Who knew rowing was difficult? Surely it’s just about sitting in a boat and sticking your oar in, right?
Wrong. And it’s not an oar. It’s a blade. I learnt that, as well as a boat-load of other stuff when I hung out with the London Otters one sunny autumn Saturday morning.
I’d been aware of the London Otters for some time. They have a great social media presence and cute outfits, which led me to feature them in an article for MTV Fit. They’re the UK’s only LBGT rowing team and they’re super popular. I was emailed asking if I wanted to give rowing a try on actual water and I responded with “OF COURSE, I would be delighted. Think of the instagram pics….hello?” and then I was literally thrown in the deep end.
I travelled to very East-that-it’s-almost-Essex-London and I was nervous of the organised sport side of things. I hadn’t played on a team since school. I met their captain, Matt Davey, who then took me onto a rowing machine and essentially erased 10 years of gym work that I thought I knew about rowing. Having that knowledge erased was tough. I thought using a rowing machine was grabbing the bars and pushing myself back but Matt taught me correct technique – which is a lot to remember. So from backstops (legs extended with the blade in your hands, your arms are the first thing to go forward, then your back then legs. Then you PUSH back hard with your legs. Sounds simple, but you make sure your motion is almost completing an oval shape, consider the recovery timing and make sure you eventually keep in time with the cox. Gulp.
Once he was satisfied I had a grasp of the basics, he took me into the indoor tank – which has a rowing boat (which is called an Eight?), but welded to the wall surrounded by water. Matt taught me that I’d have to favour a side of my body, as I’d be rowing one way. I also learnt that an oar is called a blade. After a few tries, dipping the blade into the water, I was rowing, and it felt fucking easy. “Wow I’m natural at this!” I thought. “Maybe I should apply to be in the Olympics!”
Matt pulled me out of the tank and told me I was about to actually go out on to the water. The Thames. With other people. In an Eight. “Guys don’t normally do that until week nine of training” he added.
I’d had nine minutes.
I was handed one of their lycra uniforms and joined the other seven guys who were going to be in the eight man boat that morning. I was starting to feel nervous again. Maybe I wanted a poo? But I was head to toe in lycra. Leaving to take a poo would be too obvious? Simon, the guy who was going to be in front of me in the boat sensed my anxieties and told me it was all going to be fine. In fact this was my first interaction with the guys who were going to be in the boat with me. Everyone introduced themselves and it was then I realised that they weren’t Olympians, they were normal guys like me. They all had different body types and abilities, it seemed. I felt oddly heart warmed by this. Perhaps I was afraid of looking not super sporty in front of super sporty guys?
Together, we all picked up the boat, and Alex, the cox, told us how high to lift the boat and when we should put it on our shoulders. My nerves returned as we the river came into view and I realised we were like spandex pallbearers, walking my boat-coffin to the river, where I would surely drown and die.
Once by the river, we carefully got into the boat. A tiny PA system is fitted throughout the boat so we could hear Alex perfectly. From then on, I became ‘Number Three’. Every time Alex referred to Number Three, he was referring to me. I would have preferred Number One, like Commander Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I guess there’s a hierarchy (and skill level) in the Otters, just like Starfleet. I leant forward to Simon, now Number Four, and asked him how long the row lasted? “An hour and a half normally.” Fuck.
As a total newbie, Alex the cox went easy on me. Yelling encouraging things like “Square off your blade, Three. That’s it” or “Don’t worry about missing that stroke, Three! Come back on the recovery” and “Actually put your blade in the water, Three!”
Being on the water though, was incredible. I hadn’t expected it to be so relaxing, even though you’re working hard to make your boat move. What I hadn’t thought about, was how much of a unit we were in the boat. We listened to the cox. If someone (me) missed or messed up a move, we had a chance to correct it while the rest of the rowers carried on. There were a few times when we all synced, and the boat was balanced. All eight men working together like a machine, and it was quite incredible.
After the row, I was surprised how mentally exhausted I was, rather than physically. There is a lot to remember and to keep track of your coordination. I loved it.
I found out I was rowing with the Otters’ social team who like to have a pint after the session. I joined them. The nearest pub is a short walk from the pontoon, and has got used to 25 gay guys descending every Saturday. I sat with some people I rowed with, and many I didn’t. Alex the cox and captain Matt told me that I was a natural rower, but perhaps they were making me feel better for the amount of times my blade didn’t touch the water. These guys all meet up, every Saturday to row and have a beer. There’s different tier levels to the Otters where you can train more but have a social team opens up a different avenue for people wanting to try a new sport and meet new people. One rower told me “Cheesy as it sounds, I’ve met some of my best friends here.” Another mentioned that he got involved with the team after a six-year relationship ended, and it’s given him confidence again.
The Otters work hard. They play hard. If you’re looking for a new fitness challenge and some mates (plus some hot lewks in lycra), you won’t regret joining up with the Otters.
Photos by Simon Bell (one of the London Otters!)