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by Alistair Wasey - Great Britain

Rowing and the Art of Respectability

For some oarsmen, winning is everything, but for the respectable rower, it's all about taking part.

Respectable rowing is a hobby, state of mind and a thoroughly enjoyable training programme: while other oarsmen are sweating their guts out in gym, the respectable rower is out enjoying a fine evening's sunshine reflected in smooth, clear water. He paddles. A day of gale force winds and biting sleet is not a day for respectable rowers. Similarly, baking heat is eschewed, and paddling with ice on the river is right out. No, a respectable rower will exercise discretion: a still winter morning with mist rising from a rose-tinted river reflecting a delicately-hued sunrise is ideal; as is a warm summer's day with a light breeze to ruffle the otherwise placid waters - so long as there is a refreshing drink awaiting the journey's end.

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Respectable rowing may be enjoyed in almost any oared craft.

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A cold drink – beer for preference - is a crucial element to the enjoyment of a day on the water and, partly for this reason, the respectable rower will avoid excessive effort. One should always feel comfortable stepping straight from one's craft to an adjacent watering hole and for the English respectable rower (and I imagine most others besides) the inclusion of a pub in the programme is most important. One rows for the pleasure of it, and paddling is infinitely more enjoyable when one consumes many more calories in the pub afterwards than was used in any one of the preceding miles!

However, effort is not a foreign concept and respectable rowers do race. Indeed, respectable rowers race all the time: there is little point in learning and developing the skill of propelling a needle-like craft no wider than one's buttocks* if one is not going to take full advantage of this javelin of the waterways. So rowers will race anything: fellow rowers, barges, speedboats, even the occasional duck; anything daft enough to be paddling in the same direction as the rower will be challenged and, hopefully, beaten hollow without undue effort. My double+ partner Laurence (the originator of the concept of respectable rowing), and I, have done rather well out of this particular trait of respectability, swelling our trophy cabinets noticeably over the last three years.

However, the respectable rower understands that winning is not everything. He does not mind being thrashed as long as he can hold his head up high and declare the race a thoroughly decent paddle; this is due in part to the fact that the respectable rower will avoid anything that looks like real training, (which is considered cheating and very bad form) and, to further this end respectable rowers will go to great lengths to avoid ever winning a point.

Sometimes it’s best just to enjoy a paddle on a warm summer’s evening with a light breeze to ruffle the water and a cold beer at the end of it.

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All good things must come to an end, and so it is with my double partnership – Laurence is emigrating to New Zealand with wife and highland collie dogs, citing reasons such as the weather, natives and a desire to temper the irritating tendency for the kids to “borrow” the car at the drop of a hat. In the prideful tradition of our particular brand of respectable rowing, we decided to go out with a bang rather than a graceless whimper and declared Ironbridge Regatta our last competitive outing:

“Do you fancy a paddle at Ironbridge?”

“Erm, I guess so. You do know I haven't been in a boat since January don't you?”

“No matter, always said training was cheating anyway.”

So it was with considerably trepidation that we carried our double to the boating stage on the Saturday: being thrashed hollow and having a rubbish paddle to boot represents the doldrums for any self-respecting oarsman. However, and much to our amazement, we won the semi-final convincingly, but with typical style were beaten hollow in a rather good paddle for the final. But at least we were thrashed respectably.

This left only the Sunday and an altogether different proposition: Laurence was, to put it mildly, keen about our chances; I wasn't due to a combination of a bad night's sleep and a very delicate constitution. We arrived at the landing stage at 11am expecting a keenly-fought first-round and an early shower but, much to our surprise, after a good start and an excellent thrash down the course we came in with a nose in front. The semi-final passed in similar vein but with a healthier finish-line margin and placed us in the final against a handy-looking crew who had trounced their opposition convincingly in the previous round. As we were knackered from two tough rounds - and still feeling ex-colore - it was a somewhat weighty gauntlet that had been thrown down!

By 5pm we had rather come to the conclusion that we had little to lose and there was even an off-chance that the opposition might do something silly like rowing into the bank. So we lined up at the start in good heart, bade each other and the opposition the best of luck and, at the command of the starter, blasted off the start - achieving a stroke-rate far higher than anything a respectable rower ever should - and coaxed a half-length advantage from our craft. By half-distance our arms and legs were screaming, white water was shrieking from the stern and we were clinging desperately to our lead. With a hundred metres to go an unorthodox line smashed us through a bouy line and back out again, halving what little remained of our advantage, but we strained every muscle against the opposition and clawing for the line... won.

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Any pub would have thrown us from the threshold: we were hot, sweaty, exhausted and the only thing rose-tinted was my vision... But we had won!

Any pub would have thrown us from the threshold: we were hot, sweaty, exhausted and the only thing rose-tinted was my vision; worse, we had broken the golden rule of respectable rowing and had just earned ourselves a point each!

But we had won! Respectably too! With a combined age of 72, we’d beaten a crew little more than half our age, who had obviously spent much more time in a gym than we had! It really brought home the message that old adage that winning really isn’t everything; after all you can’t win, unless you’ve taken part.

I guess you don’t have to spend all your life straining for the next little victory. Sometimes it’s best just to enjoy a paddle on a warm summer’s evening with a light breeze to ruffle the water and a cold beer at the end of it. It’ll serve you much better in the long term and, of course, is infinitely more respectable.

Best wishes,

Alistair Wasey

*It is important to note that respectable rowing may be enjoyed in almost any oared craft, the example given here is drawn simply from my own experience.
+Two man rowing boat
‡Much like death and taxes, points may only be avoided for so long. A successful oarsmen will accumulate points by winning events at regattas and is thus required to compete at an increasingly high level.

Long-memoried Duckworks readers may recall my review of Donald Riddler's “Erik the Red” book. I was recently contacted by a Mr John Ward, who loaned Donald his moped in Bermuda (hence appearing the book!) and who is keen to see Erik the Red again. Should anyone hear anything to the purpose, we would be most grateful to hear from you as she seems to have vanished without trace since the closure of the Exeter Maritime Museum. I should be delighted to forward any correspondence to Mr Ward.