I came up to Keble a naïve eighteen-year-old and spent most of my first year in a state of bewilderment. The only time I spent in my comfort zone was in a boat but even then there was the pressure of continual challenge and assessment: interminable seat-racing at Henley came all too soon following a hasty switch of sides. Despite the absence of a measurable margin, I was selected and progressed from bow up to the seven seat where I stayed for three Boat Races all under the tutelage of the incredible, if sometimes outrageous, Daniel Topolski.
As anyone who has had the privilege of rowing there will know, the seven-seat is the most important in the boat though the men who sat in the stroke seat, not surprisingly, were successively the most important people to me and with whom an unbreakable bond was forged. Whatever the level of experience behind us, ranging from world gold medallists to college-taught oarsmen, and however well the considerable variations of style had been blended, it was our rhythm that set the crew up and formed my abiding memory of each crew and each race.
Close attendance by the press (the broadsheets published daily articles analysing each outing) and Old Blues in the days leading up to the race gave a clear sense that this was important to a lot of people. But walking out from the Nat West Boathouse (now home to Dulwich College BC) was a whole new world of sound. Add the BBC helicopter overhead when paddling back through Putney Bridge after the brief hiatus of a warm-up towards Wandsworth Bridge and the tension was considerable. In the midst of this furore, the rhythm was crucial.
What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, unlike some disasters in recent years, nothing did. Though, thanks to a late start to meet the TV schedule, the tide turning midway along the course in ‘79 required clear heads and a frantic reminder to move out from the Bandstand bank to the middle arch of Barnes or suffer disqualification.
“The tide turning midway along the course in ‘79 required clear heads and a frantic reminder to move out from the Bandstand bank to the middle arch of Barnes or suffer disqualification.”
Missing the ’78 race in a vain attempt to ‘do some work’ and salvage a degree, when things went horribly wrong for Cambridge who sank (pumps had not been invented) the crews of ‘76, ‘77 and ‘79 could not have been more different in composition or character: from a classic mix of public school and overseas oarsmen of ‘76 and ‘77 to the all British, predominantly state school and largely undergraduate crew of ‘79 of which I was honoured to be President.
Beyond the Dark Blue victories (1976 was the first of ten consecutive wins), the one consistent element was Dan whose racing fervour got into our bloodstream and needed only a little vocal animosity towards the Tabs to ignite the crew. Though at the price of piling on extra pressure, being favourites to win certainly helped our positivity but for each race day we knew we could not be better prepared and that we had Dan with us in our heads if not the boat for every stroke.
Oh, and despite all of this I emerged with a degree (just), am slightly less bewildered and still very much at home in a boat when not sharing the joy of the sport with the next generation.
1979 Won and President