The Starting Bay

The start bay at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Photo courtesy of John Cumper.

16 March 2022

By John Cumper*

There’s a breathless hush in the starting bay-
Five crews to beat to win today.
A strong cross head wind blows from the North,
As a warming sun beats down from the bluest of skies.

4 minutes to the start as the last boat backs in.
Its not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
Its for the Eight that hold the oars
And the stringy who has control.

They had listened to the Coach as he quietly refrained,
Row long and row fast.
Create a memory that will forever last.
Touch it once bow,
Comes the call from the stringy in lane two.
That will do, we have a line now, blades buried.
Across the field of 54 there are the doubters,
Fighting the negatives that whisper in their ears.

Ready now, quietly echoes across the field.
The Light turns from red to green.
The hushed and peaceful surrounds now
Fractured by the voices of those who steer these sleek machines.
The drivers of the umpires in their launches
Rev their motors to full throttle as they steer in behind the crews.

All six stringys are now in full voice
And the thwacking sounds of oar hitting water,
The boats have hit top speed.
The crews push on to the 500 meter marker.
There is a bolter in the field.
The crew in Lane five has a half- length lead.

The bolters have the rate up high,
The wise heads of the other 5 stringys know,
They will pay a price for those extra strokes.
Its close across the rest of the field.
Now is the time for cool heads to prevail.
Committed together to hold their speed.
No questions asked,
The stern four is up to the task.
Stringy talks the words of wisdom
The crew responds with every call.

The field has closed in on the bolters in Five.
The battle of the third 500 wages on unabated.
These are 6 crews of quality, seasoned with purpose
No quarter given and none asked.
54 athletes up to the task.

The field drives into the most turbulent and exposed piece of water.
The blade work is clean and takes no speed off these machines.
In each boat comes the plaintiff call.
500 meters to go!

There is a resolve in each crew.
That today is their day!
The stringy of the crew in lane two
Reiterates the words of the coach,
Row long and row fast.

They respond in the only way they know,
As they have done in so many races past
They push and push again.
Slowly and surely, they inch to the lead.
They are so together now.
Each seat working for the other.

The water calms in the last 250.
We have a seat, give me another one demands stringy
With passion ringing in his voice.
He has the big guns in the engine room firing.
That’s 3 seats and moving away
Stringy urges with 5 strokes to go.

The beeper sounds as they cross the line.
A memory created that will forever last.

Note we have a nickname for a coxswain, a stringy, i.e. a puller of rudder strings.
A bolter is a crew that takes an early lead but will more than likely run out of fuel.

*John Cumper, of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, who calls himself “a rowing tragic”, won his first rowing race when he was at school in 1969. John continued to row after finishing school and managed to race in a few King’s Cup crews for Victoria. He is happy to see Michael Nicholson’s name on HTBS as Michael coxed the eight John rowed in a memorable race, winning the state championships in 1979. John started coaching in 1984 after taking a break from his professional career as an accountant. In 1993, he became a full-time coach and coached on the Australian team for the Olympic Games in 2008. John now works at the Ballarat Grammar School where they have a very successful rowing program. During the Covid lockdown, John started to write about rowing, or as John puts it, “for want of a better word, ‘poetry’”. He is working on a book which he calls tight puddles, which will be published this spring. The poem above, “the starting bay”, is from this collection.


  1. Am I the only one who began to read this thinking it was a parody of Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada?



  2. Good to see John Cumper’s name in print again. Brings back happy memories of Powerhouse Rowing Club and rowing on the Yarra , Melbourne, early seventies.

  3. John’s poem and photo brought back fond memories of my one occasion out on Lake Wendouree, in Olympic year 1956 on a windy afternoon on a day trip from Melbourne. I had been lent a scow Moth (11 ft performance sailing boat). I remember the exhilaration of the bursts of speed I attained when I got clear of the all too prevelant weed banks. By 1979 I had returned to Perth, via Newcastle (UK) and Sydney.

    Somehow they must have solved the weed issue by the time John was rowing the Lake.

    Peter Edmonds
    Boatie, sailor, Naval Architect and sometime oarsman
    Perth, Western Australia

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