24 May 2016
Here follows Courtney Landers’s seventh part of her diary about how she and her team mates in Pembroke College BC’s W1 prepare for May Bumps on the River Cam.
This week was our third last week before bumps – as I write, we have just over a fortnight before they begin on 8 June.
This is not the time you want to be having a difficult week, but I’ll be honest – that’s the week we’ve had. Training-wise this week was designated as a ‘light’ week after last week’s ‘heavy’ schedule. The pieces were shorter and fewer, the aim being to be able to put all of our energy into short, intense bursts but still come out of the week relatively fresh and without the fatigue the lengthy high-rate pieces of last week had brought.
However we seemed to hit a wall early in the week. The pieces were just not coming together. The boat felt heavy and was rocking all over the place. Everyone was absolutely gunning it, but we weren’t moving very fast at all.
We reached the bottom of our slump on Thursday. To give us some practice our boatman Kev Bowles had arranged for us to spar with the W1 crew of Emmanuel College Boat Club, which consisted of five three-minute pieces chasing each other up and down the ‘Long Reach’, swapping positions each race with Emmanuel leading in the first piece. The first two pieces no-one really moved on each other significantly, or so it seemed in the boat. But as Emmanuel chased us down the Reach into a stiff headwind in the third piece, they started to gain on us quite quickly. This year – this term especially – I’ve finally started to ‘feel’ the interplay of the shell, the water and the rowers around me, and on Thursday I could suddenly feel the whole dynamic of the boat change. As ‘Emma’ bore down on us the recovery and catch got tight and jerky, the stroke shortened up, the boat felt like it just dropped into the water like a lead weight. They came up on us and they caught us.
In the next piece, we were all ready to come back at them, but although we came close, again something just wasn’t working in the boat and we couldn’t make it stick. As they chased us in the final piece, we seemed to fuel our speed only with anger and frustration, raging down the river because we just couldn’t figure out what was going on, why we couldn’t get it together, why our limbs felt like cement. We held them off, but it was awful.
It’s in that kind of piece, and afterwards, that you start to question yourself. You’re confronted by all the technical points you’ve been struggling with and you forget how much progress you’ve made, you hear the coach shouting at you and you feel like everyone is watching you and only you. You look around at the other girls and they make it look so easy and light, and you suddenly feel inferior. It’s not a great place to be.
For a crew that’s been doing so much better than any of us had hoped for, it was a pretty disappointing moment. In the lengthy crew chat after the outing, everyone was a bit deflated. However, it seemed clear to us all that we’d needed to get our butts kicked. After winning at Bedford, and with the boat feeling so much lighter and faster, we’d been struggling to balance our growing confidence with the fact that when we line up on the first day of Bumps, we’ll be the underdogs among some very strong crews. We’ve been punching above our weight this year, and it’s tricky to leverage that success; to balance confidence with caution, and get people who are giving their absolute all to push even harder and dig even deeper.
Some of the most constructive feedback in the crew-chat came from our 7-seat Marianna, a history student visiting us for two terms from Yale. Marianna is noticeably taller than my 5’11’’ frame, and it’s been a novel experience to not be the tallest one in the boat. In addition to having once made tea for actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Marianna can recite the entire script of the movie National Treasure. She almost missed out on the chance to row with us this term after her appendix went rogue and had to be removed while she was travelling in Wales over the break, but timed it perfectly and was given the green light to engage her core muscles again just before term started.
Despite having lost a sizeable piece of her fingernail to the gunwale during the first piece (and thus decorating the boat with no small amount of blood), Marianna was the most optimistic after our bout with Emmanuel. She framed it as just another opportunity to learn to deal with unpredictability; so far things have gone fairly smoothly, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay that way. We have to be prepared to adjust to our competition and our performance in the same way that we adjust to the wind and the set of the boat.
So despite a tough day on Thursday, the entire crew showed up on Friday focused and ready to rise to cox James’ challenge of ‘find the Bedford boat’. We were rewarded with a lighter, quick-moving boat, and waltzed straight into an encounter that epitomises the cheeky – rather than adversarial – nature of competition between rival boat clubs.
As we proceeded up the river from the downstream lock, beginning a session of 15-strokes-on-10-off Fartlek, we passed Caius lining up to spar with Churchill, the boat chasing us the first day of Bumps. Thus when they started, Churchill thundered up the river towards us and for the few strokes remaining in our burst we were able to practice pushing off them. But since they were sparring with Caius, as we wound down from our burst they tried to come past, probably not realising that we would shortly begin another burst. Unfortunately for them, they also didn’t realise that the biggest boat on the Cam, the Riverboat Georgina, was coming downstream just around the corner! We wound up to speed again, Churchill did not manage to pass us, and as Georgina made herself noticed (the first time I’ve heard a horn used on the Cam) there was a small amount of carnage as everyone rapidly got safely out of the way.
This kind of encounter tells us nothing about how Bumps will proceed, but provides the chance for some prime banter. Foiling another crew’s attempts to simply breeze on past is a common form of posturing on the Cam – usually it doesn’t involve the risk of colliding with another boat, but given everyone cleared in time, we were glad to have the unexpected assistance of Georgina! When it boils down to it, we don’t hate Churchill or the other boats we have to compete against. We don’t even dislike them – in a lot of cases, we admire them and aspire to be like them, especially those with rowers clad in CUWBC stash. We just want to beat them, and on this particular day we needed a chance to stoke our sense of competition and have a bit of a laugh.
As it turned out Friday was our best session all week, and after racing Champs Eights Head on Sunday (pictures still to appear) James noted ‘the Bedford crew had turned up’ again.