12 April 2016
HTBS is happy to present a new series that will run every Tuesday for some weeks. Courtney Landers, who is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, will write a diary of how her college, Pembroke College Boat Club (PCBC), is preparing for the upcoming May Bumps in June. The Pembroke ladies are excited for the May Races as Pembroke captured Blades in the Lent Bumps. Coming to the UK from Australia, Courtney originally joked that she would probably end up rowing ‘like all the posh people’, only to be recruited in her first week when a then-Cambridge-lightweight-women rower, now coach from Pembroke, looked her up and down and pronounced ‘You’re going to row’. She has since drunk the Kool-aid and is now engaged in an attempt to row in Pembroke’s W1 boat for May Bumps, the process of which she has decided should be shared with HTBS readers, because she incidentally also enjoys talking about rowing.
For many eights competing in Women’s Eights of the Head of the River Race (WEHoRR) the Tideway, and the conditions on it, must feel as familiar as their morning row. When the first women’s eight of Pembroke College Boat Club (PCBC), Cambridge, arrived at our host club, Sons of the Thames, it was the first time several of us had even seen the Tideway in person, and none of us had rowed on it.
Less than a week before, we had been gliding up the Cam on a cool and golden afternoon, foliage in our hair and our cox draped in the boat club flag to celebrate capturing the women’s side’s first ‘Blades’ since 2008. Each day, we had closed the length-and-a-half gap between us and the boat in front of us to ‘bump’ before reaching The Plough Pub, essentially a sprint of 1km or less over the almost 2km course.
Such a successful Lent Bumps campaign does not prepare an eight well for rowing the 6.8km from Mortlake to Putney. Plus with many of the crew having exams in this last week of term, we had only had two outings to prepare, which mostly consisted of tapping down as though our lives depended on it. Not all of the women had been in those outings either as we had several injuries – including one still-sensitive stress fractured rib – in the boat. Still, arriving at the Tideway, we were in high spirits. With plenty of layers for marshalling and flip flops for wading through the Thames at the end, we felt ready for an adventure.
And what an adventure indeed. The Tideway was cold, wet, and windy, and thronging with more eights than most of us had ever seen in one place. In order to get our boat on the river, we had to carry it over our heads down a precipitously steep ramp and then try not to push our stroke and seven into the river while spinning. During marshalling, we were pelted in the face by windblown hail and passed a boat abandoned on a rocky beach, hull askew on some rocks, blades still in gates, as though it had been blown there by a gust. Then there were waves the likes of which are only seen on the open and exposed ‘Long Reach’ of the Cam, and then only with winds gusting around 40mph (little did we know what kind of waves the Cambridge women would soon face, and refuse to be defeated by).
Despite the challenges, the race was fantastic fun. I suspect that of all of us, especially our cox James Roberts, the current women’s side captain, enjoyed the day most of all. After a rapid de-kit underneath the rail bridge, he executed a near handbrake turn to put us into the stream and immediately under the bridge and into the race. He then made the most of the luxury of getting to overtake other boats without worrying about the width of the river, instead merely bellowing ‘concede the stream’. We rewarded his superb steering by carrying him from the boat, and with his feet on dry land he soon regained his normal personality of mild-mannered English student with an incredibly sunny disposition, rather than megalomaniac stream-hunter.
As we devoured dinner and a cheeky pint or two in a nearby pub, we discovered that we’d placed well against other Cambridge colleges. Given that we had just achieved blades, it might seem like we’d have expected such a result, but we’d been cheerfully and cheekily punching above our weight all year.
Since losing the Headship of May Bumps in 2011, Pembroke’s women have been on a steady decline. In my first year – I’m now in my third – the entire women’s side achieved ‘spoons’ in May bumps – falling four or more places over four days. For the first boat this was their second set of spoons in a row.
Last year, guided by an enthusiastic and dedicated captain, we had managed to hold the line or better it, starting to make up the lost ground. But with the first and second boats sitting in 11th and 13th positions in their Lent divisions and at 11th and 8th positions in Mays, it’s fair to say great things were not expected of us. This year’s first crew so far has had only one member at any time who had rowed before coming to Cambridge; our Michaelmas bow seat had sculled a little in high school, and the M.Phil. student sitting in four seat for Lents had last rowed eight years ago in high school. And yet in Michaelmas term we had placed a very respectable 6th in the 4.3km Fairbairn Cup head race, above eights with bigger and more experienced crews. Then, just for something different, we made the semi-finals of our own regatta by beating the Christs College crew that, at the time, held the Headship of Lent Bumps. Then, of course, we captured Blades in Lents while rowing less than half of the course each day. What May Bumps holds for us is anyone’s guess, which is very, very exciting.
And so the idea occurred to me of sharing our journey towards Bumps. What better way, I thought, to introduce the wider world to the joys and challenges of college rowing at Cambridge, than by following the training of a crew that in many ways embodies the core aims of rowing; push the limits, defy expectations and leave it all on the water.
We may not be heading for headship this year (or next), but we have a far more important goal – to firmly re-establish Pembroke as a college to be reckoned with, while pushing ourselves to achieve things we never thought possible.