Rowing Books for Christmas I

4 December 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran R Buckhorn helps you to find books for a rower’s Christmas stocking or to fill a spot under the Christmas tree.

I don’t know about you, but to me a Christmas without receiving a book from Santa is a sad Yule, indeed.

To help you putting a book or two on your Christmas list or finding the book for the rower in your life, HTBS is here to help. Now and then, we review rowing books, but it’s impossible to review and write about all the books landing on the editor’s desk, although the will is always there. For all kinds of different reasons, the following books have never been reviewed, or barely mentioned on HTBS.

H.M. van den Brink: On the Water (1998; Eng. transl. Paul Vincent 2001)

This marvellous novella, written by the Dutch journalist and author H.M. van den Brink, is my personal favourite when it comes to a fiction story on rowing. Daniel Topolski, who reviewed the book in The Guardian, wrote: ‘But rarely have sport and literature combined so seamlessly to produce such an absorbing and satisfying novel as this small miracle of a book from Holland by H M van den Brink. Sweetly lyrical, it tells of a shy young boy’s coming of age through sport in Amsterdam as Europe prepares for war.’

In 1939, the two boys Anton and David are training in a coxless pair at a rowing club in Amsterdam. Their coach is a mysterious German, Schneiderhahn. Especially the working lad Anton becomes so captivated by his training that he is little aware what is happening around him. The novella begins at the end of the war with Anton, who is the one telling the story, sees the Allies planes flying to bomb Berlin and Germany. The tale then goes back and forth in time to the happy days when Anton and David are practicing for going to the 1940 Olympic Games in Helsinki. The war puts an end to the Olympics and the boys’ dream. The club closes and both David, who is Jewish, and coach Schneiderhahn disappear.

Michael J. Socolow: Six Minutes in Berlin (2016)

This is the academic version of “The Boys in the Boat”. Michael Socolow was actually the first one to tell the story of the Washington crew’s 1936 Berlin race and was working on a book about the American college men’s Olympic gold in the eights, but he ‘got scooped’ by a fellow named Brown. Socolow had to rework his story and, as an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine, he wrote it to suit the standards of an academic publisher. University of Illinois Press took the bait, and Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at The Nazi Olympics was published in 2016. As the sub-title suggests, Socolow investigates the broadcasting aspects, not only at the 1936 Games, but also broadcasting sports, including rowing, in America in 1930s. However, when it comes to broadcasting international sports events, ‘Global sports broadcasting as we know it today was born in Berlin,’ he writes.

Socolow has done a brilliant job of digging deep into the Washington crew’s story, especially in chapter five called “Six minutes in Grünau – The Olympic Regatta as the High Spot of the Berlin Games”. And, yes, you guessed it right, Socolow has a rowing background, at Exeter and Columbia. This book is not only about rowing, so anyone who has an interest in the 1936 Berlin Games, whichever sport, should read this book.

Toby Ayer: The Sphinx of the Charles (2016)

Toby Ayer, who is a teacher and rowing coach at Salisbury School in Connecticut and rowed for Oxford in the 1999 and 2000 Boat Races, followed Harvard coach Harry Parker between September 2008 to June 2009 as an assistant coach with the Harvard heavyweight men. Though this is not a full biography about the famous Parker, it gives the reader an intimate portrait of him. Parker was known to say few words from the launch, which gave Ayer the title of the book, The Sphinx of the Charles: A Year at Harvard with Harry Parker. Nevertheless, the Crimson coach’s list of results speaks for themselves. Rowing author Dan Boyne has dubbed Parker ‘one of the most successful crew coaches in history’.

Parker coached Harvard’s heavyweight men’s crews from 1963 until his death in 2013 and out of the 50 races between Harvard and Yale, his Crimson crews won 43 times. Harvard also won Varsity Eastern Sprints championships multiple times with Parker as coach. He coached several Olympic teams and was the first coach to train a U.S. national women’s team, for the World Championships in 1975 (where the ‘Red Rose Crew’ took a silver medal) and his women’s eight won an Olympic bronze medal the following year.

Toby Ayer is an entertaining writer, who gives a fine depiction of the famous Crimson coach.

Jason Dorland: Pulling Together (2017)

I’m a great fan of Jason Dorland’s first book on rowing, Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower (2011). This is a kind of follow-up book to his first, when the aggressive and ultra-competitive Canadian Olympic athlete Dorland, with his wife-to-be Robyn Meagher’s help, manages to re-shape his views on competition and life. When Dorland retired from elite rowing, he started coaching the sport. He was hired by his old school, Ridley College, in 2010 to reignite the school’s rowing programme.

His rowers found success on many different levels both on and off the water due to his training methods being progress-centred which emphasized compassion and hard work. Gone were the methods Dorland himself had been taught, the ‘in-it-to-win-it’ style. Pulling Together: A Coach’s Journey to Uncover the Mindset of True Potential reflects on his coaching philosophy, which can be applied not only to rowing but to other sport. A must-read book for any sports coach.

Rima Karaliene: Rowing Through the Barbed Wire Fence (2017; Eng. transl. Dovilas Bukauskas 2017)

In the Western World, we were seldom reached by rowing stories depicting what was going on in the Soviet Union or its satellite states during the Cold War. In Rowing Through the Barbed Wire Fence, Lithuanian author Rima Karaliene tells the story how her father and other young oarsmen from the Vilnius Žalgiris Athletic Association became USSR rowing champions in the eights in 1961. The Lithuanian rowers were invited to the national team to represent the USSR. But despite being USSR champions, they were not politically trusted. KGB found all kind of reasons to limit their travels abroad, even removing them from the national team.

However, the Lithuanian oarsmen didn’t give up. Forming new crews, they raced in regattas within the USSR and managed to persevere eventually, which led to the KGB lifting their restrictions on international travel. They were now allowed to race in famous regattas all over Europe, though in the USSR’s red shirts and with the KGB still keeping a close eye on them.

At the crews’ first international regatta, the European Championships on Lake Bagsværd, outside Copenhagen, in August 1963, the Lithuanian men’s eight won a silver medal and the four a bronze – a great result, but still disappointing as it was only gold that counted for the Soviet propaganda machinery. However, the women from Vilnius Žalgiris racing in the USSR eight managed to win gold in the women’s European Championships in September 1963 in Moscow. Actually, all five boat classes in the Soviet capital were won by USSR crews.

The highlight for the oarsmen from Lithuania came with the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. They won the petite final (7th place) in the coxless four – a grand outcome of their hard training, and which the people in their home country thought was a great success, but not so the sport establishment in Moscow.

Author Rima Karaliene has done a wonderful job depicting the Lithuanian rowers’ way to glory. She also shows the unfair system that plagued the rowers from the Baltic states making them feel like second-class citizens under the Moscow rule.

To purchase these books, ask for them in your local book shop, or search for them at second-hand bookstores online.


  1. I haven’t read Van den Brink’s ‘On the Water’ but if Anton and David were ‘ training for the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki’ it is not surprising if they were unsuccessful. The 1940 Games were scheduled to be held in Tokyo.

    • Dear Lionel, we are both right in a way. The Olympic Games were first supposed to go to Tokyo, but it was forfeited in 1938, so instead they when to the runner-up, Helsinki, but because of the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland, the Games were cancelled. As van den Brink’s story is taking place in 1939, David and Anton are dreaming of the Games in the Finnish capital. Also, please take a look here:

      This comment was updated on 12:00 4 Dec.

    • My dear Greg, I guess you have the British edition of van den Brink’s novella. I have two editions of the American publisher’s “On the Water”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the hard cover edition (with wrapper) for my photo shoot.

    • Goran,
      Well, I never knew that, thank you. Once again HTBS proves a cornucopia of sporting knowledge, ephemera, trivia, memorabilia. You name it, ’tis bloody marvellous all ways.
      Regards, Lionel.

  2. I’ll add my vote for “On the Water” as the best rowing boat I’ve read. The 2,000m race description near the end is just what a race feels like

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