Taking up any new sport can be an intimidating prospect, especially starting from scratch with little to no understanding of it. Throwback to 2015: I've been living in London for a good few years, got a decent circle of friends and the tube has replaced my central nervous system. You get it. But I'm hankering for community, a challenge and being outdoors more. Cue curiosity.
I identified this as a Sports Club Craving; a serious but non-life threatening desire for personal growth. Having seen rowers stream by me riverside, or from a distance while on zippy trains over bridges, I'd always been intrigued by, though never tried rowing; the combination of element exposure, the passionate grit and endurance caught my attention. Being out on the water was a huge draw, along with being a powerful sport. And boy, is it.
Turns out, rowing on one of the UK's most famous rivers is quite popular. London's not short of clubs offering a wide variety of ways to row, from family and casual to competitive clubs. I found Thames Rowing Club, who conveniently had an induction morning the following Sunday at 10am, for novices. While not that terrifying a time slot, it should also serve as warning flag for what rowing demands. Sunday mornings were previously reserved for lazy lie ins, breakfast in bed and the pure idle delight of doing sweet FA. This was to be no more.
The introduction day at Thames Rowing Club turned up a mixture of men and women keen to take on the sport, though sexes are divided for the sport. I quickly learned that the term "novice"* does not apply in this sport as it does in many others, it does not simply mean you are a never-tried-novice like myself, but in fact, can include those who have rowed before, but who've never been in a "winning" boat. Don't let this perturb you. The introductory session covered everything from the history of the club through to what they expect from members.
Thames Rowing Club is a competitive rowing club, and not being one to do anything by halves, this hooked my ego. An ego which was swiftly crushed by the practise and exercise timetable presented: Tuesday and Thursday evenings "tank"** work, Wednesday evening weights followed by Saturday and Sunday mornings 7am-12pm sessions on the water. They weren't kidding with competitive.
From our first outing, divided into boats by experience, I could tell I'd found a good fit. Though wobbly, in a boat twice the size as usual (dubbed "The Tub"), learning how to get in and out of the boat was a lesson in itself. Over the course of the following months, we progressed to the more streamlined shells and the sessions demanded more focus and commitment, with this taking it's natural toll on people's timeframes and the decline of our group in numbers. They didn't die, they just left. Any schedule like the above is taxing, so as much as anyone can enjoy it, it either became a priority or not at all - this is where finding the right club for you comes in.
It's no secret that while tank sessions and ergs*** were our weekday practise, getting out on the water at the weekend was what everyone loved. We found the sides of the boat we preferred, bow (oar out to your left) or stoke (oar out to your right) and got to put into practise the techniques we were learning. It's a tricky one to describe, but "gliding" (we didn't glide) on the water, being out whatever the weather and the true exhaustion after a session fills every nook and cranny of your being and brain. You get tired, out of breath, wet, blisters, cramp and it's not comfortable, but my god is it satisfying.
Our early morning starts were something I loved, hitting the city early at sunrise is never something you regret, taking in some spectacular views and finally coming to your senses on the water is one hell of a way to wake up. Alas, at times, I naturally craved to be back in bed with a cup of tea and slice of buttery toast and it could bring about the worst of my attitude I didn't know was lurking. There's an opportunity to learn about yourself during discomfort and in a boat you can't just jump out of, there's little respite.
Rowing isn't for the faint hearted, and that's just the pre race line up. Queuing in the boat on the Thames in early December, for around one and a half hours, soaked from rain and hail all for your 20 minute shot at winning. But without fail. when our time came, we brought fresh energy and momentum without fail. Energy I didn't even know I had. This was my biggest lesson in rowing, even passed learning the skill itself; I am capable of so much more. Rowing adjusted my mental capacity, instilled in me that 9/10 my body doesn't need my brain's engagement, if I can find a way to quiet it, disengage it from discomfort, then my body will crack on with the rest.
The year of novice women we had was truly incredible, it's given me some of my closest friends. Meeting likeminded but completely different women from all walks of life, with an underlying respect and strong sense of being a team, is probably the best way to form and forge connections; it felt a little like being back in school - you'd roll your eyes at the teacher, get wound up by one another and, yes, plait one another's hair before competition. We really got the best, and sometimes worst, out of one another. That's what a team does.
Rowing is a highly worthy sport; challenging in the least and mind altering at it's best. I continued with rowing for that year, deciding not to return the following season as life took on a different shapre; I couldn't make it the priority it required to be. Knowing the basics of handing an oar on water is a surprisingly enjoyable skill, and understanding the movement of a boat is reassuring but more than anything else, but it's what learned about myself - more than I ever expected - that I remember most. What rowing did for me mentally far outweighed any other benefit it brought. If you've ever been curious about rowing, I can't recommend it enough; it's everything you think it'll be and more, except harder in all the right ways.
Sign up to clubs vary but membership at Thames (at the time) cost £550 for the year, plus £50 joining fee, which when you break it down monthly and across the taught sessions with access to the gym, is more than reasonable. It's worth noting that on top of this teams have to pay to enter qualifying races and usually buy team specific kit. And a lot of hand tape.
*Novice: The "novice" status in rowing is shed on a points based system, starting with 0 points then graduating to intermediate 3 (IM3) and so forth when winning in qualifying regattas. Once you've gained points, you can no longer race within a novice boat. And so, many of those I met had rowed before at some stage or other.
**Tank: A row boat fixed set up with oars and bodies of water for more accurate practise
***Ergs: Basically your classic rowing machine - ergometer. They're used to measure areas of training like intensity, power and speed.
Interested in learning to row? You may find these links helpful:
England - Wales - Scotland - Ireland