Emulate your Eton Dorney heroes with evolving club
FOR a long period, I had little affection for rowers. It was irrational but firmly held and stemmed from a time when I was a scruffy and introverted student of drama in a Canterbury pub, surrounded by the hulking and impossibly handsome members of the university's rowing team.
At some stage while returning from the bar, I fell to the floor, soaking my charity shop cords with the drink I was clutching which was, in all likelihood, the cheapest cider on tap.
In truth, my gawky legs probably tripped over the laces of my weather-beaten trainers.
But, at that time, the facts were clouded by fury as I peered through an Alex James-inspired fringe to see the assembled rowers smirking. "I was tripped," my mind screamed, but time has healed.
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I'm better now, I hope, and I was among the hundreds of thousands cheering on Team GB's stars as they performed heroics at Eton Dorney.
Indeed, the stunned expression of Katherine Copeland as she clinched gold with Sophie Hosking in the lightweight double scull, shouting "we're going to be on a stamp" was a personal highlight.
And so, ill-conceived anger forgotten, I join Exeter Rowing Club for a crash course in "doing the Weetabix" (so named, coach Stuart Redden tells me, for the shape of the movement you must make with your hands as blades go in and out of the water).
"You need to be careful," says David Parsons, club member and chairman of the Exe Water Sports Association of which the rowing club is a part, "Rowing is incredibly addictive."
David himself joined the club relatively recently.
Finding that much of his enjoyment from his time in a gym came from the rowing machines, he elected to jettison expensive monthly gym fees to join the rowing club.
"I found myself among an excellent group of people here and really good coaches," he said, "And rowing really is a sport which you can pick up at any age and enjoy, as well as being able to get involved in a number of different competitions with people of the same ability."
The club is an amalgamation of a number of historic rowing organisations in Exeter.
Isca Rowing Club rowed in the early 1800s and the Exeter Amateur Rowing Club was founded in 1864, based at the Port Royal public house.
It moved to land near the cattle market wall in 1929, while the Port Royal Amateur Rowing club, formed in 1927, remained based at the pub.
In a history compiled for the current club, it is noted that there was "spirited and intense friendly competition" between the two, with Exeter's "white collar enthusiasts" matched against Port Royal's "artisans", but the two pooled their resources in 1946 after the Second World War had taken its toll – dropping the amateur and becoming Exeter Rowing Club.
Now based on city council property at Haven Banks as part of the water sports association, it has about 150 members of all ages and abilities, and a ready-made training facility in Exeter Canal.
As discussed elsewhere in the Echo, there are plans to move to further enhance what it has to offer, with its crammed boathouse and indoor training facilities very good, but offering no hope of expansion, particularly to meet demand boosted by the extraordinary success of Team GB.
Stuart said: "We really want to build on the enthusiasm. This includes launching projects with local schools, but we're limited with what we can do here. And in terms of developing talent, people reach a certain stage and then find they have to move elsewhere to develop.
"By moving, we hope we can offer a facility which means people don't have to leave Devon. That is what we are working to achieve."
The club already has a potential Olympian in Marcus Bowyer, part of the GB Rowing Team's World Class Start programme, and it hopes to nurture more talents.
Vice-chairman Paul Wilson, who is in charge of coaching the club's beginners, said: "It is a very technical sport but we have excellent coaches and we want to make sure whenever people come to us, whether they are juniors, men, ladies or veterans, they enjoy themselves and want to return.
"A club's success can usually be directly related to the number and quality of its coaches. We have a large number of active coaches, most of who either have the appropriate qualifications, or experience gained from rowing at national and international level."
Anyone wishing to join must be able to swim at least 100 metres – this will be tested – and training begins indoors.
"We'll put you on a rowing machine and we'll teach you how to use it properly," said Paul. "A lot of people who see a rowing machine in a gym are never taught how to use it properly – they just put in on the highest setting and pull until they're exhausted.
"Rowing is about how you use leg power in combination with your arms and the we'll spend three sessions on the machines teaching correct technique before you get in a boat."
It has been a difficult year for the club with events cancelled due to either weeds, ice or flooding. This includes the Exeter Regatta, possibly Exeter's oldest sporting event, which annually attracts hundreds of competitors aged from 12 to 70.
More than 100 sprint races take place over a 400 metre course along the River Exe.
"We've had to postpone before but 2012 was the first year we had to cancel the event entirely," said Paul. "It was immensely disappointing but when there were still big bits of debris coming down the Exe, we had no other choice.
"With luck, it will be a one-off and there will be no problems this year. We've got some hard work but a very exciting period ahead of us and this we'll do all we can to make sure we can offer something to be very proud of."
Learn To Row courses take place throughout the year. It is £50 for a course. Courses run on Sunday mornings, Tuesday evenings and Thursday evenings.
Junior training takes place on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Members can join from the age of 11.
For more information about beginner course, contact Paul at Bsquad@exeterrowing club.com; experienced rowers wanting to join can contact Eleanor Burke at Rsquad@exeterrowingclub.com or phone 01392 877696.
Other contact details are available at www.exeterrowing club.com
The club is looking for as much support as possible as it moves forwards with its plans for relocation, and is always looking for funds to help purchase new equipment.
Anyone who believes they may be able to help can contact 07773 325720.