Keeping your eyes and your mind entirely in the boat is the only way of making a race of it. It’s a different matter altogether if you’re in the lead and holding on to it. Then you can really relax and revel in it. It’s a bit of a mind thing, but your boat really seems to move better when you’re relaxed (and in the lead). Anyway, Derwent took the lead about half way down the course and beat us to the line fairly comfortably, so that was our chance of a men’s pot done with for the day. We raced (and lost to) the same Derwent crew at Leicester Regatta earlier in the year and they look a very competent bunch so I think they deserved their win, though it’s painful to admit it.

The rest of August has now fallen through a rip in the space-time continuum and I’m trying to recall some detail about our ladies’ races at Stourport, without a great deal of success. I remember that storm-force winds were scheduled to regale us with their presence at about the same time as our first ladies crew took to the water. I’ve known other regattas being cancelled for less, but Stourport reckon that if you’re nestled between the lush green banks on their stretch of the Severn you shouldn’t come to too much harm.

For me, racing a ‘pair’ is the pinnacle of rowing excellence and anyone who does it should be revered as a guru, or at least as someone who really, really knows what they’re about. In comparison, a single or double scull is like a walk in the park because you have control of one blade on each side of the boat so steering is relatively easy (apart from not looking the right way) and if things go a bit wobbly, you at least have the ability to stop yourself falling over on both sides of the boat. In a ‘pair’, each of the two in the boat has control of one sweep oar only, which means that whilst you might have plenty of control on your side of the boat, you’re utterly reliant on your mate to look after things on their side. If they don’t come up to the mark when you look like rolling over their way, there’s really nothing whatsoever you can do about it (other than to remember to smile in case anybody’s filming you). Rowing a pair is one real example of ‘In my mate I trust’. If ‘in your mate you doubt’ then you just wouldn’t do it. In a nut-shell, to race a pair requires precise technique, an absolute match of balance, timing and pressure on every single stroke you take and a very high level of empathy and mutual understanding. In my view its an absolute test of your rowing ability. Brian Jarvis (our Men’s Captain) and Philip Thompson are two such from our Men’s squad and, jumping back to Stourport Regatta, Holly Kemish and Clare Sedgwick flew+ the flag for our Ladies’ squad. With all this build up to our first ladies’ race of the day, it’s going to be something of an anti-climax for you to hear that my first sight of Holly and Clare, as they emerged round the last bend onto the finishing straight, was to see a blast from a howling westerly finding its way through between the bushes on the aforementioned ‘lush green banks’ of the Severn and shoving their opposition out into mid-stream and them into the reeds on the far bank. Naturally, their opposition made the most of this happy turn of events. By the time our two heroes had disentangled themselves, the race marshal held them there until the next race had gone by before allowing them to carry on and finish. Shame. But you can’t win them all. They did come home with a pot each from their next race at Cambridge Regatta on 8th Sept though, so that’s some consolation for them. The details are going to have to remain a bit vague on that race because I wasn’t there.

We had two other ladies’ boats out that day but I can’t remember the details sufficiently after all this time to be able to tell you about them in any interesting and amusing way. I’m so sorry ladies. One thing I do remember though is the brass band playing in the beer tent. It was slightly disturbing for me to realise that I could put words to about 25% of their repertoire, most of them being astonshingly rude. This is all fall-out from my mis-spent youth. I was never ever much good at rugby but I could sing, which I think is the main reason they liked having me along. Looking back (and taken out of context) it all seems fairly distasteful really. Oh well. Happy days. It’s so hard to be perfect. One of my absolute favourites was ‘The Carnival of Venice’ which is something that (decades later) my younger son used to play on his trumpet. It was so hard for me not to sing along whilst he was playing, but I’m glad I didn’t because it would have ruined it for him (probably).

Ed Sinfield

Devil’s Elbow Rowing Club – Recreational Captain