Having taken part in only two coastal rowing sessions at the very welcoming Avoch Community Rowing Club, I was somewhat daunted to be see my name in two crews for the Golspie Regatta 2021.
There is a bonus, it seems, for being a woman in her 50s because the club was short of my age group and that appeared to guarantee me a slot at the competition on the stunning east Sutherland coast.
Another novice, Margaret, was also invited to join the female 50s crew. We travelled together to the regatta on Saturday and confessed to a few nerves, although we decided it would be more of an “experience” and should be fun, rather than stressful.
Saying that is all very well, until you are sat in the boat, one of just four rowers who are required to race 2km (1km out, turn around a buoy, and 1km back).
It felt both surreal and very exciting.
Race 1: Female 50-plus
The four rowers include “stroke”, positioned at the front of the boat. This is the person who sets the pace. The rower in position two must keep time with stroke. Position 3 follows stroke, while position 4 follows rower 2. The aim is for a balanced boat that moves smoothly through the water. The cox gives useful instructions and handles the rudder.
Lesley took stroke, Caroline was in position 2, while I took 3 and Margaret was in 4. It made sense for those who are more experienced to set the pace and oar cadence. Our crew had never rowed together.
Lining up alongside six other boats from across Scotland and suddenly my nerves on edge. To be honest there could have been two or 10 boats and the stomach churning would have been the same.
My anxiety was letting down my Avoch crew.
Being so new to coastal rowing, I am keenly aware how one small technical hitch can lose a race. There are lots of technical things that can go wrong. For example, catching the water in the wrong place, mis-timing the stroke, bumping into the rower in front or behind when miss-rowing, not listening to the cox and losing concentration (even momentarily).
The more in time you are as a crew and the longer and more powerful the stroke cadence, the better you will progress through the water.
Thankfully, we were the first race to go, at a time when the bay at Golspie in the Dornoch Firth was at its flattest. Flatter water makes it much easier to row.
With our cox Kathy holding on to the starting buoy (and delivering instructions to each of us so that we stayed as still as possible), us rowers took up the starting position.
Pushing my single oar forwards and leaning over to a forward stretch, I waited for the starter signal.
Kathy called for us to do three hard, fast strokes, then seven slightly longer strokes to get us going. Then we settled into a longer stroke.
The aim is to be as relaxed as possible, especially in the arms and shoulders and stretching forwards with the oar out of the water.
The power for each stroke comes through the legs and you use core muscles to brace yourself.
The best strokes are long and even and do not dig too deep in the water. It’s a hard form of exercise and within 500m I was wondering if I’d make the full 2km.
Being so new to it all, I’d no idea what 2km meant in terms of strength and fitness.
I fixed my gaze on Lesley in stroke position and tried my best to stay in time with her. The pacing was really good and it felt meditative, as well as very exhausting.
I heard Kathy tell us we were about 150m away form the turn. I still had no concept of what this meant and just rowed on. Then there were 50m for the turn and we were suddenly being instructed by Cathy to prepare to turn.
Rowers 2 and 4 were to initiate the turn. Lesley used her oar a little to aid the turn. It was an amazingly slick turn and we seemed to be in contention with the other boats, although I could hardly see anything in my peripheral vision.
Annoyingly for Kathy (and us, as it turned out), the rudder decided it didn’t like the turn and it jumped up from the boat. A bit of mad scrabbling, of which I was mostly unaware, and the rudder was put back in place.
We were instructed to do a race start again. Three short, hard strokes, seven longer ones and then back into a longer, more relaxed pace.
By relaxed, I don’t mean we were working any less; it was simply a longer stroke at a more even pace.
By now any arms were screaming in pain (I needed to learn not to use my arms so much) and my breathing was starting to heave. I tried hard to relax where I could and power through with my legs. I focused on keeping my breathing more even.
Very small glances across to the others boats gave the sense we were still in with a placing hope. It turns out that these races on the sea are very deceptive. You can’t really ever know exactly where you are when the boats are placing tightly together until the finish.
Kathy called for us to do 10 harder strokes, then 10 more and then to row hard to the finish line. I honestly gave it everything I had and I could feel my lungs about to explode and my legs calling for me to stop.
Wow! What a thrilling and exciting sport it is. We ended up in fifth place, although we had thought it was fourth. (It turns out were a second slower than Golspie!) But, we weren’t last and I think if the rudder had played ball, we would have been in a much better position.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Margaret and I had made it through our first coastal rowing race without any major issues and we were both delighted. Next time, we will have had a lot more practice as a boat and individually.
Race 2: Mixed 50-plus
The next race was less than two hours later. This time I knew what to expect – and somehow that simply increased my nerves. The water was also choppier. There were five other boats in the race.
In stroke was John (“JR”), with Caroline in seat 2, I was in 3 again, with Alan at the rear. Our cox was David.
It appeared to be much more of a feat to keep our boat still and in line for the start of this race. I presume this was because the sea wasn’t so calm.
And then, all of a sudden, we were off again. We followed the same race start – and annoyingly I felt I was far less capable in this race than the first one.
I needed to get used to a slightly different stroke style of JR. He is taller than Lesley with a longer stroke and that meant I needed to adjust my own stroke. Also, the sea was rolling and at times I felt my oar had gone too deep, while at other times it seem to hit air as well as water.
There was a huge amount to think about and before I could relax I made a couple of silly errors. I even caught the water and I felt really bad. Catching the water in the wrong place always slows the boat.
Finally, I felt I was in time with JR and I relaxed a bit. I focused on keeping my arms straight through the stroke so as to reduce the pull on my already tired muscles. I thought hard about pushing through my legs and keeping the stroke long by leaning back as far as I could. Then, I tried to relax as I pushed the oar forward to take a new stroke.
There is a lot more to coastal rowing than I’d ever imagined.
The turn at 1km was excellent and suddenly we were heading to the finish. But that final 1km felt very long indeed. The race felt much tougher than in the women-only boat.
I could hear Alan breathing hard behind me and Caroline doing the same in front. David kept us going with many words of encouragement. He also told us we were in third position and the two ahead would be difficult to catch so we needed to focus on keeping our pace and rhythm so as to keep our medal place.
It was fantastic to take a bronze place in my first regatta.
After our race, JR said: “We were doing very well and then lost a bit of pace 750m but it was a very good race overall. I am pleased with the race because we were beaten by two very strong crews, Ullapool and Golspie. It went really well for us.”
Caroline added: “It was fantastic. It was a marvellous race.”
I am now hooked on coastal rowing. I want to learn more about how to achieve a better technique and a stronger stroke. I am also greatly enjoying the sense of inclusion in the club. There were rowers aged for teens to 70s and a race for all.
3rd place overall for Avoch Rowing Club
Avoch came third overall, behind Golspie (1st) and Ullapool (2nd). Our club’s placing was thanks to some impressive golds in other races.
I watched as a delighted Juniors Mixed crew (under 19s), coxed by Kathy and including Neve, Ella, Mitchell and Kian, came home first in their race. There were 18 seconds ahead of the next boat.
Neve said afterwards: “It was amazeballs.”
Kian added: “It was sweet. It was my first regatta race and it was very nice to see all the boats behind as we rowed.”
Other golds went to the Female Decades, Male decades and Open Female.
Read more about coastal rowing: