The Big Man’s Boat

The coxed pairs final at the 1948 London Olympics. Denmark beat Italy and Hungary on Henley Reach.

Tim Koch writes:

Regular HTBS readers will know that we are big fans of Jack Wilson, Ran Laurie, Bert Bushnell and Richard Burnell.

All four of these men had distinguished rowing careers but arguably the highlight for all of them was winning Gold at the 1948 London Olympics. Wilson and Laurie won the coxless pairs and Bushnell and Burnell won the double sculls. The winners in the five other events at the Olympic Regatta at Henley were Merv Wood of Australia in the single sculls, Denmark in the coxed pairs, Italy in the coxless fours, and the United States in the coxed fours and the eight. While I was aware that Britain also came second in the eights, I had no knowledge of any other entries from the host country – until recently. A young women who is learning to row at my club casually mentioned that she thought her grandfather had ‘won something rowing in the 1948 Olympics’. I quickly established that he was not Bert or Dickie, or Ran or Jack. It turned out that he was in the third of the two man boats that Britain had entered: the coxed pair. Sadly, it did not win and in fact came eighth out of nine boats.

The British entry for the coxed pairs at the London Games in 1948, Walker, Scott and James.

‘Granddad’ turned out to be bowman Howard (Bakie) James, aged 24. Stroke was Mark Bodley Scott, aged 25, and the cox was 16-year-old David Walker. All were from Thames Rowing Club. In round one, they were the second of three but in the repechage they lost to the eventual winners, Denmark. There is an nice interview filmed in 2012 with stroke Scott on YouTube. In it he says that they were given ‘a little bit of coaching by a fairly elderly gentleman’ and the impression is that they were very much an afterthought following Laurie and Wilson, two of the finest rowers of the pre war period, and Bushnell and Burnell, both of whom showed promise (Dickie had won the Wingfield Sculls in 1946 and Bushnell in 1947) and who had the great Jack Beresford as their coach.

The coxed pair is the heaviest of all racing boat classes with only two rowers to carry the weight of the cox. It needs two big and strong people to make it move fast but, like the coxless pair, it is vital that they row in the same way. Two otherwise good rowers who have different styles are unlikely to make it work. This need for total teamwork means that the cox is often redundant as a steersman. There is a story that when Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes were training for the coxed pair in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, cox Pat Sweeney was sometimes not available so they replaced him in training with a heavy tool box.

The new cox was the quiet type.

In modern times the coxed pair was never a popular boat at club level in Britain – in fact, I cannot remember ever seeing one. At the top level, it was dropped as an Olympic event after the 1992 Barcelona Games – but at least it had a magnificent finale.

The Italian brothers Carmine and Giuseppe Abbagnle were the firm favourites to win the Olympic Coxed Pairs final on Lake Banyoles on 2 August 1992. They were seven times world champions and one of the great crews in rowing history. At 1000 metres they led by four and a half seconds, the Romanians were second and the British Searle brothers, Greg and Jonny with cox Garry Herbert, were third. With two hundred metres to the finish the Searles had moved up to second place but were still more than a length down on the Abbagnles. The BBC commentator said: ‘Surely it’s too far even for the Searles with their finishing power…’ In the next 25 strokes the British pair went from a boat length down to win by half a length. If you could not watch it on YouTube, you would not believe it.

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