Life Divided: rowing

Francesca Salisbury and Sian Bayley debate rowing from differing (seat) positions


For (Francesca Salisbury):

Floating down the river at a comfortable rate eighteen, you pause to watch the sun rise over the bridge ahead, speckles of light dance on the ripples in the water.

Though the air is sharp, and your cheeks are flushed, you’re wrapped up warm against the chilly breeze. Whilst your hands in fleece-lined gloves are hard at work, you enjoy a relatively peaceful morning on the Isis, passing time by comparing the boathouses on the bank.

Sound familiar? Didn’t think so. At least not for eight of the nine members of the boat. Welcome to the life of a cox. Otherwise known as: the dictator of the boat. This is the otherwise-insignificant figure who gets all the glory and none of the gruel.

Deemed pretty much useless for any other sport due to vertical challenges, coxes relish the opportunity not only to participate in a sports team, but also verbally attack beefy crew members who they would never dare to cross on land. Whilst we vigorously attack anyone who may hint at the fact that we do less than the ‘real’ rowers (surprisingly scary coming from someone who is no more than 5ft tall and is probably half their weight), coxes know that they’ve got it easy.

2km erg tests at 9pm? No thanks. Circuits three times a week? I’m fine, actually. Squats on the raft at dawn? Nah. And we get to boss people about.*

Don’t be mistaken; a cox has serious responsibilities. Occasional steering and shouting at the rowers can be extremely taxing. In fact, it has not been unheard of for a cox to collapse from exhaustion after a hard morning’s rowing. In the end, though, the sacrifices are worth it, even if only the back of my head makes it into the official team photo.

*Disclaimer: The author herself is a 5ft-nothing cox and therefore is qualified to make these statements.

Against (Sian Bayley):

Like most freshers, I took part in a rowing taster session during my first week at university. Having previously watched the boat race on TV, I was excited to try out this new sport and fit snugly into the Oxford stereotype.

But, five minutes into the session, I fell out of the boat.

A combination of a broken seat, a very quiet cox, and my measly strength meant that as soon as I ‘caught a crab’ (a term used for when a rower is unable to release the blade from the water at the right time and it acts as a brake), I was overpowered, and quickly ejected from my seat into the muddy depths of the Isis. It was very cold. It was not refreshing.

And thus began my hatred of rowing. I admit, I partly hate rowing because I’m not very good at it. But having lived with three rowers in my second year, I have also had to put up with the forever intrusive and invasive rowing culture.

From initiations, to crew dates, to carbloading, to ‘rowchat’, I saw it all (quite literally, considering the amount of lycra they wore on a daily basis), and decided the whole thing was a farce.

Who on earth would want to get up at 5am on a cold winter day and do two hours of strenuous exercise, before eating twice their body weight for breakfast?

Who would want to pay £140 for a college splash jacket, running down rival colleges on an online chat board which replaces swear words with pig Latin equivalents, live under a two week ‘lash ban’, then be forced to drink yogurt from a condom and admit to salacious gossip about you by downing your drink as part of a fun night out?

I’ll admit it, sipping Pimms on the sunbaked riverside whilst watching Torpids or Eights is fun. But rowing, its early starts, and the laddish culture which accompanies it, just isn’t for me.


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