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Head of the River

June 24, 2008 in John Blacker Society

Nikola Čašule (2005)


With lungs burning and punished legs screaming for relief, the only thing more welcome on the afternoon of May 24th than the sound of the finishing post was the knowledge that we, Balliol men, were Head of the River once more.

The moments following Saturday’s race are a blur. Collapsed in the boat, I could see our coxswain standing in his seat, roaring words of victory; our coach jumping on the spot in elation, a flip-flop in each hand, hastily removed during his run along the boat house island; and in the distance, past blue turtles on Oriel backs, the heaving mass of the island, silent witness to hundreds such victories, cheering now for Balliol.

Standing next to our boat at Wallingford at the beginning of Trinity term, few of us imagined that we’d be where we are now. Balliol are routinely underrated in the world of Oxford rowing, and all of the river chat, as well as the infamous ‘’, focussed on whether Pembroke could knock Magdalen off the top spot and how much damage the Christ Church ‘gunboat’, bristling with OUBC talent, would inflict upon the crews in its path. But, guided by the steady hand of our coach, Colin Williamson, we gradually got faster. Some strong performances at regional regattas were a boost to our confidence, and as we approached Eights week, there was a cautious optimism building in the boat.

Come Wednesday of Eights, we were all pretty nervous. We took a warm up run to our customary tree by the Cherwell, and stood facing each other, our expressions a mixture of fear and determination. Stroke looked across the meadow; hulking 5 cracked a joke about crabs; 6, as he would each day, delivered a short but effective pep talk; 2 kicked the dirt. And we were ready.

Wednesday’s bump was an unexpected gift. We gained on Pembroke throughout the first minute, but they suffered a rudder failure and swerved into the bank, tempering our joy: were we really fast enough, or was this a lucky break? On Thursday, we proved that we were. After a fast start sequence, we gained on Magdalen into the gut. The bellowing of ‘shut the door’ by our coach (our call to go for the bump) mingled with the cheers from the bank, as our bows made contact. Yet again however, our joy was less than total: we were now Head of the River, but while we knew that we could row over in front of Magdalen the next day, they would likely be caught by Oriel, who had proved to be one of the fastest crews on the river. And so it was.

As we gathered on Saturday, in the confines of our boat house replete with blades and photos of men long gone, the tension hung heavy. Many old BCBC members had come to show their support. John Blacker, a member of the 1952 Balliol crew that went Head of the River, gave us a short, sharp piece of advice: ‘When they’re getting close, stay long and row hard.’ A couple of us smiled at the hint of the double entendre; the rest continued to stare out into space, each in his own world of hopes and fears. Our 3 man had fixed his gaze on a point on the floor, knowing what awaited us.

Pushing off from the raft, we were cheered by the thousands that had gathered to watch. Oriel’s controversial substitution earlier in the week had earned the ire of the island, and we knew that most of the people on the banks of the Isis were behind Balliol. We paddled to the start and manoeuvred onto the bung line. As the one minute gun went off, bow pair tapped up to pull the line taut, but overshot and the blue cord came out of our coxswain’s hand. If we couldn’t reattach, we would lose before taking a stroke. Stern pair backed the boat down. 30 seconds to go. Our cox reached for the rope offered again by Steve Gaisford, our boatman, and missed. 20 seconds. He reached again and grabbed hold. 15 seconds. More gingerly, bow pair tapped again. With mere seconds to go, and the rope still visibly slack in the water, we had no choice but to square up and hope that those precious two feet would not cost us the headship.

The shot of the starting gun shattered the still silence, replaced by the cacophony of blades, coxes’ shouts and supporters’ screams. Rating at 46 strokes per minute under Donnington bridge, we started strong, but Oriel closed through the gut and were half a length off outside Longbridges. As our cox called us to push across the stream, we moved, holding them off to a canvas. I could see their bows inching closer, pressed along by Olympic talent, but was secure in the absolute trust that had developed amongst our crew. We would defend, or pass out with the effort.

Nearing Boathouse island, the quiet of the Green Bank gave way to a wall of noise that overwhelmed everything else. Oriel had overlap on our stern, and now our cox came into his own. Drifting across the river towards the island, he denied them the bump. Oriel’s cox, realising too late what was happening, tried to swipe our stern and missed. I could see the turtles on the back of their blades, and only one thought was in my mind. No. You. Don’t. We maintained our rhythm and held our nerve. Oriel tried to swipe again, this time from the other side. We pushed in response, every muscle on fire, begging for relief, and they missed by inches. Our cox thundered: ‘We’re moving boys, give them everything you’ve got!’

And as we passed the island, a fierce determination overtook our boat, fed by the knowledge that in 200m we had the chance to stand on the shoulders of the Balliol oarsmen who had carried us to this place through years past, buoyed by every stroke they took in the months and years of training, and hold on. The turtles got a little smaller. And with a final thud of our stroke in unison we crossed the line.

The euphoria on the island was incredible. Screams. Embraces. Champagne and sweat soaking blue and red lycra. We carried a boat back to college: the Don Cadle, named after one of the 1950s generation of Balliol oarsmen who were last here. And as we cheered and sang and took photos in the front quad of college, a man closer to the end than the beginning wept tears of joy.

On that sunny afternoon in May, in a small place in the world, dear to many, the ten of us made history. It is a day we will never forget.

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