Temperatures had been at a bitter low running up to Saturday, the early morning practices the crews had endured for the past few weeks could only be described as arctic, the worst coming in the form of a raw 7am water session at -2 degrees with unforgiving 17 mph crosswinds relentlessly biting at any patch of exposed skin while churning the water till it became wild and unpredictable.
However on the day of the first ever Docklands Head Fresher Regatta, an event participated by freshers from the University of East London and Queen Mary University respectively, their determined efforts were greatly rewarded as they commuted to the London Regatta Centre in perfect conditions that can only be described as a rower’s dream. By midday the sky was clear and crisp. The water was flawless, not a single wave or ripple disturbed the surface as a result of the unfathomable absence of the wind. And to crown it all the temperature granted us a slight respite by soaring to a gorgeous 6 degrees. To say the competitors were salivating at the opportunity that lay before them would of been an understatement.
The event consisted of two races; one in which crews of five were organised internally from both universities respectively and the other where crews would be drawn randomly from a hat. The latter of which was the high stakes race where the fastest crew was awarded with individual trophies. We emphasised the importance on the second race specifically as it tested the fresher’s abilities to sit in a boat with rowers they had not trained with before in order to test their adaptability to an awkward scenario outside of their comfort zone.
As we talked through last minute procedures, reminding the crews the finer points of the safety briefing, rigging the boats correctly, checking their foot plates, a final review of their tactics, you could sense the tension between the seven crews was building. Competitive banter ensued as the crews rowed up to the start line, doubled edged comments such as ‘Break a leg’ and ‘Best of luck, don’t choke’ could be heard as they were fired between the large lake boats; great, heavy formidable crafts that were cumbersome but reliable and in theory could not capsize. But even the ‘unsinkable ship’ the Titanic ironically did not live up to it’s billing, and on this day no one was ruling out the possibility of an iceberg.
Attention, Go! The abrupt two word starting sequence sparked the first crew into life and immediately they erupted without hesitation into a frantic 750m dash towards the finish line. At one minute intervals the six other crews were released from the traps in similar fashion to replicate a ‘Head of the River’ style race in which each crew was individually timed, however many of them failed to maintain the initial power and fluid technique that they began with and evidence of fatigue set in. As they fought for each meter the blade with which they used to propel themselves, the craft and their crew through the water became heavier, and felt more abrasive in their grip. In some cases a member of the crew was exhausted to such an extent that they could not physically push their blade out of the water making the whole boat lurch and stutter as the criminal blade acted as an anchor, causing confusion, anguish and despair amongst the crew. An experience that every rower is familiar with and hopes not to replicate during a race as it almost certainly condemns you to a lowly position on the time sheet. Breathing heavy, bodies aching, limbs cramping the crews muster their remaining strength and drown out their inner voice, pleading for them to stop, with cries of encouragement as the end came into sight. As the boats cruise over the finish line their passengers go limp, keeling over, bent double and lungs starved of oxygen the crews allow themselves to recover before repeating the whole process again 15 minutes later in the second race.
With the physical exertions of the day over and done with, the lake boats were hauled out of the water, times were collected and participants gathered outside the boat house with baited breath and strained ears, awaiting the results. We took the opportunity to use this momentous occasion to show off our new fleet, the first boats that the club actually owns outright, courtesy of the University heavily investing in the club which won UEL Sports Club of the Year 2012. The 1st race was hard fought with four UEL and three QM boats participating. The two fastest crews from each university deployed very different tactics. The QM crew who went on to win the first race were perhaps not the most powerful, but rowed with technique as the focus of their strategy while The UEL team, although somewhat sabotaged by a suspect rudder which hampered their steering, finished a close 2nd with strength their primary objective, which is testament to the sport which in higher levels of competition require both finesse and power in unison. The 2nd race, the main event which challenged each university to assemble crews by lottery tested the individuals ability to mesh as a team or fall by the wayside. This event was won by a UEL crew, some of it’s members had never rowed in the same boat prior to the race, which made the victory all the more impressive, making them worthy winners of the first Docklands Head Fresher Regatta.
After the award ceremony and some much deserved mulled wine, there was one last surprise to reveal. Our previously mentioned new fleet needed a proper christening. The individual boats were named either by the university or by the boat club itself but one in particular held great significance. Natalie may be described as the lightweight double in our fleet, but this craft shares it’s name with our club founder and guest of honour Natalie Campbell who graced us with her presence on the day. We presented her with this honour as a testament to the selfless dedication and passion she put into the club during her time as club president, without which would almost certainly mean we would not be rowing for the university today.
With a few touching words we ended the first Docklands Head Freshers Regatta in celebration, marveling at the excellent show of sportsmanship and physical endeavour displayed by the new blood of the club. The future of UEL rowing looks bright whilst we have such an amazing group of people to help carry the club forward.
UELBC Social Secretary