a rowing machine is easy – open water is something else entirely


If you plotted a two-grid matrix (come on, you’ve got an MBA, you know what I’m talking about) with “how intimidating is it?” on one axis and “how fun is it?” on the other, and you plotted every leisure activity in the world, you would end up with indoor rowing in one corner and outdoor rowing in the other. Any idiot can go on an erg machine. You can do it in the gym on your own and nobody is even allowed to tell you you’re doing it wrong. The river is a different matter: you need someone to do everything for you; it’s like being a baby. How to carry the boat, fix the oars in, what wellies to wear, when to take them off, how to get into the boat, how to strap yourself in, what to do next – the works.

I had wonderful, patient instruction from coach Joanne Harris at the Thames Rowing Club on Putney Embankment in London, but these guys are pretty serious; very competitive, with an indoor tank, a number of squads, a heap of wins, members who think nothing of going to 10 training sessions a week, and two professional coaches. So if you really are at a standing start in London, go to Fulham Reach, a brilliant outfit which seeks to extend the sport to non-private schools, and cross-subsidises by teaching adult beginners. Outside London, there’s an online club finder at britishrowing.org.

We started in the tank: rigged up like a boat, with sliding seats and foot holds, it’s a platform in a wide, but not deep, tank of water, to teach the basics of how to hold oars and what to do with them. The possibility of falling in is zero, which is how I like it.

Even the most basic manoeuvre, pushing your arms forward, getting the oars in the water, pulling back, is fraught with potential mishap. Your left hand has to go slightly above your right, otherwise your knuckles will clash together. Do you ever reach the point where your body simply knows not to do that? “Not really,” said Joanne, showing me her knuckles, which were red with having slammed into one another within the past week. “Mastered” is a strong word, but once you can move your arms, you learn to tip your body, forward from the hip rather than leaning in with your back. Then you bring in your legs, locus of all your power. “Hang” is what they call the feeling you should get when all your power is driving from your feet.

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After maybe half an hour, we were ready for the open water in a double skull, a vastly long and extremely fragile bit of boat. It’s not peaceful at all until you’ve found a rhythm; before that, it’s all, “Oh no oh no, that’s not my leg, that’s my arm, I’m driving with my arm and I’ve crashed into my knees.” Once you do, though, it’s calming to the point of profundity. I got water in my wellies and stank of Thames, but didn’t even change when I got home, because the smell reminded me of the stupid, incomprehensible beauty of the river.

What I learned

Feathering is where you flatten your oar as you take it out of the water, to keep it aerodynamic. If you concentrate on that, the rest seems to fall into place.


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