Men of the River Cam
When the alarm went off I didn’t remember why I’d set it. 6:15 am? Why would I have ever done that? I rubbed my eyes and looked around the room. Still very dark out. Why would I have ever set an alarm so early? The phone buzzed with a text message from my friend Mark: DO YOU HAVE ANY EXTRA SWEATS? ITS SNOWING.
I threw open the curtains. It didn’t look like it was snowing. Maybe mark was imagining things. Regardless his text message reminded me why I was up. It was the MCR Novice Boats first race- the Clare Novice Regatta.
I grabbed the warm athletic gear I had laid out the night before and dressed quickly. Snow? I couldn’t believe that. It was cold for sure, but snow was very unlikely.
After a speedy breakfast, I pulled on my bike helmet and opened the front door to head to the porter’s lodge to meet the rest of the team.
And it was snowing. Beautifully.
We cycled in relative silence through a dark, snowy, sleeping Cambridge. The Christmas Decorations in shop windows looked more appropriate than usual. At the boathouse the river was unusually still, its banks frosted with a small coat of white as we walked “Laurie” (our eight) out of the building and lowered him into the water.
In the locker room, the coaches handed out our jerseys. Black and gold lettering spelled out our names on the boat, and over our hearts was the Selwyn College Crest.
We pushed off, into the brightening dawn, and rowed in all eights casually down the river. But there was a ton of nervous energy. The Clare Novice Regatta is structured by head-to-head racing, and we would be sprinting Fitwilliams Novice eight for nearly 800m in a few minutes. There was so much we’d never fully done. We’d never gone this far, this fast with another boat beside us. We’d never actually seen competition. We’d never been a boat race for that matter, unless you count my former life where I was dedicated sailor which you wouldn’t because with an oar in hand, that experience was hardly relevant.
We lined up with Fitz and came forward to “three-quarters” a position where we stay anxiously still poised to unleash everything we had at the River Cam as soon as we heard go! When we did, a blaze of white water flew about the boat, and voices from the bank and the coxes rose in dramatic admonitions. FASTER! THREE-QUARTERS! WIND! TOGETHER GUYS!
We blasted down the “reach” racing out past Fitz. From the seventh seat (one from the stern position or ‘stroke’) I could see most of Fitz behind us, frantic to catch us up.
We were doing good. We were moving so quickly. And then I (and it would later be revealed several others) “caught a crab.” As I tried to stay in unison with my teammates, my blade became trapped by the pressure of the water. The boat slowed and lurched off course. We were in danger of losing our lead!
But having been trained for this, I fought through the crab and pulled my blade forward to take another stroke. And another. And another. We were back on course, ahead of Fitz.
We ended up catching enough crabs for a Chesapeake BBQ. But our power and commitment to the win was indomitable. Cruising across the finish line, we pretty much all shouted out with joy. Last year, Selwyn had been shut out in the Clare competition, but this year with Maverick, would be different.
Despite losing our subsequent match-up with Girton (who were really, really good and we raced much more soundly, but eventually crabbed- just once- and lost the race) there was much to celebrate at the end of the day. It had been savagely cold, but the temperature had hardly mattered once we got on the river. The racing became the only thing on our minds then.
With Laurie back on his rack, and the day’s athleticism over at 8:45 am, we decided to have a team breakfast.