Thursday, 10 July 2008

Swing, Swing Together

There's lots of redundant stuff clogging up one's mind. Amongst mine is coxing orders (like the rest of my genetic pool, I matured late, which meant I grew too late to be a useful oar, and therefore was earmarked as a cox). To be one of those, apart from passing a 'boat club test' which involved swimming several lengths fully dressed, shoes and all - no easy task from a water-phobic child who actually had to learn to swim twice - you were expected to learn a list of orders longer than Chesterton's epic 'Lepanto' (I learnt that too. Voluntarily. Because I liked it). Those orders, like Lepanto, are still paddling redundantly about in my tiny mind.

"A's. A's in. Hands on boat. Altogether, lift. Right out. Right up. Under bow side. Down. Walk her out, mind the riggers. Round in the bows. Right up. Under stroke side. Down. Onto the pontoons. Right out. Put her in, together. Fetch your oars."

The crew would then trot back and, pausing only to dip their hands in a mysterious, patent gunge in a tin can, consisting of something resembling sawdust and molasses, return with their oars.

Once on board, it was "Adjust your stretchers. Back her down her bow". And then, with a shove off from someone on the pontoon, "Come forward to paddle light; paddle light, together."

Being a cox was cool in many ways. You got to order around four or eight blokes who were bigger than you. You escaped all that circuit training (Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race crews do two hours training for every stroke they take during the Boat Race). And you avoided the risk of scrotal damage posed by short shorts and the brass wheel-and-track mechanism of sliding seats.

But there were downsides. Principal amongst these was that you were personally responsible for any damage to the boat. For instance, fours and eights had a yellow bobble, like a rubber ping pong ball, attached to the bow. If you broke a bobble, it was thirty bob - probably about £30 now. Returning smartly to the pontoon, usually down current, required fine judgement. You had to bring this sixty foot, pencil thin shell in obliquely at a reasonable speed (otherwise you stopped short and the current carried you embarrassingly past), but order the rowing to stop early enough to have the number two oar hold her, so that the boat came alongside neatly parallel. Through tradition, rather than malice, crews would judge when the last stroke was coming and then put in an extra strong one, so that the boat would suddenly surge toward the pontoon like a dart. Also, in the case of a sinking, you were expected to go down with your boat. (Okay, I made that last bit up).

One of the reasons I joined the Boat Club was to avoid the crashing boredom and scary, rock-hard balls of cricket. Another was because I suffered appallingly from hay fever. Bad choice - sculling along between nose-high Shropshire river banks of uncut summer hay was a disaster. (I suffered so badly, always worst around exam times, that I once cut off the top of my socks with a pair of folding scissors during an English 'A' Level, because my handkerchief was sodden. It wasn't a success; the socks were wool, and not absorbent).


  1. Wow, that's so gross about your socks. But interesting re the coxing- were you tiny? I thought you had to be abnormally small and light to be one. Glad you didn't have to go down with your boat!

  2. Sounds fun (except for the sock bit)

    Despite having the body of a gazelle, I was never picked for ANY sports as I was useless at all of them - bar swimming at which I did manage to win a few medals and cups (but nothing my school could take credit for as they didn't have a pool)

  3. "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore, that the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more..." Oh sorry, the mention of "Lepanto" reminded me how much of my brainspace is taken up by poetry I'd forgotten I knew...

  4. Marianne - Not tiny; just slow growing. Like a tree. I never reached the dizzy coxing heights shorter people reached.

    Laura - Iwonder if you had the problem I had; that other people seemed to be already good at sports when one first started them, as if one had missed out on a key foundation year or something.

    Lucy - That's another goody. Nothing like an ancient lay, I always say...