While George often wistfully mentioned the rapidly approaching end to their first term, Rhan ignored the issue as much as she could. Each day was so full that she could do little but contemplate the present, leaving little scope to worry about climate change. Returning to life as a dependent in her uncle’s family was just inevitable and sometimes appealed to her for a pleasant break from the work deadlines. She and George had three engineering practicals in various states of readiness to hand in, a drawing practical each to complete, and they had to prepare for the last week’s tutorials in both engineering and maths.
Fortunately, they had developed a routine that suited the three aspects of their lives. In outward social events and meals with friends, they only exchanged occasional glances. Their individual sporting activities remained completely separate. Yet they managed to spend almost every minute of the rest of their day together at lectures, practicals, or in one another’s room, often working late into the evenings.
Rhan was often tired, but still managed to enjoy the early-morning outings on the river several days a week. George was frequently standing at her door ready to escort her down to breakfast as she was caught returning late from a shower. He became used to being recruited for rapid hair drying.
Her early-morning start was offset by relaxing afternoons usually spent working in George’s room, listening to his records, and waiting for him to hobble into the room after rugby on several days of the week. As dating a tutorial partner was unthinkable, they conspired to keep their time together secret where possible.
In the last week, things started to change. Rhan had done nothing about getting a job so was aware she faced several weeks ahead where she would be almost restricted to the house or backyard in Sunderland, with just her cousins for company. Each afternoon, she now had the distraction of slipping away to row in the novice regatta. At least the races enforced a rescheduling of the early-morning practices, so she was glad for an extra hour or so in bed.
The novice races took place with bewildering speed. They involved a rapid run down to the river straight after lunch to meet with the rest of the nervous crew. They then rowed down to the start line, spent a few minutes waiting around with the Gloucester boatman who held the stern of the boat until the start, and raced back up the river in two columns. It was fun, and the victories were clocked up without incident. Their coach, Nick, had not been exaggerating when he had said they were a powerful crew. The most stressful aspect occurred when she was late one day after finding her simple Gloucester rowing strip missing. After checking the laundry, she had to sprint into George’s room to rescue her kit, which he had picked up with the rest of her washing.
It was a surprise and a delight to the girls to find that the Gloucester novice crew were as good as Nick’s prediction. No other female novice crews came near their slick performance through the water. On the last day, Nick was there waiting at the boathouse to congratulate them and to drag them off to a presentation further along the river bank.
‘Rhan and Claire!’ he called out as they set off through the darkening December afternoon. ‘I have someone who wants to meet you from the university’s coaching team. I believe you two have especially caught his eye. Well done.’
Poor Nick’s attempts to be official were, as usual, destroyed by cheeky ribbing from the girls and, on this occasion, by Sarah. ‘Yes Nick, but remember – Bar caught your eye first. Don’t lose her! We’ve already extracted a promise from her, without too much duress, to row with us for Torpids next term. Bar, you won’t abandon us will you? Bump after bump, here we come.’
Nick was surrounded by his crew as he walked, and found it a useful chance to talk about the future.
‘I’ve no idea what will happen to Claire and Bar, but it’d be great if they get special coaching from the university. If Bar is available for Torpids…’ he said, pausing to look at Rhan, ‘…then I’d be surprised but pleased. It would be great if Gloucester could borrow both Bar and Elisha again, but you’ll have to ask your college captains. As Gloucester II is a completely new boat, you’ll start so far down the tables that no one will care. But don’t do too well, not like today. Yup, that’s a thought – it might be best if Bar and Elisha are at the back in the photographs, if you two don’t mind.’
‘Yes, that would be fine,’ Rhan conceded readily.
‘Roger, this is Bar and Claire.’ As they entered the presentation venue, Nick introduced the two girls to a tweed-jacketed young man who held a glass of red wine in one hand and a cap in the other. ‘Do you want to speak to them now or after the presentation?’
‘Well both if that would be possible,’ Roger replied in a much more diffident manner than expected, slipping his cap into a pocket so he could shake hands with the two girls. He was obviously a rower himself, judging by his height. He was older than an undergraduate, but was still in his mid-twenties, with short black curly hair.
‘It has been a delight watching you row. Nick kindly emailed me last week that you might excel and you certainly did. You have learnt much in just a few weeks and are a real credit to you, Nick.
‘I have been given the task of assembling a squad of first-year girls for coaching, with a view to hopefully feeding some into the university squad next year.’
He looked up at a bustle further down the room. ‘You need to go for your presentation now, but can you let me know afterwards whether you may be available next week, in ninth week and in noughth week of next term? Speak later.’
‘Gloucester, over here please!’ An official commanded the girls to join the rest of their crew.
‘Yes definitely, is the answer,’ Rhan declared to Roger some minutes later, once the ceremony was over. ‘But I vacate my room on Friday and I have nowhere to live.’
‘No problem, Bar!’ Roger smiled. ‘It is a fully funded residential course a few miles down the river. There are small dormitories and a canteen. You only need to ask your college to stay an extra night, which they should allow. What about you Claire?’
‘It is a marvellous opportunity, but I need to speak to my parents first. I think I am expected at a family party on Tuesday, if you don’t mind me missing a couple of days?’
‘Brilliant,’ Roger said, smiling again as Claire shook Rhan’s arm excitedly. ‘I’m beginning to enjoy this job. You will be with around twenty others who have already signed up.’
‘So will we be your only novices?’ Claire asked.
‘No, there is one other, a girl rowing for Keble who I signed up yesterday after you wiped them out. So, to business, as time and daylight are short and my bike light has packed in. Can I have your email addresses so I can send you the details? It would be helpful if you could leave your baggage somewhere in college and bring a small bag on the minibus.’
‘You will love working with Bar,’ Nick advised Roger as they split up amid titters from the Gloucester girls. ‘And Claire will keep you entertained.’
As the girls boarded the small coach a few days later, the atmosphere was subdued for their first meeting. The day before, Rhan had helped George carry his numerous bags down to the railway station and had seen off almost the whole college before spending a friendless last night in college. Few of the girls seemed to know each other and Rhan was without her cheerful friend Claire, who would be joining late. As the girls quietly discussed their home or school rowing club and their position in their college First Eights, it dawned on Rhan that with so many experienced oarswomen in the squad, her own experience so far would count for very little.
As the most junior rower in the squad, Bar was moved to various positions on successive days. She found that she was ambidextrous and it only took her a few minutes to swap hands and master a change from one side of the boat to the other. There was, however, so much to learn. She enjoyed rowing as Number 1 on the bow side, from where she could watch the seven blades in front of her moving as one when the rhythm was good. Yet she was glad to move back to stroke side so she could sit as Number 2 in front of Claire, who could only row on the bow side.
Roger was an inspiring coach. On the second evening, while Claire was still absent, he caught Rhan working alone at the supper table while most of the girls sat around the stove or TV at the end of the room. He picked up her fluid mechanics textbook and looked at the open chapter.
‘What’s this, Bar, laminar flow? A good subject to study for a rower. So are you a mathematician, a physicist or an engineer perhaps? My guess is you’re an engineer, as your book skimps on the maths and has practical examples.’ She smiled and nodded at his deduction.
‘This is my subject! I’m doing a PhD on the Martian atmosphere and its effects on spacecraft and landing probes, but I come at it as a physicist. So, you’re just beginning fluid mechanics?’
‘Yes, this is my first real look at the subject,’ Rhan replied, ‘although we have had some lectures and we did a couple of experiments on standing waves and hydraulic jumps in the fluids lab, which was great fun. It was horrific to see that a swimmer caught at the base of a weir cannot escape being sucked back under! I am trying to write up the practicals and prepare for the first tutorial next term on the subject.’
Rhan looked up at the slender coach, trying to picture him and his curly dark hair in a context away from rowing and the river. Even as he spoke, she started to wonder whether he had the strength to be a first-class rower.
‘Fine idea. It’ll also help you appreciate the complex issues for cutting resistance to your boat passing through the water. Each stroke drives the boat through the water against the laminar flow, which acts like a form of friction. Water tends to stick to the boat’s surface and has high velocity relative to the rest of the water in the river, even on a polished boat surface. Yet just a few centimetres away from that surface, the water has zero flow. And between those, the flow rates vary with the distance from the boat surface. The friction increases markedly if there is any chaotic, non-laminar flow, if say the cox over-steers and eddies are shed by the rudder.’
Roger pointed at Rhan’s book where there was a sketch that indicated the different rates of laminar flow away from an object moving through a liquid. Rhan nodded her appreciation of laminar flow.
‘However, at the blade, where you want to maximise the resistance, there are whirlpools of disturbed and separated water. The bigger the whirlpool, the more force in the stroke. It’s easy for me to see from the bank who is, and who isn’t, pulling their weight!’ He smiled before going on.
‘The effort at the stroke is no definite measure of the oarsman’s contribution to the boat’s motion, however. What counts is the net balance between force in the stroke and the contribution of the rower to the Reynolds number, which for laminar flow is effectively proportional to the weight of the rower. Lighter rowers can be effective with a weaker pull than heavier rowers, but that’s not often the case.’
‘Right,’ Rhan responded uncertainly.
‘I’ll do some sketches and make some notes so you can see what I mean. It’ll help your rowing and your understanding of fluid mechanics. Oh, I’m afraid you need to be able to derive those formulas – they are the basis of a whole branch of fluids. I’ll test you on them tomorrow if you like. You may as well get double coaching while you are here!’
Rhan was grateful for the help, but relieved that Claire was not present to make the usual inferences that provided such a laugh for the Gloucester girls.
Anxious not to be singled out for extra advice among the seasoned rowers, Rhan listened intently to every hint and tip from Roger as he cycled along the towpath in his flat cap. There was much aggressive competitiveness among the other girls, but as novices, Rhan and Claire were beneath their notice and were left alone. Rhan concentrated entirely on acquiring new skills and extra fitness, both on the water and with the rowing machines.
The men, and in particular one called Dumas who generally had a couple of friends as wingmen, turned up at the gym from time to time and delighted in taunting Rhan by changing the settings of her machine to test her stamina. The mucking about by the dark-haired, tanned and chunky Dumas was good-natured and the boys were apparently always impressed. Yet Rhan hated the idea of being beaten by the challenges of these swaggering young men who appeared to be picking on her. On the third occasion towards the end of the week, both Claire and Roger were close by, but Roger only looked on without saying a word, taking notes like a junior technician, and made no effort to intervene as Dumas brazenly taunted Rhan. She felt isolated and could not believe that her friend Claire was just watching, without the usual good-natured banter which might have made keeping up with the boys’ challenges more fun.
‘Where were you when I needed you?’ Rhan gasped angrily once they and Roger had all trooped out.
‘Bloody hell Bar, I wasn’t going to stop you making a hero of yourself while that lot flirted with you,’ Claire said. ‘You know who that was, don’t you? Dumas is only the bleeding president! There’s a female president who seems nice, but that guy’s the king around here. I think even the coaches work for either the male or the female president. If the other girls had seen that attention paid to one of us novices, they’d scratch your eyes out.’
Claire slowed her breathless excitement, and went on more slowly. ‘I’m not sure, but I think you’ve recorded some strength and endurance tests in front of a president and a coach, even though you’ve hardly trained. They must’ve been good, judging by their comments. Come on, you’re too tired to move, aren’t you? Let’s get to the showers, then bed.’