Oxford college rowing is wonderfully irrational. Why, despite the rigours of Oxford entry and the prestige of academic success here, do a few individuals risk it all in pursuit of success at this this sport? Why, and in spite of the protestations of friends, tutors, lecturers and non-rowers in general, do they subject themselves to the cold, the blisters, the early mornings and the late nights, the pain and often the eventual disillusionment? While those undertaking the gruelling training for the world-renowned Boat Race can at least justify their sacrifice with the hope of one day seeing their name in lights, even the rowing establishment looks down with disdain on the relatively low standard of rowing on offer at each in Oxford’s inter-collegiate competitions, Torpids in Hilary term and Summer Eights in Trinity.
Yet the sport is addictive, compulsive and stimulates fierce loyalties. At the sharp end of the college bumps charts, the level of commitment to the sport mirrors many university level disciplines. With the weight of over a century’s history determining your crew’s position on the river and the prospect of blades – catching the crew in front every day and so moving up a maximum four places – as the prime motivation, rivalries become fierce and competition fiercer.
The time commitment to the cause rises exponentially with participation in the organisational aspect of a college’s boat club. All are student-run and the majority struggle with limited budgets, coaching shortages and often a worrying lack of genuine expertise. As a president, captain or coach, success is entirely dependent on effective management of people and equipment and on convincing cynics that in the end, it might just all be worth it. It is achievement in a very real sense, measured in bumps and over-bumps, boat speed and stroke rates. There is the ecstasy of blades or the ignominy of spoons, but usually it is just the thrill of racing that draws rowers back year after year.
The day-to-day running of a club contrasts with the excitement of race day. Grand ambitions evaporate when, at half past six on a frosty Michaelmas morning, only seven out of eight rowers and no cox show up expectantly, only to be disappointed. Nevertheless, building and maintain a set of squads that allow rowers to progress through the course of the year and reach race fitness and competence in the limited time span of an Oxford year is both challenging and rewarding.
As I write this, Torpids is only a week and a half away and our preparations for Wednesday are intensifying. Training for our men’s first VIII now takes place every day, either on the river or in the college gym. In the last few weeks, a few very difficult decisions had to be made regarding crew selection as some who have devoted a huge amount of time and energy over the last term and a half ended up bitterly disappointed not to make the cut.
Plans are made for every eventuality and we practice different stages of the race down to the last detail. The racing start, where the objective is to get the boat up to speed as quickly as possible and then put pressure on the crew in front, is dissected into its component parts and hopefully perfected. We plan both courses of action in the case that we are closing on the crew in front as well as last-ditch coxing calls that will be given should we find ourselves under pressure. Simultaneously, we try to judge our speed relative to rival colleges by examining race results and trying to gauge the strength of their squads.
Much of this is academic. In Torpids, where there are no returning blues squad members who return in Trinity to bolster their colleges at the expense of those less fortunate, it is the work in the months and even years that lead up to race day that will decide the outcome in this, definitive team sport.