Is bow seat the dunce seat? The uncertainty of selection


Sitting in the bows of a boat can intensify life’s problems.

When things are already going wrong, the negative connotation of sitting anywhere lower than three-seat – that this is where the least important rowers sit – starts to creep in. You’re not setting the rhythm as stroke does, nor are you perceived to be the engine of the boat – that chunky middle that sends and connects. In the bows, yours is probably percieved to be a slighter frame that feels challenged to match the power surging from the stern.

For me, it’s the grumble seat, the dunce’s seat.

What a poor attitude.

Maybe it was because we were supposed to be racing at Quintin Head on that particular chilly morning at Royal Albert Docks and we had started the impromptu daylong training camp somewhat demotivated. Note to self – women’s races are seriously popular and entries are consistently closing extra early as submissions swell, beware!

Whatever the reason for a rubbish mindset, each of the three sessions was a bafflingly challenging row. Sometimes, they just happen. A lapse in concentration, a tight hamstring, a chastisement from the rowing gods that your training has been going just a bit too well, and you need to eat some humble pie.

String Theory

Of course, I knew really, each seat has a specific job, and bow, two and three seats are no different. The eight is one unit – think ‘string theory’ our cox always tells us. Regular physics says that miniscule strands of energy vibrate in 11 dimensions to create force in the universe. In rowing, it’s eight dimensions. Each person has an invisible thread through her chest that the cox draws towards him like a puppeteer. Hands are pushed away simultaneously, backs rock over from the pelvis as the slide or ‘recovery’ begins as one, the knees break together, eight outside hands feather the blade in synchronicity, spoons are placed in the water and eight pairs of legs are driven down to lift the boat as one before starting the whole process again.

Instead, I was working alone in my head.

In reality, two is a kind of back-up stroke. Although our actual stroke, a woman who has remortgaged her house to compete in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race next year, was setting the pace, it’s bow pair’s blades catching the water at the front of the boat, and so theoretically, they should have the sharpest catch. This was just not happening for me today.

‘Sluggish hands 2! SLUGGISH!’

‘Roll that outside hand! You’re late!’

‘Drop it IN 2! Just let it happen! You’re forcing it!’

A bad session is a chastisement from the rowing gods that your training has been going just a bit too well, and you need to eat some humble pie

Not being able to see the cox huddled into the stern with headset and rate meter clocking 29, 30, 29, only exacerbated my mental huffing and puffing. ‘What can he really see all the way down there? Surely it’s not just me doing badly? Why isn’t anyone else being picked on?’ But it’s only me that is shortsighted. Our cox, not unlike Mr. Tumnus, a magical faun with tufty hair and slouchy bobble hat, is our all seeing eye. And when he can’t physically see something, he feels it in the boat.

But why is the feedback throwing me so off kilter?

  1. First boat selection for Women’s Head of the River is mere days away, and the uncertainty and excitement is churning.
  2. I’m keenly aware, having rowed for all of a year and trained seriously for just six months (with one learn to row course before that in 2012), that I am the least technically competent rower in this crew of Oxbridge college beasts.
  3. Up until this point, we have been spoiled with Tumnus’ tact – rows have sailed along at rate 20 with sing-alongs and ‘confidence-building’ exercises – now it’s time to toughen up. The problem isn’t the constructive criticism; it’s my response to it.

‘Sit on the floor please.’

Sitting in The Fox, a solitary pub across from the Regatta Centre supported solely by large sales of post-row sausage sandwiches, my bum wet after two hours of struggling on the windy water, and a large crowd of Otters, rowers from a London gay men’s rowing club, lounging by the window where sunlight was at last beginning to filter in and warm us up, I got up and sat with my sore, lycra-ed legs on the carpet in front of me.

Weaknesses were exposed like raw blisters to heal in time for a top 100 WeHorr finish

I appreciated being pushed; our cox wants me up to scratch, to earn my place in that first eight – and I’m rowing like a muppet. After rocking me back and forth on the carpet like a possessed rag doll, I agreed I’m over leaning at backstops. In my attempt to get more send on the finish, I hesitate too long when drawing my handle in. It means when rocking over (or swing forward from my pelvis into position) to take the next stroke, I am not quite in the same position as every else. It then follows that I rush the last quarter of the slide to catch up with everyone else, or take the catch late. My timing is a fraction off = it sucks.

Nothing another two water sessions wouldn’t fix that Saturday, and eventually after de-rigging in the cold and rain, I crawled into bed that night at 8.30 and slept through to the same time the next day.

January has been a strange period for training, mostly psychologically as we scrapped for seats and self-doubt started to creep in. September to Christmas time was a solid schedule of long UT2 pieces at rate 20, the odd 5k test and starting to lift heavy weights. January, however, marked the start of serious competition for the first eight. 5k times started to shoot down, quad-busting seat racing began, and weaknesses had to be exposed like raw blisters to heal in time for a top 100 WeHorr finish – especially in the bow seats.


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