Gliding through generations

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I’m not going to lie. I’m not a rower. I’ll also hasten to add that there’s a reason for this: whilst I play sport, I don’t think I could keep up the incredible endurance, strength, balance and discipline to dedicate myself to it like so many of our peers here do. My views towards rowing may have been misconstrued in the past, but I do have a lot of admiration for boaties, even though one can’t deny the fact that they do seem to enjoy talking about it rather a lot.

Rowing has been an Oxford tradition for the last 200 or so years, originating as a recreation that combined exercise and ‘amusement’ (in those days, competition was rife and a reward, simply be it pride, was always at stake). Summer Eights can be dated to 1815, where two crews from Brasenose and Jesus decided to challenge each other to a race on returning from an outing. Brasenose won the encounter and were thus denoted the first ‘Head of the River’.

Oxford presided in the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1829, however their subsequent defeats in the next two encounters triggered the formation of the ‘Oxford University Boat Club’, a more structured system that gave college rowing a permanent body. The competition developed; rules were drawn up, boats were modified, colleges began to invest in boathouses and CUBC event donated 100 guineas to the construction of the Oxford University boathouse, completed in 1882. I’d like to interpret this as a stroke of humanity rather than charity, but either way it was of great benefit to us and I won’t complain.

The introduction of women’s crews came in 1927 when only 5 women’s colleges existed at Oxford. St Hilda’s didn’t fail to impress, however, pushing out an impressive performance at Eights in 1969 where they ‘rowed over’ and competed with the men’s crews in Division VIII. Rowing at Oxford began to accelerate as more colleges opened their doors to women, and by 1976 a women’s division had been made, enabling them to properly compete in Summer Eights.

Apart from being a longstanding tradition and the oldest intercollegiate sport in Europe, rowing at Oxford is constrained by, not surprisingly, its medium: the river. The Isis is narrow, meaning that crews must have a staggered start, and must aim to ‘bump’ the crew ahead of them in order to be granted the right to overtake. A bump can occur either by the boats making direct contact, or by the cox conceding its inevitability by raising an arm. Both boats involved must drop out of the race and exchange positions on the following day. The leading eight aims to ‘row over’, (finish the race without being bumped). In my view, bumping adds the excitement to rowing. It can have a serious psychological effect too: crews that successfully bump are exuberant while their prey is listless, and this can play into their subsequent success in the competition. Good crews are looking to bump every day, and the ultimate goal is finishing ‘Head of the River’ at the top of Division I.

So perhaps I can understand why rowers talk about their sport so much. It eats up a large proportion of their life, demanding time, mental strength and focus, and this can only be attained by unwavering dedication. There’s also probably a slight nagging desire to justify swanning around in lycra all day, and for that I can’t blame them.

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