The inanity of casual rowing: just don’t do it


Way back in the autumn of 2010, I went for my first proper rowing outing. I was excited to be in Oxford, and rowing was one of the first activities on my list of ‘must tries’. (To reassure my regular readers – the second thing on the list was much less nerdy and probably the result of going to an all-boys school since the age of seven).

I enjoyed the camaraderie, and the near death experiences from having an inexperienced cox really just brought us closer together as a team. The skin tight lycra was almost flattering in my opinion, and I thought a pleasant weekly outing on the river would become a regular part of my Oxford life. The odd massive trophy would also be a nice souvenir of my time here.

However things started to go a little wrong after the Christchurch Regatta, which was reserved exclusively for new rowers. That was good natured fun, and the wild swerving down the river was probably as close as I’ll ever come to being part of a bobsled team. But once that was over we were no longer novices. We had entered the brutal, testosterone fuelled world of ‘senior’ rowing, where young adults actually seem to deeply care about how many ergs they could pull or whatever. Since I am no longer in school and having to endure being shouted at by hairy men with whistles where their ties should have been, I did not feel the need to attend what were essentially P.E. lessons but with less softball and more rowing on machines. This lead to the coach becoming distressed with me, and telling me I had to ‘want it more than the other team’. The truth was though, I really didn’t want it more than the other team. They were welcome to it.

We had all been grouped into one huge New College Rowers collective, from which the first and second boats would be chosen.  This meant that the same rigorous training schedule had to be obeyed by everyone, and when I inevitably fell short of what was expected for a future Olympic rowing captain I was made to feel ashamed.  Not helping this of course was the sudden downturn in temperatures, which had actually frozen the boat into one huge lump of carbon fibre infused ice. The outings changed from pleasant afternoons to cruelly early mornings, with thousands of little daggers of freezing sleet worming their way under the four t-shirts and 2 hoodies that I wore to every outing. This was also a source of amusement for the Übermensch captain in his conspicuously not-thermal baggy shorts and vest, icicles dangling like pointy earrings from the sides of his head. Clearly the abundance of clothing meant that I wasn’t rowing hard enough, and had nothing to do with the Plutonian temperatures causing lumps of air to fall around us in solid lumps.

There seemed to be no place in the rowing community for anyone who just enjoyed it as an activity.  It was a constant contest to pull the hardest, to attend the most sessions and to arrive earliest at the training camp. None of these things sounded particularly fun, and I realised one day that I was actually happy when an outing was cancelled. Which raised the obvious question – why was I signing up for them at all? I was volunteering large chunks of my day to be frothed at by a dodgeball-esque coach maintaining that my back wasn’t straight enough, or one of a dozen other complaints that were humiliatingly yelled my way across a crowded and noisy stretch of river.

My only remaining option is to become part of a ‘beer boat’. These are normally the third or fourth boats in a College team, and are made up of rowers who just want to have fun with just one or two practices before the race.  These are great fun, and definitely go some way to catering to those for whom rowing is not such a calling. Unfortunately they are very irregular, usually only happening a couple of times a year, and so aren’t really the solution if I just fancy an outing on a pleasant day.  Many people have been driven away from rowing by all the alpha male chest beating and in-jokes, which is a real shame for an institution which probably prizes rowing above most academic subjects.

I am glad I tried rowing, and sorry that it didn’t work out. I guess actually enjoying the sport for its own sake doesn’t translate well into Oxford-speak.


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