Whilst many of us holidayed, or potentially revised during our spring break, this year the London Head of the River Race took place. This is one of the biggest head races in the country. It saw many rowing clubs take part from places as far away as China. Unfortunately, the Women’s race was cancelled due to poor weather conditions, but the St Andrews Men’s Rowing team were busy recording a record finish. They finished 62nd out of over 300 rowing crews. In doing so they won the Medium Academic Pennant Award and smashed their previous club record in the race.
In sport, the “iceberg” analogy is sometimes used. In other words, whilst people see the tip of the iceberg (the success), often the hard work which the team puts in is unknown and under the surface. This analogy is fitting for the St Andrews Rowing club, perhaps literally due to the cold, unforgiving climate in which the club rows in Scotland, but also due to the long hours and hard preparation which has gone into this Head of the River success. When people think of rowing, many will perhaps think of the outrageously early training sessions. This is certainly true for the St Andrews crews. Crew member Chris Bock described how some mornings the meet time at the AU can be as early as 5 am in order to get to the loch where they train. Whilst not all sessions start this early, the crew trains every morning. The testing and extensive rowing season also sees the crew remain in Scotland until July in order to keep competing. Hard work, dedication, and strong will power are clearly evident.
The training this year has not been totally plain sailing. There was a period where there was no director of rowing. That said, the crew were able to persevere and organise their own training sessions and stayed very dedicated and committed. In February the appointment of Jordan Stanley was made. He is a former New Zealand National Universities Rower. Bock and Holly Bartlett (cox and Club President) explained that he was very influential in their final four weeks before the Head of the River Competition. He introduced a number of fresh ideas and a renewed technical focus, which they both felt were crucial for the race.
Near to the date of the race, the Crew went on a week long training camp in Northern Ireland, hosted by the Belfast Rowing Club. Here the crew worked on the specifics of the Head of the River Race, such as the precise distance they will have to cover in their time trial.
The crew arrived two days before the race to practise on the water. Bartlett explained how in this race there were some key differences from what the crew was used to. Firstly due to the crew competing on a loch, there is an absence of a stream, which makes quite a difference. Equally, as a cox, Bartlett explained the importance of getting to know and studying the river, the various bends and the nature of the stream, and the wind direction. On a race day, a cox has a significant role to play in directing and guiding the crew to row in the quickest and most effective direction, how to overtake at the best moment, and when to sprint. Clearly, the crew was well prepared for a successful race.
The Head of the River contest is thought of as the pinnacle of head racing for the St Andrews Boat Club. Bartlett emphasised that for the club, since the beginning of the new year, Head of the River is the event which is on every rower’s mind. A head competition is not an individual race where all crews compete against each other at the same time. Instead, it is a time trial. For the head of the river contest, every 10 seconds a crew leaves the start line. The London Head of the River Race has significant differences from other head races. Whilst obviously the number of crews taking part is a significant difference, the race is also significantly longer. Most head races are an average of 5 kilometers long. The London Head Race is 6.8 kilometers. Bock stated that in rowing terms that is adding a significant distance to the race. In the past, and this year, other crews burnt out in the first half of the race. Bartlett explained that deciding on when to sprint with this greater distance was a major obstacle which needed to be overcome, and a tactic which needed to be perfected, in order to maximise success.
The success of coming 62nd in the race can first be attributed to the tactics of pacing themselves and avoiding the issue of exhausting themselves early on. Clearly, all the hard work and preparation must have played a role in the success. Equally, Bock agreed the conditions of the river were relatively calm which helped them record a strong time.
This said, Bock explained that another key reason behind the success was the incredible strength and depth which the Boat Club has both in the men’s and women’s crews this year. There has been a strong recruitment of freshers this year, such as Monty Jones who was one of the eight-man crew at the Head of the River Race. Bock believes that the squad is the strongest it has ever been.
The high finish saw the crew win the Medium Academic Pennant Award. This meant the crew won their individual university category for the race. So next year they will be classified in the highest category of University classification, Open Academic. Further, the rowing squad is relatively young, as only two of their crew will be leaving this year. This means they have a squad they can build on and hope to achieve even more in next year’s Race. They will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.
But the Rowing Club’s season is far from over. The club is moving into the Regatta season. Regatta is the format where crews race against each other at the same time instead of in a time trial format. In two weeks time, they will be attending a Scottish Regatta. Then they will be taking part in a BUCS Regatta. The ultimate aim though is qualifying for Henley in July, an achievement which their hard work and dedication definitely deserve.