The Rise of the Boat Club

Sports editor Seoras Lyall sits down with Boat club to talk about their rapid rise and upcoming competitions.

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The Rowing club training at a winter camp in Italy

Loch Ore is a rather inauspicious lochan in Fife, sitting in the shadow of the larger Loch Leven. It is the home of the University of St Andrews Boat Club who, much like Loch Ore, have been in the shadow of the major boating universities in the UK. Until now. Fresh from the Rowing Indoor Championships in Glasgow, club president Matt Taylor, along with alumni and press officer Ed Woolgar, sat down with The Saint to discuss what’s next for one of the great success stories of St Andrews sport.

Just this last month, the club won their first medals in living memory at the Indoor Championships. In the open men’s lightweight rowing, Joe Taylor claimed silver while in the corresponding women’s event Morgan Hartley got bronze. The open women’s heavyweight Kirstin Giddy also got bronze in her race, while there was also success in the women’s university fresher event. Charlie Deacon got the silver, an impressive result along with her being fifth in the UK in her category. These four medals, in four different events, just go to show the progression and strength in depth of the boat club. While perhaps not the most illustrious event on the calendar, the results do factor into BUCS events. Taylor and Woolgar put these first ever indoor medals down to an evolving committee approach to training. Since the start of the year there has been consistent sessions and preparation, along with a more organised recruiting drive. This latter strategy resulted in the silver for Deacon, as the prerequisites for the event stated you could only have started rowing in September of last year.

While on paper these indoor results may look headline worthy, they are in line with a trend in the club that dates back to 2014, where they became a performance sport. This led to a transformation in several regards. Firstly, it meant a re-orientation towards results and success. A new coaching structure was implemented, with a director of rowing appointed along with more funding from the Athletic Union (AU) which allowed them to travel further afield to compete. They changed where they trained to Loch Ore, but most importantly, there was a cultural change within the club. Driven by a committee that has changed little since that transition to performance sport,Taylor and Woolgar attributed getting people on board with the work ethic of training and commitment as the fundamental reason behind their recent success. Rowing is no longer a club for those wanting an erg with a view, but a commitment that consumes one’s university life. Training is at least six times a week, eight weeks after term finishes the rowers will still be preparing for the final event of the season. Over January the club held a pre-season training camp which over 40 people attended, which was described by a rower from the women’s novice team as “intense and pushed everyone to exhaustion, but it’s safe to say it’s equally brought teams closer together and has made every individual feel as if they’ve improved greatly.”

With these kind of fundamental changes, the club has begun to dominate the Scottish university rowing scene. They are the current regatta champions of Scotland, which they will be looking to defend in May. The boat club also host their own regatta in September, making it a busy summer for the committee having to organise that and getting down to compete in other races. The remarkable work that they do was recognised nationally recently at the Scottish rowing awards dinner last month. President Matt Taylor was nominated as volunteer of the year, while the club was also nominated as club of the year. This latter category was picked by a board rather than public submissions, recognising the outreach and charity work the club also partakes in. These nominations are more extraordinary when considering that they were competing with public rowing clubs from across Scotland.

What makes this success even more remarkable, despite the humble attitude of Taylor and Woolgar, is the sheer conditions they must put up with. Money, as with most clubs, is a major source of worry. They have a budget of around £10,000, which may seem substantial until you realise that their competitors such as Edinburgh have one ten times that. Part of that goes to subsidising the training camps and also transportation down south for events, although the AU also helps in that regard as a performance sport. It did mean however, that the club did have to stay in Scotland for their winter training camp as the cost of going abroad was deemed to have outweighed the benefits. Moreover, while Loch Ore has been the centre of all the hard work that has led to many triumphs, the club are still without a boat house. The faces of Taylor and Woolgar visibly changed upon mentioning the saga behind it. Previously the club did have one when they trained at Guardbridge, but since they have moved, there has been a decade long struggle to get a new one. “Frustrating” was the word the two interviewees used to describe the unforeseeable hurdles that had thwarted many a boating committee. Both they and the AU have been working together now to the point that they are closer than ever. After clearing up concerns by residents that the council, and not the AU, would be paying for it, the best estimate of when it will be complete in time for them hosting their regatta in September.

Despite the financial pressures, the club looks set for another successful season. Following the Indoor Rowing Championships, the Boat club has the first major BUCS event of the year in Newcastle. It was at this event last year that they claimed their first BUCS points in living memory. There are high hopes for this time around. Taylor and Woolgar regarded the senior women’s squad as the best St Andrews has had, while the novice women are also looking strong. The senior men will also be competing in the smaller boat races. The competition will be using head race format, which is similar to time trials. The first day will for beginners and 3 km length, will day two will for seniors and 5 km.

After Newcastle, the club will be competing the in Head of the River race on the Thames in March. It is one of the biggest rowing events in the world, with junior programs, clubs, and universities competing from all around the world. Over the last three years the club have halved their position in the table for men and women. The girls will be aiming for top 40 out of 300 crews, while the men will be racing nearly 400. No one will be hoping for a repeat of last year, when the event was cancelled. Only in May does the regatta season properly start, with the BUCS event being held in Nottingham. It is one of the biggest student regattas in Europe and will be the climax of an arduous journey for the rowers. Finally, at the end of the season comes the most prestigious event in rowing: the Henley regatta. If they do anywhere near as well as last year, when they famously beat Harvard, it will cap off what will surely be a successful year.

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