Rowing on – college rowing as a way of thinking

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This week it’s Summer Eights. If you’re new to Oxford, or just not into the rowing scene, you can expect to see a whole lot of activity down by the Isis and, on Saturday, a wide array of parties at each college’s boat house. The college men’s and women’s boats will be out to ‘bump’ (read: hit) the college in front’s boat, and carnage is guaranteed to unfold. I’ll be somewhere out in the melee, at the bow seat (back seat) of Trinity College’s second men’s boat.

Rowing has been much maligned for its reputation as an elite and boorish sport. Events like the Royal Henley Regatta, the Boat Race and the social world that revolve around them mean that people associate the sport with upper-middle class consciousness. Equally, within Oxford, peoples’ experiences of the ‘lads’ and ‘gals’ cultures that are supposedly reinforced by the gender binary social set up of rowing crews put them off. From crew dates to OURCs blazers worn to night clubs, college rowing has not always presented a positive image of itself to those on the outside- I would like to address this.

I started rowing when I came to Oxford at the start of Michaelmas term this academic year along with almost everyone else on my boat. None of us had the elite training a public school rowing club could have offered us, nor do we represent a homogenous white middle class group. Over the last three terms I have rowed with crew members from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Romania, Poland, Zimbabwe, and from across the UK. The guys that will be starting with me this week will have come from completely different backgrounds, yet they will have been brought together by a single desire to compete together as a team.

Going beyond this, the idea that the rowing world is dominated by an Oxbridge elite is a total misrepresentation of the truth. It was Oxford Brookes, not Oxford University, that won the most prestigious university men’s eights cup in the world last year; the Henley Temple Challenge Cup.

What attracts me to rowing is not the crew dates, not the ‘rowing lad’ chat, nor even the vulgar blazers, it is the importance of collective work in a team. In a successful eight man or woman boat, the focus is not on the ability of a few star rowers, but rather the cohesion of the group. Too often, the intra-university media focuses on the presence of a single Blue in an elite boat, yet forgets that the boat will only move forward effectively with the collaboration of eight men or women in perfect sync with each other. Eight blades must hit the water at the same time with an evenly balanced amount of power between the two sides for the boat to make any impact on the race. This means that the interests of the collective in the boat are put above that of the individual. For once in our Oxford lives not everything is about ourselves; we learn that sometimes there are more important things than the lone ‘I’.

As a rowing boat speeds down the Isis, it needs to remain balanced. Without balance, none of the rowers will be able to apply the maximum amount of power through their blades into the river. To maintain balance in a boat, everyone needs to keep their oars level, to ‘tap down’ (read: push your blade down at the end of a stroke) at the same time. Rowers, therefore, need to be aware of their team mates. They need to be sensitive to the issues facing their comrades and they need to respond to them. In a constant drive to make the most efficient body movement to shoot the boat forwards together, rowers have to know and care about those with whom they are racing. For the two kilometres or so of the Isis course, rowers strapped into a boat together become a single organism – they endure the pains and elations of the race together.

Instead of constantly criticising rowing culture, looking at our society as a whole, we should try and learn from the sport. If the most capable at surviving in the capitalist system cared for the balance and harmony of our society as much as a rower cares for the harmony of his/her boat, imagine how much further we would move as a nation. If ordinary people tried to row in time with each other, giving time to community projects for example, we could have a more cordial society.

Globally, we face races to feed and house a growing population, protect the environment, and stave off future conflicts to name but a few. Maybe if we thought more like rowers, and less like self-indulgent individuals, then humanity’s boat might just win.

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