I was a sporting klutz. Then rowing made me

David Hickey, author of The Trinity College VIII, on the sport that changed his life

 

Many of us are born without top-class hand-eye co-ordination – or indeed, in my case, without any hand-eye co-ordination at all – and many more of us are not attracted to, or not much use at, track-and-field sports.

I was certainly a sporting klutz when I was enticed into rowing. Why try it? I guess the idea of getting to know a group of like-minded people of my own age appealed; I quite liked the idea of doing something fitness related; and I also thought an outdoor water sport might be different.

Latterly, of course, we have all read about the boys from Skibb, and their outstanding achievements in various world championships and recent Olympic Games, and the women’s IV collecting Ireland’s first women’s Olympic rowing medals in Tokyo.

For decades, however, rowing was not a mainstream sport, and most of our knowledge of it didn’t get beyond watching the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, or becoming vaguely aware that one of “the uncles” used to do it on some remote river. It had an elitist image which, partly at least, reflected the reality.

Rowing changed dramatically during the 1970s, not just in Ireland but worldwide. Growing social wealth made the expensive equipment generally more affordable; heavy wooden boats and oars were being replaced by new lighter carbon and plastic sandwich materials; and, most striking of all, women and younger children were entering the sport in significant numbers.

Winners at Nottingham. From front left, Dave Sanfey, Richard Scott, Jarlath and John, and behind, Big Mac, Kieran, Rory, Dave Weale, and a surly author refusing to conform to the dress code (or absent-mindedly not noticing what everyone else was wearing). The elegant footwear worn by all neatly encapsulates the era.
Winners at Nottingham. From front left, Dave Sanfey, Richard Scott, Jarlath and John, and behind, Big Mac, Kieran, Rory, Dave Weale, and a surly author refusing to conform to the dress code (or absent-mindedly not noticing what everyone else was wearing). The elegant footwear worn by all neatly encapsulates the era

I fell into the sport virtually the moment I walked hesitantly through the front gates of Trinity College at the commencement of four years of undergraduate “study”. Well, we know that means, don’t we? Alcohol, dodgy powders, parties in the houses of absent parents, girls and boys, and, and, and … until a rushed cramming fortnight with no sleep before the annual exams restored sobriety and abstinence, at least temporarily.

Starting out that first day on the river was a little scary. I didn’t even know which way to face when I first sat in the boat, and when I worked that out, I then struggled to co-ordinate teenage limbs with minds of their own into some form of mutual co-operation. And all this while knowing, just knowing, that I would shortly fall out of the boat into the water.

It was not as if I was obviously cut out for the sport. I was as fit as a lazy slug on a summer’s lettuce leaf. Neither was I tall, at under 6ft, nor strong, at under 11st. Actually, when I think back, I wonder what on earth I thought I was doing. The answer of course was that I wasn’t thinking at all. I was just blundering around wondering whether my hair looked okay, and whether my favourite sweater looked fashionable or not, as you do. The sort of major life worries with which privileged teenagers have to grapple.

I survived, and stayed dry, that first day, and something clicked, apart from my aching back. So I stuck at it, and as the years rolled by I have never really been very far away from the sport.

You see, rowing made me. Through the training I grew a bit, and muscled up a bit, so I got a bit more confident physically. In parallel, the rowing itself, and especially the racing, brought with it a growing mental toughness which turned out to help withstand life’s subsequent bumps and wobbles. And because she was also a rower, I met my wife through the sport, and decades later our kids then rowed, and in several cases they met their current partners through the sport, and so it went on and on.

It is not always the most exciting sport to watch. Races start more than 2,000m away, and often by the time the crews get to the finish line the outcome is settled. There are exceptions, however, and, boy, can a close race be exciting to watch. Take a look on YouTube for this year’s Finals Day at Henley Royal Regatta to see the lightweight Skibbereen boys come from behind to beat one of the fastest heavyweight crews around. It is remarkable entertainment.

Back in the old elite days, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race commentary was available only over the static-infused BBC Radio Home Service. For the 1949 race there was thick fog which resulted in the commentator John Snagge’s famous update to the listening audience, “I can’t quite see who is ahead, but it is either Oxford or Cambridge.” Well, that’s cleared that up then.

Last October, when the second lockdown started, there was nothing of interest to me on Netflix, so rather than risk the excitement of growing winter vegetables (are there vegetables which grow in the winter?), I thought I might learn Spanish and write a book. The Spanish lesson went well. After 10 minutes I could say, “Dos cervezas, por favor,” so I figured I was fluent and stopped there.

The author, left, and John Macken sharing a laugh.
The author, left, and John Macken sharing a laugh.

I did write the book, however, and it has just been published by the Liffey Press, which, given where I did much of my early rowing, was nicely appropriate. I did, however, need all my rowing toughness to get through my first meeting with David Givens, the publisher.

“How many do you think we might sell?” I asked.

“Between five and 50,” he said carefully.

“Thousand,” I said happily, finishing his sentence.

“No, not thousand – books,” he growled back at me.

“Every author who comes in to see me has delusions of writing a best seller. My job is to bring them down to earth. You are no different. Would you like some coffee?”

“You mean to wake up and smell it, or can I drink it?”

“Both,” he said, grinning. Welcome to the world of book publishing. (He was kidding, I discovered later. Orders are already way past his upper indication. Thank goodness.)

A lot of people have asked me why I wrote the book, and, truthfully, there are as many possible answers as there are people asking (more than five, David Givens!). I guess the dominant one has to be the idea that if the book encourages folk to get into this demanding but utterly fulfilling sport, then it might provide some benefit to someone, somewhere.

But that’s only half the story. The San Raphael party in my college rooms … driving a UN half-track while somewhat “refreshed” after racing on the Suez Canal … opening a barrel of Harp lager (remember that stuff?) with some angle iron in a hotel bathroom and trying to hide the evidence by slinging it into the river where it fetched up against a bridge in Northern Ireland and the British army got called out to “defuse” it and … well, you get the idea. How we weren’t arrested several times over…

David Hickey still occasionally rows, being unable to shed the addiction. Married and with three adult children, he lives in London. The Trinity College VIII ( The Liffey Press) is available here for €20 plus postage

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