Summer VIIIs: An Oxford dream

10…5…3…2…1… BANG! The cannon goes off marking the beginning of the longest six minutes of my life. It’s the last race of the Summer Eights, the biggest intercollegiate rowing event of the year. Seated in the third seat of Pembroke’s M2 boat, I felt the adrenaline course through me. Every person in the boat trained for dozens of hours erging at the gym, rowing at Godstow, and the ISIS. All the training inevitably comes down to just 6 short minutes of immense adrenaline, power, cohesion and hopefully, celebration.

When I, a junior from Tufts, applied for the Visiting Student program at Oxford, I perused the extracurricular activities available to students, and intercollegiate rowing caught my eye instantly. Watching videos of “Torpids” from as early as 1932 by the British Pathé, I knew I wanted to be a part of the action and the legacy of rowing at Oxford.

After arriving at Oxford, I joined the first rowing “taster” session, and my expectations were blown away. My visiting student status never held me back for a moment: the boat club made me feel at home and at ease, I bonded with fellow rowers, senior and novice, and felt my bond and loyalty to the club grow. Before I knew it, we were getting ready to row in the Christ Church Regatta, a head-on-head race for novice rowers.

It was my boat’s competitive rowing debut and in our first race it really showed! Right after the start, our stroke’s seat came loose, instigating a panic as we saw him lift the seat above his head in despair, something that even most senior rowers have never witnessed. In the following races we became more composed and managed to finish fourth overall. I was eager to step up my game and do better in Hilary’s “Torpids”.

During Torpids, Pembroke M3 had a very successful campaign. We bumped three times, overtook the boat starting in front of us, and took headship among men’s third boats.  We were also just centimetres from attaining the highest possible reward in intercollegiate rowing, the coveted “blades”, given out to crews who can successfully overtake four boats, at least one bump on each day of the regatta. The proximity of the reward left me yearning for more; I was eager for my promotion to M2.

Rowing in Hilary was inexplicably gorgeous. With flowers blooming and songbirds serenading, every stroke felt heavenly . I was now rowing for M2 bowside and ramping up my training for the “Eights”. The dewy meadows of Medley kept my mind off academics, but the coxswain’s incessant reminder to “keep our head in the boat” didn’t let my thoughts run amok. 

Before I knew it, there I was: my legs sprang into action as we accelerated up the Isis. Just ahead of us awaited Corpus Christi M1. The day before, we had “emptied our tanks” chasing them for the entire race, only managing to overlap with them just before the finish line. It was an exhausting row-over, finishing in the same position we had started. But now, we were determined to seek revenge.

Metre by metre, we closed in on our rivals. With a steady and powerful rhythm, our coxswain spurred us on, shouting motivational phrases like “ribs,” “looong,” and my personal favourite, “presscelerate.” As we approached the crossing near University College boat house, his voice rang out: “OVERLAP.” The thousands of spectators cheering from the banks rejuvenated us, and we poured our hearts into the next 20 strokes.

Amidst the clamour, I heard: “concession, wind down.” In that moment, everything felt perfect. From my transatlantic voyage to Oxford to my final race in the Eights, every step had led me to this point. Our teammates sprinted along the banks, cheering, “Yaaaa Pembroke!” while tall glasses of Pimms awaited us for a well-deserved celebration after “landing.”

We finished the season ranking third among men’s second boats with two bumps under our belts. Our first division boats remained well positioned for the 400th anniversary of the college with Pembroke M1 finishing in 5th and Pembroke W1 in 6th. As for Heads of the River, Oriel M1 remained in control and Christ Church W1 took the women’s headship.

After the last race, all the rowers rushed to bathe in the Isis and celebrate the end of another fantastic competitive rowing season. As I walked back to my college basking in the sunlight, reflecting on my time rowing, I realised that it is now my dream to come back for a master’s degree and row for Pembroke M1. Rowing is contagious, and I can’t thank Oxford and Pembroke enough for letting me be a part of the prestige and legacy that the sport is so richly immersed in.

Image description: The river Thames by the Oxford college boathouses

Image credit: Haochen Wang