For the entire week leading up to Torpids 2009 there was a steadily growing knot in my stomach. It was obvious to everyone that I was the novice in the crew, and it was obvious to everyone that it was obvious to everyone that if anyone were to catch a crab, to panic and start slide-rushing, or to otherwise jeopardise a term’s worth of training it would be me.
And yet, one year on and a much more proficient (some would say ‘passable’) rower, I was the same bundle of nervous excitement. I was confident that M1 would end the week one, maybe two places higher than they started, but had no idea how my charges in M2 and M3 would fare. I’d overheard other captains crowing about their lower boats, but I’d not seen any of our direct opposition on the Isis during the brief window of opportunity when green or blue flag meant junior crews could train.
High stream and winds early on in the week of Torpids meant Wednesday and Thursday were to be run on a limited scale. Wednesday ran ‘half-divisions’ of six boats apiece, so while M2 and M3 had to watch from the boathouse, M1 were left starting 2nd in Division 1b, with an opportunity to row again as the sandwich boat should Exeter be unable to last the distance rowing over.
Our start was scrappy (to put it mildly), but from the six seat I could tell it was fast enough since St. John’s, who I knew to be no pushovers this year, quickly fell further and further behind. Exeter, who train at Wallingford on the same stretch as M1, had always seemed to be tidy as we passed, but without much power. In the end not even race adrenaline could provide the extra push (Exeter ended up getting spoons), Balliol bump Exeter at the entrance to the gut. A tell-tale red mark on the underside of Beeland (his first battle-scar!) is a testament to his first (of many) Torpids bumps. Just under an hour later we were waiting at the bunglines again, this time at the bottom of division 1a, just behind New. No one had heard anything of how fast they were, but with no one chasing us and so nothing to lose, there was no reason not to go all out from the start – if it didn’t work, we had opportunity to change tactics the next day. With another fast start, we didn’t get an opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at them. Balliol bump New mid-gut.
Already at Thursday, my aim for M1’s week had already been achieved. Earlier in the day M2 had shown their female counterparts how to do it, bumping Univ II after Donnington Bridge, allaying my misplaced fears and reminding me that the training they had put in, and the stewardship of my vice-captain and cox, Simon Wan, would be more than enough to see them do much the same on Friday and Saturday. The less said the better about M1’s race that day. Trying to correct the scrappiness of the previous day’s start by applying less pressure was perhaps an error, translating into a scrappy but underpowered start, meaning Oriel were able to keep the gap all the way through the gut. Gains were made and lost time and again throughout the course, but when the cox’s call of “just half a length” turned to “3/4” and then more, the fizz died out, leaving me worried for the next day, when John’s, who I knew to be gunning for blades that week, would once again be on our tail.
Friday saw the first full day’s racing, and M3’s first opportunity to race since finishing strongly in Rowing On. With Green Templeton I right behind them, I had warned them that more than ever a fast bump would be crucial. But, while I told them that Wadham M4 were ‘looking fast,’ it was only to the cox that I mentioned that Wadham M4’s stern pair had both rowed M1 last Summer Eights. Much of the remaining crew had previously rowed M1 or 2, so the cox needed to keep a clear line in the likely event of Wadham bumping out early. Unsurprisingly, they did this not long after the bridge, but M3 quickly closed the double-sized gap between them and St. Hilda’s II without much strain; there was already overlap by mid-gut. Balliol overbump Hilda’s at the exit of the gut. Not to be outdone, a couple of hours later M2 did the same, overbumping St. John’s II at the gut. Poetic as it might have been for M1 to also achieve an overbump that day, there’s rarely that much difference between crews at the top half of division one. But for all of M1 – the seniors and newcomers alike – any bump on Oriel would do. It was much to our relief, then, to hear our coach’s call to wind up for the bump, “SHUT THE DOOR!”, just into the gut. As had happened in practice, there were five increasingly powerful pushes on the legs, and five more to keep the pressure up. We felt the boat fly. But the bump didn’t come. Nothing to worry about yet – Oriel were better drilled than Exeter or New – and there was much more to come. Next came five on the backs, each more forceful than the last. Another five to keep the pressure up. Again, another surge in speed, but no bump was forthcoming. Fine. We’ve more to give. The pressure was brought up again with five more on the legs – “WHY.” “DON’T.” “YOU.” “CON.” “CEDE?” 25 Strokes of out of our 30 stroke wind in. I could just about see the wash from Oriel’s Empacher, but it was hard to concentrate on anything but the fire in my chest and legs.
“SHUT THE DOOR!!!” Again? He had to be kidding. Just coming out of the gut, there was little to lose as St. John’s were nowhere to be seen. If we weren’t to get them there and then, we would end the week where we were, or lower. The usual mental bargaining “If you see through just 15 more mammoth strokes…” was interrupted by the cox’s voice “OVERLAP, WE’VE GOT A BIG OVERLAP NOW, JUST ….WIND DOWN BOYS, WE’VE GOT IT!” Balliol bump Oriel opposite Longbridges. Cough, splutter, cough cough cheer. The difference between how we looked as we landed on Friday and how we looked as we landed the day before was immediately remarked upon. A bump on Oriel, I said at the time, is worth ten bumps on Exeter or New. Those of us in the boat last Eights Week were happy to put right the mistakes of the Saturday, while those who had started rowing for Balliol just a few months previously knew that bumping Oriel meant we were by our own right (and not just by virtue of the previous crew’s performance) one of the faster boats in Oxford.
With Christ Church, Pembroke, Magdalen and St Catz all rowing over in the top spaces that week, we were the highest crew to put in any bumps. We’d gone from nervous anticipation of whether we’d be able to hack it with the big boys, from a frustration that Torpids only lasted four days, and we only had one more chance to bump. That sentiment was shared by M2 and M3 who, despite being the speediest second and third VIIIs seen in some time, had been robbed of the chance to get trophy blades painted up by the weather at the earlier part of the week. Nevertheless, commitment to training throughout the club shone through on the final day, with M3 bumping Magdalen III at the exit to the gut, M2 bumping Hertford II before the gut (and beating a klaxon by little more than 20 seconds), and of course M1 bumping St. Catz at the top of the gut.
With 9 bumps in total, Balliol Men were more successful than any other club on the river. What’s more, with 17 out of our 24 rowers new to Balliol at the start of Michaelmas this year, things are looking very positive for the next couple of years. Bring on Summer Eights.
BCBC Men’s Captain ’09-’10