Chapter 15 – Riders of the Storm

‘Well Roger,’ Bar reported with a hint of mischief, after their first trip out at rowing camp seven days before the beginning of term. ‘I trained as instructed, but also sort of joined the Sunderland Rowing club and was out almost three times a week in a four. The crew were all veterans with interesting personalities. I may have picked up some bad habits, but it was good fun and I learnt so much.’
Roger seemed pleased, if a little surprised. ‘Well done. Claire got some useful practice too. Where were you rowing?’
‘I was rowing Number 1, bow. We were on the Wear,’ she laughed, answering both options. ‘We were rowing in the tidal reaches of the river most of the time but kept going out to the ends of the piers that separated the river and the sea. We went out in all weathers, so I picked up a whole load of weird techniques to cope with the conditions most of the rowers here would not believe.’
‘Why? What do you mean?’ Novel rowing techniques was Roger’s favourite subject.
‘Well we had a really stormy Christmas. I was with a crew that went out just to check that it was too rough for the rest of the club!’ Rhan explained, smiling at the absurdity of what she was saying. ‘Or that was their excuse. I was taught to flout all your advice, but it meant that we never once swamped the shell. I learnt to cope when rowing into choppy waves or dramatic swells and even breaking waves at one point, although that surprised everyone. There are different techniques for waves when they come astern, or amidships. I’m afraid that our trips out on this millpond of a river will be rather tame!’
‘Well, I was going to ask you to row stroke tomorrow in one of the boats if you don’t mind? That should liven things up for you!’
‘Umm…OK.’ Rhan’s heart beat faster. ‘But I would prefer not,’ she added quickly. Her days of laid-back enjoyment, following someone else’s lead, might be over. Claire had been cross to discover that she and Rhan were known as the “virgins in the bow”, presumably due to their lack of experience, so giving one of them a prime position was going to stir things up.
‘Well, we’ve also had a week or so of rain down here so water levels are rising,’ Roger continued, ignoring Rhan’s last comment. ‘The forecast is looking bad, so you may have some of that northeast weather on our “millpond”.’

There were gasps and barely concealed comments when the crew lists went up that evening and these continued as they took their new positions in the boat the next morning. Claire had also been moved from the lightweight position at Number 1 into the Number 3 position. Rhan decided that making everyone pull a bit harder, longer and faster would be a good way to shut their mouths and keep warm in the blustery wet conditions.
The camp was at full capacity, although most senior rowers were cycling daily back and forth to Oxford. Claire found the whole set-up fascinating and excitedly fed her findings back to Rhan.
‘Have you noticed that everyone is now wary of you, Bar? If you’re to be a stroke after your good show today, then everyone suddenly wants to be your friend, which means going through me. Isn’t that great?’ Claire was delighted at the sudden reversals in their squad. Rhan smiled and raised her eyebrows, both in pleasure and exasperation at Claire, who was not at all daunted.
‘That girl, Di, in our boat was making snide remarks earlier at breakfast.’ Claire was clearly dying to tell her story. ‘She says that the First Eight men are flirting with you and me. Isn’t that great too! I thought they messed around with everyone, but in my mind I’m framing that accusation as a press cutting – some of them are really fit and so cool. But I can see why they like us, rather than the women’s main squad; they’re really frightening!’
Rhan listened with interest and amusement at her friend’s foolish chatter.
‘Oh and Bar, remember that redheaded girl who asked us to help lift the boat this morning – she’s the female president! She was so polite to us, but she’s not that popular with the top rowers. I’ll have to find out why.’
Rhan was surprised to hear that she knew both the male and female presidents, but had no opportunity to suggest a comment. Claire just continued, waving a finger to emphasise her points.
‘Di was bitching about the First Eight ladies too. She says lots of the best rowers are already internationals and are semi-professional. They are just here to pick up a Blue in the London boat race and won’t row with their colleges in the Summer Eights, and might not even finish their diploma or whatever soft subject they are allegedly studying. Cool info eh?’
‘Well for once Di was not slagging people off for nothing,’ Rhan finally got in. ‘Last night, when you were away, the senior women, usually with foreign accents – I am not good at identifying which – made it very clear that they wanted us “little girls” to leave any room they enter. They expected us to disappear to our dormitories so they can have the stove or the TV to themselves. We are to be neither heard nor seen!’
‘I’m not that surprised. Some of our squad are annoyingly loud!’ When Rhan gave her a questioning look to suggest she might be a hypocrite, Claire added, ‘What are you trying to say?’ They both laughed.

At their return for lunch on the second day, the junior squad was addressed in the boathouse by Esther, the women’s president.
‘It is marvellous to see such a powerful junior women’s squad being developed and trained. I would like to thank Roger for the huge amount of effort he has expended on this new, and very necessary, initiative. Thank you all for coming back early to start training. I saw both boats on the river this morning and was very impressed. I look forward to meeting you individually when I can. I understand some of you are experienced junior champions and most have rowed for your clubs, while others have only been rowing for a few weeks.’ Rhan carried on looking at the plaited rope ends on the wall behind Esther, not wanting to catch anyone’s eye.
‘I would hope that in eight months’ time, the existence of this junior squad will significantly help my successor and provide more options with the selection of the main university squad to replace those of us who will be moving on. Good luck and thank you! Oh, I need to apologise for stealing Roger away from you tomorrow – we need him in London for some important trials.’

‘I’m not surprised that she doesn’t get on with some of the top rowers.’ Claire leaned closer to Rhan as they joined the lunch queue.
‘Why? You said she seemed really nice, and I agree,’ Rhan said, assuming correctly that they were talking about Esther.
‘She is really nice. Far too nice. What’s more, she was pleased to hear that you are a climate change freak.’
‘What! You told her I was some type of freak! But I have hardly even opened my mouth on that subject to any of you Gloucester clowns,’ Rhan burst out, not knowing whether or not she should be cross with Claire. Rhan looked around to see if anyone in front or behind was listening.
‘Just what I mean – only a real fanatic would mention the subject,’ said Claire. ‘Remember, I do Geography and have learnt that even those doing Environmental Science aren’t allowed to mention global warming outside tutorials.’
‘So when did you talk to Esther and what did she say? Tell me!’
‘I tried to tell you earlier but you told me to concentrate on rowing, remember? I spoke with her at breakfast after you went early to get ready. She knew of you and me. She had heard about you from both Roger and Dumas and was looking forward to meeting you. She knew that you were trying out stroke.’
‘Strange!’ Rhan mused, shaking her head thoughtfully. Then, changing the subject, she added, ‘So Roger is away tomorrow, which partially explains the lack of crew lists.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard that he has to help the chief coach and the other trainers for the tideway practice with the first and second boats. I don’t think they’re bothered about us and don’t want us out on the river unless the weather improves. We may be stuck on the boring exercise machines all day. Oh God!’
‘I thought Roger was our exclusive coach. And what is the tideway?’ Rhan asked, also a little aggrieved. They had to stop their conversation while they were being served.
‘I think it’s the tidal stretches of the Thames in west London.’ Claire continued the conversation as they were sitting on the floor against a wall to eat their food, leaving the remaining places at tables for their betters. ‘Yeah, it’s a pain losing Roger and everyone’s grumbling. Esther may be nice, but I keep hearing that a big group in the first boat and a couple of coaches want her out. She and a few others who gained their Blue last year are struggling to keep their position. I’ve heard there was a mutiny under similar conditions in the men’s Blue boat a decade or so ago.’ Rhan looked open-mouthed at Claire and then at the three tables of senior women rowers.
‘Esther and Peter, her chief coach, are under great pressure to sort it out, but it sometimes happens that the president doesn’t make the top eight. This week’s crucial so I feel sorry for her. I hope Roger can help.’
With this new insight, Rhan began to appreciate the tensions in the cafeteria around her. The promotion of a novice to stroke in her own junior boat suddenly seemed very petty.

With such matters at stake, it came as a surprise later that afternoon to find both Peter and Roger cycling through the rain on the towpath alongside their junior boat. They were on an open stretch of water and the tailwind had raised boisterous waves that occasionally splashed the boat and made balance and rowing difficult. Their cox was nervous and called for a slower pace as she headed for the sheltered bank. Rhan was not surprised at this cautious approach, but felt slightly disappointed not to be reliving her exhilarating days on the Wear.
‘Take it up Bar! Let’s see what you can do in this!’ The authoritative command from Peter reached them clearly through the rain and wind across the water. Rhan had never heard him speak before, so was amazed that he knew her name and was shouting at her personally, rather than the cox or the boat as a whole. The cox looked at her, also surprised and rather intimidated by Peter’s attention.
‘Tell them to watch their blades going into the water and to shorten their stroke, and keep the blades clear of the water on the return up the slide!’ Rhan ordered the cox. The cox looked at Rhan, Peter and the waves, but clearly decided that Peter was the more frightening and complied with Rhan’s instruction. She left the calm and headed off through the choppier waves.
‘Tell them not to watch me, but to watch their blade at the plunge!’ Rhan yelled again. ‘Tell them they will enjoy this. Timing is not that important.’
Once the instructions were relayed down the speaker system, Rhan shouted out, ‘Come on let’s go for it!’ She knew her voice would travel down the wind to the crew, who were clearly as apprehensive as the cox about attacking the waves. ‘Don’t worry about the timing – watch your blade!’ Rhan hoped Peter could hear why the rowing would appear scraggy. She knew too little of Peter to be shy, but anticipated what Roger wanted to see.
They were off, flying through spray that leapt from the tops of waves and from splashes that their oars made with the surface of the river. They were all cold and wet already, but at least they were exercising hard again.
‘Yahoo!’ Rhan heard Claire’s voice through the wind in a hark back to the Gloucester days. No one joined in, but no one told her to shut up either, and it certainly boosted the morale of the nervous crew. Rhan noticed that the whirlpools from Claire’s position remained to be seen in the muddy, turbulent river longer than most, indicating that she was certainly putting her effort where her mouth was.
As soon as they reached the calm in the lee of the next bend, Peter was shouting at the cox to turn around and run the rough in the other direction. During the third stint, Peter goaded them for a final effort and then disappeared. The crew heard the gentler voice of Roger cut through the wind.
‘Brilliant! Well done! It lacked elegance, but Peter and I were delighted. You’re cold and wet, so make your way back. Effective rowing Number 3. Well done.’
The crew was buzzing with their achievement. However, no one was more delighted than Rhan, who was just bursting with pride that her friend, Claire had been singled out. She had to admire the way Roger knew how to give an effective compliment.

Things at the training centre had completely changed by the time they climbed out of the rain-splashed, rocking pontoon. The boatman, swathed in a full-length oiled Barbour waterproof, yelled at them. ‘Come on you lot, everyone else was ordered in an hour or so ago, and you have to help me get that shell dismantled and onto the trailer straight away, ready for the Tideway in London tomorrow.’
Almost an hour later, the soaked and shivering Rhan was dripping her way along the corridor. As Number 8, her rigger had been the last to be undone so the shell could be fed into the trailer alongside the first and second boats. She only had one thought on her mind: a hot shower. Dumas appeared to be hovering by the entrance to the common room before rushing over to her.
‘Well done, Bar!’
‘Oh, thanks,’ she responded automatically and uncertainly as he hurried away. She was slightly annoyed to find her path totally blocked by girls and boys peering at the noticeboard. They weren’t just looking and walking away, but hung around chatting and looking again.
‘Yes! She’s gone!’ someone rejoiced in a foreign accent.
‘That’s almost the crew we wanted!’ said another voice, followed by a high-five clap of hands by two very tall girls. Rhan’s heart sank as she noticed that celebrations were held in a tight fraternity around the stove with two of the coaches that Rhan had hardly seen. Most, however, saw little to celebrate, and this appeared to include all the boys, who looked on as sullen spectators.
‘Cool rowing, Bar!’ said one of the now showered and dressed junior crew who had hardly spoken to her before.
‘Our rowing has improved so much since you took over as stroke,’ said another.
Dumbfounded by this incongruous and creepy behaviour, Rhan looked up to see Claire approaching, obviously excited, but no longer just by her previous commendation from Roger.
‘My God, Bar! Where’ve you been? You’re not going to believe this, but have you heard what’s on those lists? You and me, we’ve made the big time! We are only in the President’s Eight! I think it means that we are, like, the third boat, and you are stroke. I’m Number 7. It is just unbelievable!’
Rhan shook her head in confusion over the incredible news.
‘Bar and Claire, if you would care to step into the presidents’ office,’ Roger asked in a none-too-gentle manner, leading them away from the throng to a room next to Dumas’. In the cramped office, Rhan stood dripping on the carpet in front of the president’s desk, conscious of her wet clothes against Claire’s dry ones. Once the door was securely shut, Esther spoke, sitting upright behind the desk. ‘Oh, you poor thing! So sorry to keep you from your shower, Bar. The thing is that Roger says you can make sure we win tomorrow. Will you do it? Beat them I mean?’
Roger intervened. ‘Sorry Esther but I don’t think Bar has seen your crew sheets yet, so she will be struggling to understand. If I may explain? The weather forecast for tomorrow is not good.’ He was leaning on an old-fashioned filing cabinet as he spoke, casting a glance through the window at the darkening sky outside. ‘But Esther and Peter have constantly stated that this should not affect the trials on the tideway, unless it would be classified as too bad to be rowed on the big day. Cat and several of the big-name rowers are making life very uncomfortable for Esther, so I have suggested that Esther lets them have their way tomorrow. We have given them the rope to hang themselves. They have most of the crew they want as Boat A. They will be in the light boat with the lightweight oars, which I think will give them no advantage at all.’ He smiled mischievously. ‘Their trainer thinks the conditions will force the trail to be postponed, and Peter is not denying it. He cannot of course predict the conditions, but we know that on the race day with Cambridge, the worse the conditions, the more the TV crews and sponsors will want to see another public sinking. We will therefore have trials tomorrow, if at all possible.’
Roger looked at the still-puzzled Bar and Claire, and continued. ‘The Second Eight, who have trained together nicely for the past six weeks, will stay together as Boat B. We have then put together an eclectic crew for the President’s Eight. We have four from the bow half, including Esther, who have been training together in the senior squad and are the president’s preference for the first boat. They are of course the lighter rowers, which may give the President’s Boat a small advantage.
‘For the stroke, I knew of Bar’s special knowledge and we – Peter and I – saw what you could do in rough water this afternoon.’ He addressed Rhan directly. ‘You led an inexperienced crew through the roughest water. Claire caught Peter’s eye in those conditions, and we figured that courage and confidence in the stroke from time together in your College Eight were possibly more important than fitness, finesse and experience.’
‘That’s right!’ put in Rhan, hoping that she was praising her friend.
‘Not to mention beginner’s luck!’ Claire added. Roger paused and smiled while shaking his head, then continued.
‘Well, you’ve seen that you are Number 7, Claire. You two will be lightweight for a stern pair, but I think it may help in such weather.’
Esther then took up the narrative. ‘For 5 and 6, Peter and I know of two strong rowers, both ex-Blues, who want to help. One, Martha, is a fourth-year Chemistry student who I rowed with last year, and Rebecca is a PhD graduate from two years ago. The cox – well, back to you Roger.’
‘The cox is a PhD medic from my college, Chandra Morton,’ Roger explained. ‘I have just persuaded him to jump on a train from Edinburgh. His interests are sailing and kayaking, so he’ll love the conditions tomorrow. He coxed for the college last year and pulled off some clever tricks. I asked him to study the Boat Race rules on the way down. He is another wild card, but…’
Roger raised his hands in a gesture of hope and deliverance.
‘You will appreciate that this scratch president’s boat has been specifically designed to ride the waves tomorrow.’ He repeated his sales pitch to the two girls. ‘You will have a distinct advantage, in my opinion, as a relatively lightweight crew in a heavier and stiffer boat with traditional timber oars. Add Chandra and your new skills, Bar, and we have a good chance of pulling something off. It will be an exciting day.’
‘Let’s hope it goes well,’ Esther added nervously. ‘We’ve already explained this to the bow four. I have persuaded three team-mates to join a losing team if we fail! Peter is trying to be seen as standing off from this dispute and has asked Roger to work with me tomorrow. Two trainers have effectively joined the opposition, which…’
‘Sorry, would you mind if I went for a shower?’ Rhan interrupted, overwhelmed by what was being asked. Esther and Roger nodded, obviously surprised at her reaction.
Rhan reached the door hastily but, wanting to appear keen, turned to ask, ‘When can we see the course, and how much practice can we get before the race?’
‘High tide is due at two twenty-eight tomorrow afternoon, so I think the start will be around ten past two,’ Esther replied. ‘I’ll show you the course with video footage and Roger will see you later. He has kindly offered to fetch Rebecca and Martha and will then pick up Chandra late tonight.’

Back in the common room and corridor, voices were being raised and at least one was American. ‘No! You know we wanted Frances and Gabriel in our boat, yet they’re in the loser’s boat. What’s going on? Have they agreed to throw their Blues away?’ Peter, a pint of beer in hand, was talking to a group of women rowers, some of whom Rhan recognised as Esther’s protagonists in the A Boat. The A team’s diminutive and pretty cox stood beside their stroke, Lucy, who looked vicious, thought Rhan, as they waited for Peter’ reply.
‘Well Cat, if the weather’s fit, we’ll look forward to seeing how your favourites perform tomorrow,’ he said, avoiding the question. ‘The superior experience of your crew should give you the chance to shine. You have all the best equipment and most of the crew you want, so you should do well.’
Despite the strain and the complexity of the situation, Rhan could not help liking Esther’s simplicity and the confidence she bestowed on those around her, once the die was cast. While they ate supper in her office, Esther showed Rhan maps, printed out and Sellotaped to show the course of the race along with digital views. The boatman, whom Rhan had been working with earlier, joined them and told them about the characteristics and conditions on various sections of the river, which he appeared to know well.
Roger turned up, eating a sandwich, after fetching the two extra rowers. Rhan was relieved to see that Martha and Rebecca would help redress the lack of muscle in their boat. They all moved to a changing room to assemble the whole crew. Rhan, the new stroke, was the exhibit of greatest interest, especially for those who had loyally stuck with Esther, apparently on Peter’s firm advice.
‘Right,’ Roger started when Esther gestured to him. ‘Tomorrow is going to be different from anything you’ve previously experienced. The exception is Bar, our stroke, who has experience and who will explain rowing techniques for the various waves we may encounter. The bends in the river mean we can expect waves from any and all directions in different stretches, and the waves will result from both wind action and from the flow over obstacles that will set up standing waves and mini weirs, so pay attention. This will come as a surprise to all of us.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I need to leave in five minutes, so I’ll just slip out. Over to you, Bar.’
They all listened while Rhan tried to portray herself as a confident expert, instead of a floundering novice. She kept feeling for her headscarf, but it was not there.

At around ten that night, Roger returned with Chandra, the curly-haired compact cox, and Rhan and Esther went through the options again with him. From the beginning, Rhan noted that Chandra addressed her as an equal, even though she was feeling like a young girl with these senior students. He must have known of her short experience, yet sought her opinion on how the boat might behave under various conditions, admitting that he had never been in an eight or a four in rough water, although he had frequently sailed or windsurfed in much rougher storms. By the time the whole crew, mostly in pyjamas, reconvened in the changing room, Rhan had been made to feel like she knew what she was doing.
‘Before you go to bed, can we just discuss a few tactics?’ Chandra asked innocently of the assembled crew and their two reserves after fifteen minutes of general discussions and introductions. ‘There is a chance that there will be clashes tomorrow, as these tend to be frequent, even when only two boats compete with the whole width of the Thames to go at! These usually result in the blades of the two boats coming into contact. In dinghy racing, this is very much part of the competition, and the boat on the wrong tack or whatever has to complete two 360-degree turns as a penalty for an infringement.
‘In eights, it is less obvious who has right of way, but leave that to me. There are no penalty points other than disqualification, so…’ He paused before continuing in a firm voice. ‘What I want from you guys is to dish out a severe punishment if I call out the signal “watch your blade”. If they encroach on us, use your oar in a subtle manner to make them pay for their trespass. Look, I’ll sketch it out.’
‘Is that OK?’ Frances, a tall black American girl from the bow crew asked, looking at Esther and Roger.
‘These are racing conditions,’ Roger emphasised. ‘Remember, no crew gets a prize for being virtuous yet losing the race. Disqualification is very rare, so retaliation is perhaps a reasonable punishment, especially if the other boat is in the wrong.’
‘We have to keep in contention, and we have to win if we get the opportunity,’ Esther confirmed. ‘I think Chandra has a point – if they encroach on us, we should make them pay for it dearly.’
Before they turned in for bed, Chandra gave an interesting lecture to the amused rowers on how to be vindictive.

Although last to bed, the president’s crew were up before the others, ready for an early-morning dash down to London with the trailers in an extra minibus, long before the coach departed with the other two crews at the scheduled time.
This allowed Esther’s team to arrive in west London and get onto the water for a full dress rehearsal, long before the first and second boats were assembled and before their crew turned up. Conditions, with steady rain and blustery wind, combined with the flood of water down the river, made rowing an interesting challenge, and they were all keen to have the safety boat close at hand. They practised rowing in and out of the current and through some of the more turbulent reaches of the river. Chandra and the rest of the crew had no problems adapting. In the calmer stretches of the river, however, Rhan was painfully aware that she and Claire were by far the least polished rowers.
By the time Rhan stepped through the glass doors into the unfamiliar boathouse, she no longer felt that she was contributing to Esther’s cause. They were back in the comfort of the clubhouse two hours before the trials were due to start and were met by the stony glare of the A Boat crew. Rhan could not help smiling at hearing Peter talking to his traitorous colleague in a reasonable manner, which Rhan recognised nonetheless as intended to unsettle the A Boat and its trainer.
‘So, the President’s Boat has been out to try the conditions on the water already. I’m a bit concerned, Patricia. Don’t you and Cat think it’d be a good idea to get some practice before the trials? The race is obviously going to take place, despite the appalling conditions, and the difficulties could really separate the sheep from the goats.’
‘You’re kidding me? We can’t have trials in this!’ Cat responded, glancing out of the plate-glass windows at the swirling river below them. There was complete agreement by all the rowers, who were sitting around in the dry.
‘Let’s be very clear about this, all of you.’ Esther’s authoritative voice shot firmly across the large room, as she advanced casually, combing water out of her thick red hair with her fingers. ‘Today we have trials on the tidal Thames, as planned, and possibly in the same conditions as we will meet Cambridge in a few weeks’ time. Rough weather is a new norm, so fair-weather rowers are of no use to us. We have three eights here, which means that by the end of today I will probably be saying goodbye to two out of three of you. Not one person has their name on a place yet – not even me. Let me know if any of you want to leave before the trial.’
There were gratifying exclamations of dismay and disbelief at this announcement from the president who, just a few hours ago, had been written off as a lame duck. Rhan noticed that Lucy, the stroke for the A crew, was staring at her – she had clearly realised, possibly for the first time since she joined the university, that she now had a rival in Bar, the unknown novice. Lucy climbed out of her comfy chair, walked to the window and bit her lip.
Both the A and B Boats went out half an hour later, while the president’s crew and Roger tried to relax in the warmth. Each time they looked out of the window they watched as the river waves, with the rising tide, swelled further and further up the concrete ramp and steps in front of the boathouse.
Rhan felt that she was in a surreal tunnel. What was she doing here? This was not her place – it had nothing to do with her. George would testify to that. She had barely learned how to pull an oar with two consecutive strokes the same, yet everyone from Peter and Esther to Claire and Chandra expected her to perform a miracle. The outing of half an hour ago had been a success in the rough water, so they didn’t really need her experience anymore. Rhan was just a stupid liability, tossed into the wrong league by Roger. The panic was rising; Rhan forced herself to take a different line of thought.
Why was she caring what these pushy girls wanted? Sport was so irrelevant compared with the important matters. If Cat thought she had a better team, then let her have it. Which of Rhan’s old school friends from Aleppo would care about a rowing event? They would not be behind a nice double-glazed window, separating them from the rain or the snow. She imagined having to live day after day in a camp, far from education or progress. She could be trekking for thousands of miles with her poor sister, searching for sanctuary. One of the reasons she had taken up rowing was to avoid having to think such thoughts, yet now she was forcing herself to think about them, rather than feel fazed by some petty practice race.
None of this mattered. One of the teams or a mixture of rowers would be selected or dropped – so what? There were a lot more pressing problems in the world. As her thoughts moved from the war in Syria to global warming, she smiled to herself at the irony. It was partly due to climate change that her unconventional rowing skills were needed here and now by Esther and Roger. Maybe, but even if it was irrelevant, even if sport was simply a distraction, it would be nice to help Esther if she could. Esther seemed to be relying on her, on Roger’s recommendation, so she needed to live up to expectations. She could do her best and no more.

From the start of the race, the three boats set off more or less abreast. Rhan was impressed by the quality of the rowing in the boats on either side of the President’s Boat. She found it extremely difficult not to follow the stroke of crew A and Lucy’s confident, strong style and very fast rate style, which was so effective at pulling the A Boat into an immediate lead, ahead of both the B Boat and the President’s Boat. After the initial effort, the other boats relaxed in anticipation of a long and gruelling race, but as planned, Chandra said nothing and Rhan kept up a sprinting pace that pulled them ahead of the B Boat and apparently regained some of the lost ground on Boat A.
Despite appearances, they were struggling. While Rhan could see half the B crew on the side nearest the bank, she could only see the slight wake of crew A on the other side. Rhan’s legs went to jelly, her muscles felt pathetic and her grasp of the oar in her cold hands felt inadequate, even though the rain had stopped. Yet Esther’s crew behind Rhan, including Claire, were still pulling strongly. Rhan wagered that they had warmer hands than those in the other two boats, who’d had little time to thaw out after their practice session.
Rhan could now hear the creek of slides in the A Boat ahead of them and could see “puddles” of flat water from the blades of its crew – still ponds amid the choppy mess elsewhere on the surface of the water. It’s so different from the normal whirlpools when rowing in a slow-moving river, she thought, as she strained at each stroke.
‘Well done, we have our overlap.’ Chandra spoke quietly into the microphone so only his crew could hear. ‘Just keep that position until the first bend starts in a hundred metres. Rough winds ahead, but I’ll give you warning before anything unusual hits us, so carry on as normal.’
Rhan for the first time felt some hope. Roger, with the elusive Peter behind the scenes, may have known what they were doing in their ad-hoc selection. All she needed to do was keep rowing while the cox, right in front of her, executed his plan.
With their slight overlap, Chandra stayed obstinately in the same position on the river, taking a longer route than he needed round the wide bend. The B Boat took the opportunity to cut the corner in the calmer water and reduced wind on the inside of the river loop. The A Boat, however, was pushed outwards towards the centre of the river, which was now choppy.
Rhan was desperate to slacken the pace, but knew that the boats were exceedingly close together and kept up the sprint in accordance with the plan. As they rounded the first corner, the rowers were warned to look over their shoulders to check their blades entering the water and Rhan could now see the A Boat on the outside of the bend. It had slackened its pace as it hit the ruffled water, but Chandra the sailor had no qualms about using the rules and the weather against the opposition.
‘Slow down! We don’t want to undertake!’ Chandra commanded, to Rhan’s great relief. ‘Blades on the water for the backsweep – wind coming!’
The rough wind hit the A Boat from an angle, lifting their light oars on the windward side, which then became sails that exacerbated the uplift. Rhan could hear the cries of alarm as individual members stopped rowing, while others were still sliding. Rhan tried not to watch and to concentrate on her own stroke, but she could not help registering that the whole crew overcompensated at the same time, so the boat lurched over to windward, just in time for a wave to hit the lowered side and slosh on-board. The water-laden boat rocked again and was swamped by the next wave. There were more cries of alarm as the rowers reached down frantically to loosen their feet, which were fixed to the boat, to allow escape.
‘Stay in your places, boat A! Calm down!’ bellowed Peter from the safety boat behind. ‘The boat is buoyant and will not sink, but the self-bailers will not cope with that. Race stopped! Raise your hands, coxes!’ Chandra’s hand shot up while he gave the “hold water” command, and backed up to be close to the wallowing boat. Boat B, ahead by two lengths in more sheltered water, started to spin around.
Within seconds, the boatman skilfully brought the motor safety boat, with Roger, Peter and the coach to the A Boat – life jackets already in their hands – alongside the wallowing boat and they were calming the panic among the girls. To get clear of the waves washing over the sides, the girls were crouching unsteadily on the boat, which was semi-submerged.
‘This is awesome!’ Rhan heard Claire say quietly. She had been uncharacteristically quiet since joining the president’s crew.
‘President! Row back with the B crew please,’ Peter instructed. ‘Stick together and take the safest route. The safety boat will be following once we have this crew on board and have the shell under tow.’
Under instructions from Esther, Boat B disembarked first, and her own crew was just clearing the pontoon when the safety boat came alongside, towing the flooded boat.
‘You bastards!’ Cat screamed at Esther. ‘You cheating, dangerous bastards! You deliberately tried to drown us.’ There were intrusive camera flashes from a small crowd of onlookers who braved the weather to watch the drama. ‘Oh God, the press,’ someone said.
‘Calm down, Cat!’ called one of Esther’s bow team in an American accent. ‘You just fell at the first hurdle, that’s all.’
‘Screw you, Frances!’ Cat screamed back.
‘Right. I want all crews assembled inside in ten minutes for a briefing and ready to set off again in fifteen minutes!’ Peter called out.
There was a range of incredulous responses from crew A along the same lines of disbelief: ‘You can’t be serious?’

‘The president and her coaching staff are delighted with this opportunity to test your mettle in difficult conditions.’ Peter was speaking to a bedraggled crowd of rowers, some draped in towels and doing their best to get warm and dry. ‘I hope that everyone has learnt several lessons already.’
He delivered his team talk to all three crews in just the no-nonsense way that was needed, Rhan thought. She watched the crew A cox, who had been so humiliated by Chandra, looking icily into space as Peter continued.
‘I warned you this morning that strategy was crucial to this race. You cannot expect Cambridge to miss an easy advantage if you are stupid enough to make yourselves vulnerable. There is much more to rowing a race on the Thames than logging results on an exercise machine. The team that seizes the initiative can make the opposition pay a terrible price.’ Rhan was watching carefully as the A Boat cox nodded slowly to Lucy, her stroke.
‘We were aware that there was misplaced arrogance in the squad,’ Peter now said in a resigned voice. ‘So, the president introduced potential new crew members to add the skills that we need. Don’t think that Cambridge won’t be doing the same. This exercise has let us see the squad’s weaknesses and useful abilities.’
‘You’re not going to choose your crew based on that farce, are you?’ Cat retorted after several seconds of uncomfortable silence, as the implications of Peter’s statement sank in. ‘No one thinks that the president or any of her bunch of losers can compete with anyone in our boat.’
‘We had your measure!’ the cox said in support of Cat, while their stroke, Lucy, nodded. ‘You couldn’t keep up with us.’
‘It is on this river we meet Cambridge in a few weeks’ time,’ Esther intervened, a harshness in her voice. ‘Crew A lost the first race and I’m afraid cannot claim otherwise. My boat was second when the race was stopped, giving Boat B the victory. You are the third boat as things stand, but I am giving some of you another chance. I want you back out there to see who has any credibility left. We start launching in five minutes. Due to the previous farce, we have missed the tide and will row downriver this time. Launch sequence: my crew, then Boat B, then Boat A. See you out there.’
‘That’s not fair!’ Cat complained automatically.
‘Look, if you want to get out there first, please go,’ Esther responded condescendingly. ‘If you mean that it’s unfair to race again, sorry but the trials are today. Let your coach know if you want to resign from the squad, as we have reserves for everyone.’
Rhan noticed that Lucy was once again glaring at her.
Esther, Rhan and Chandra were huddled around a table in the mezzanine café area, studying the maps, when Cat and another girl approached, followed by Roger, to see what was afoot.
‘We want to swap boats. We think our splash boards are inadequate,’ Cat demanded of Esther. Behind their back Roger nodded, but then shook his head as he held and pulled an imaginary oar.
‘What about the blades, Cat?’ Esther asked in a controlled manner.
‘No way, most of us have never used timber oars – you can keep those.’
‘Fine, there you are: Bar and Chandra, you have your wish to try the latest lightweight carbon boat. We may have to swap rowing positions as a quicker option to swapping around the shoes and the riggers, but we will manage! You may find Lucy’s shoes rather sloppy, Rhan. See you at the new boat in two minutes.’
A shadow passed over Cat’s face as she took in the extra displacement of the heavier boat and the complexity of changing the shoes and slide adjustments in the rain out on the pontoon. She stormed away. She had clearly not expected to have her bluff called.
‘We’ll stick to our own boat!’ Cat called out from the other side of the building. ‘It’s not worth swapping everyone around.’
Esther laughed, shaking her head and stating in a low voice, ‘Look I don’t know how this will end, but thank you, both of you. I owe you big time.’

The rain stayed away, and the wind had reduced, but the turbulent surface was now coupled with a torrent of water flowing down the river with the change in tide. They headed upstream with difficulty towards the start, and then had half an hour experimenting with the fastest flows and stationary waves while waiting for the other boats. Although Chandra had frequently kayaked in such conditions, Rhan had never come across stationary waves before – other than the hydraulic jumps she and George created in flow channels at the university lab. It was strange being able to use an oar to lever the boat off a standing mass of upwelling water that seemed to tower over them, but it required Chandra to keep the wave at oar’s length. It was wonderful working with the assured Chandra, who used his canoeing skills to steer the long boat to find the gentlest drops or the quietest water. He even used the wind on their faces to reduce their efforts with the oar. He was continually either talking with Rhan, or calmly instructing the crew on what they needed to do, especially in the midst of the biggest waves that loomed behind the rowers’ backs.
Boat B arrived and practised in calmer stretches to keep warm, but kept well clear of the biggest waves. Boat A, very late, gingerly joined them at the starting position in the lee of a wall. Without much ado, Peter casually yelled, ‘Go!’ giving Boat A the advantage of a staggered start.
This time, Boat A made no attempt to forge ahead but used its position to try to push the President’s Boat into the rough in retaliation for the previous race.
‘Straighten up, Boat A!’ Peter called as umpire from the rescue boat behind.
Chandra played with them and refused to move, keeping his boat in the same position on the river.
‘Straighten up Boat A! Straighten up!’ yelled Peter through a megaphone. The rowing seemed to be of little significance compared with this duel, and Boat B forged ahead yet again.
‘1 and 3, watch your blades!’ came the ominous and practised command from Chandra, as he pointed at the encroaching blades. Rhan, sitting immediately in front of him, resisted looking round. She saw him surreptitiously nudge the rudder to ensure a firm clash, while the referees in the boat behind were concentrating on the clashing blades. There was the clatter of oars and swearing as their boat rocked alarmingly.
‘Do it!’ muttered Chandra. This time, Rhan couldn’t resist looking over her shoulder in time to see Frances’s blade in the bow lift clear and drop onto Lucy’s oar, the last oar in Boat A. Rhan and the rest of their crew adjusted the balance to compensate for the slight extra drag as Frances’s streamlined blade stayed in the water. Lucy had not been prepared and her blade was wrenched from her hands by the force of the water. Lucy’s boat twisted, swayed and dipped as her oar suddenly become an unpredictable anchor. The A crew, with nerves already frayed, wasted no time in starting to pull their feet from their fixed shoes, just in case of a second sinking.
‘You bastards! You did that deliberately again!’ Lucy’s voice shouted angrily. ‘You made me catch that crab!’
‘Foul!’ screamed their cox, raising her hand.
‘Come on Boat A; it is you who would be disqualified!’ Peter found his voice again once he saw there was not going to be another nerve-wracking swamping. ‘It was your boat that was deliberately changing its position, despite numerous warnings. Cox, on the face of it, that was your second demonstration of total incompetence in racing conditions. Now row on and see if any of you can redeem yourselves.’
‘Oh shit!’ someone from Boat A muttered, realising the implications.
Laughing inwardly, Rhan watched as Boat A drifted on the flow while Lucy clumsily tried to retrieve the handle of her blade, which danced on the end of her metal outrigger. The rest of the crew watched the alarming steel-coloured waves loom closer while they waited for Lucy to reset to rowing mode. The ominous standing waves appeared to hang heavy and solid, hardly moving in the centre section of the river, while indicating huge forces at play just beneath the surface.
‘Concentrate! Row on. Time to leave them behind,’ Chandra instructed the President’s Boat. ‘Boat B is ahead by seven lengths or so, after that fracas. Prepare for rough water.’ He sat attentive but unruffled, clearly in the habit of humiliating opposition helmsmen. Rhan watched Boat A set off immediately behind them, but did not follow their course as Chandra headed deliberately and without compunction into the rough water nearer the midstream flood. Rhan adopted the exaggerated lazy return sweep and staggered dip that she had learnt on the Wear in Sunderland, and brought her blade back, skimming it on the water. The rest imitated in almost their own timing. Despite the inefficiency of their rowing, they were shooting the rapids with no effort at all. They left Boat A standing and soon shot past Boat B, which was rowing hard in the margins of the river. There were congratulations among the crew, but Rhan noted with concern how Chandra bit his lip and concentrated on the river ahead.
‘Keep talking!’ Rhan shouted at Chandra, sensing trouble ahead. ‘This is not a time for a crab!’ They had practised rough rowing that morning, and again briefly just before the race, but they had seen nothing like the flood of water coming down the river now.
He acknowledged the danger. ‘Don’t you dare relax! Pull hard through the water to get your oar free and to give me steerage! That’s it. Number 5, look where your blade’s going, not at stroke. Concentrate, all of you. One mistake and we are sunk. Enjoy the experience but keep thinking and pulling. Well done 2…try not to go deep, keep your blades near the surface if you can. Look at the blade…catch, pull out, no hurry on the slides, look…catch…pull. Let’s slow the strokes further, look…catch…pull. We are not racing! You’re surfing the weir. Big wave on the bow side – pull hard 1 and 3. Ease off 2 and 4. All pull hard! OK, watch that, 5 and 7…we passed it!’
‘Yahoo!’ came a cry from behind, as Claire started to enjoy herself, which made Rhan and Chandra smile.
‘You are riding the Thames tiger, so stay with it,’ Chandra instructed sensibly. ‘Number 2, look out for that massive wave – it’ll pass you all, so make sure you use it rather than the other way round. Your turn 4 and 6! Follow Number 7, not stroke, ‘til we’re past!’
They were a few minutes into their return journey, hugging the slack water along the shore as they battled back upstream after completing the course, when they passed the dispirited A Boat trailing miserably six lengths behind the determined B Boat for a distant second place.
There were hugs all round on the pontoon; Esther gave Rhan the biggest hug she had received since her parents had died. Hugs with Chandra were more awkward, as the girls stood a head taller than him in their bare feet.
Rhan was one of the first to leave the hot showers this time, and watched the other shivering and miserable crews, who were coming in from derigging their boats. The cox was in floods of tears, but all of the A crew seemed lost in self-doubt as their pedigree careers faced a sharp dip after months of effort. A drenched reporter, wearing a saturated rain mac, had reappeared and was frantically trying to find people who would explain the story.
‘Bar! I’m off,’ Chandra called from the entrance. ‘We did it! Roger is kindly taking Martha, Rebecca and me back to Oxford. Here’s my email.’ Chandra handed Rhan a slip of paper, which she stashed in her purse. ‘Can we meet up for a drink? I’d love to take you sailing in Edinburgh one day. Which college are you at?’
‘That sounds great fun,’ Rhan responded vaguely. ‘I’ll get in touch. It was brilliant having you here. You were just what we needed.’ As Roger appeared, she added, ‘Well done Roger, good management.’ The five of them paused for a few seconds, watching Patricia, the A Boat trainer, walking off towards London with her bags. Esther had obviously given the former coach her marching orders, and was now reoccupied in advance of her report to the press on the team’s training. Chandra tarried, no longer looking triumphant.
‘Third weekend of the summer holidays?’ Rhan suggested to him. ‘The North Sea might not look so frightening from a flimsy dinghy by then.’
‘Great!’ Chandra was clearly taken by surprise at Rhan’s enthusiastic response.

Back at the training camp, which was nestled on the Thames upstream back towards Oxford and further from the tidal reaches, the wind was no longer a threat. Pools of light on the dark river revealed that it was no longer choppy, yet it was very full. Still slightly stunned by the day’s events, Rhan looked out over the river and felt a strong sense of the water’s foreboding and resentful power.
Back inside the brightly lit timber clubhouse for the university rowing squads, Claire was very happy. ‘Wow, I am now the friend of the girl who can walk on water. You are the young Queen Bee, a new first-team stroke. This is amazing!’
‘Congratulations again, Bar and Claire,’ a deep voice confirmed. Claire glanced round and fell silent upon seeing Dumas, the men’s president. ‘I think Esther is great, so you two were bloody marvellous to achieve those stunning victories. I hear you totally humiliated the rebel crew. I gather it’s not yet all over, but well done anyway. I will thank Chandra next week when I see him.’
‘That is very kind, Dumas,’ Rhan managed to say. ‘You are quite right – it was good to help Esther.’
‘OMG!’ Claire mouthed as Dumas moved off after looking at Rhan for a couple of seconds longer than necessary.
At that moment, there was a stampede to the noticeboard and Roger came over, preventing them from needing to join in the excitement.
‘We’ve lost Anna, one of the junior squad coxes – she’s on trial for the second boat,’ Roger informed them. ‘But, I’m back with you again tomorrow, Claire. Bar, you’re down as one of the two strokes in tomorrow’s seat trials. Two boats are timed over a short course; members of the crew are then swapped and timed again. That way Peter can compare pairs of crew members.’
‘But crew members surely try harder for their friends?’ Rhan struggled with the concept.
‘Anyone who doesn’t try their best in each leg might then be swapped and their replacement will show them up,’ Roger explained. ‘So they stand to lose their own place. Thanks to the fun on the river today, there’s not a person who feels secure, even the stroke, Lucy – so Peter and Esther are taking the opportunity for tests without delay.
‘Have you noticed how quiet it is?’ Roger continued. ‘From boat A, Cat’s gone and so has the cox. Esther told them before they left London that they were out of the squad.’
‘Oh my God, yes!’ Claire exclaimed looking round with wide eyes at the Cat-free building. ‘This is bad. I’m now the noisiest person around!’
‘You’ll enjoy that, won’t you Claire?’ Roger grinned. ‘Anyway Bar, good luck tomorrow. If you want to grab a Blue in your first year of rowing, you have a wonderful opportunity.’
‘Do you think I should?’ Rhan asked, looking directly at Roger.
‘Well, that is entirely up to you,’ Roger laughed, shaking his head. ‘With confidence and ambition, you can finish what you started. You may have to log another formal set of results on the machines, but your strength-to-mass ratio is legendary already, especially among the men!’
‘Lucy is better than me on the flat,’ Rhan stated simply.
‘But in bad weather, you’ve proved that there is no contest. So you could be a logical safe choice. The tideway is often a rough course.’
Rhan nodded slowly. Claire listened, wide-eyed.

For the seat trials, the two boats were timed over a short course rowing upriver and exchanging a member of the crew as they drifted back downriver. Swapping crew members was tricky with both boats out on the river. Esther was the third member to clamber into Rhan’s boat.
‘OK, we now have the president on board, so look lively,’ Rhan called back unashamedly over her shoulder once Esther was settled in at Number 3. After an unenthusiastic start to the trials, Rhan was now in the mood to let fly. Although the stroke rate remained unchanged, the stroke length and effort increased and the crew behind kept up. The cox, whom Rhan had trained with in the junior squad, knew where her interests lay and screamed encouragement.
Rhan was one of the last to make the precarious crossing into the other boat, holding the hands of the B crew cox and Number 7 for balance, while trying not to knock Lucy into the water as she clambered in the other direction. After making the perilous exchange, Rhan could muster little passion for the last two sprints. She realised that her lacklustre effort would show Lucy in a good light, but it would also indicate that Esther was always in the fastest boat. Rhan, recalling her reflections from the previous morning, could see no real benefit in fighting to grab a Blue this year. It just didn’t seem worth it.
The results from the seat trials, when stuck up on the board, listed those who were still in contention for a First Eight place and included twelve names in order. The top rower was the president, Esther, who was billed as the most effective rower in the whole squad. Bar’s name was not included on the list.
‘You fixed that for your crush girl, didn’t you Bar?’ One of Cat’s former colleagues, who had swapped with Esther in the seat trials, rounded on Rhan, almost in tears. ‘You sacrificed yourself, but murdered me. I was a junior international, but haven’t even made the cut for the reserves! How could that be? You weren’t trying, were you?’ Everyone heard this outburst, including the coaches, along with Dumas and Esther, who had been chatting on the other side of the room. There was a stunned silence, so Rhan had no choice but to reply.
‘I just found it easier to row under an inspiring president,’ admitted Rhan quietly but distinctly. ‘Others feel the same and it would happen in any race, so the result is fair.’

Esther now had the authority to choose the rowers she wanted, although Rhan was dropped and returned to stroking Claire’s boat. Yet the junior squad and Roger himself were now welcomed in the clubhouse by the remaining first and second senior crews, reserves and coaches. Bizarrely, Rhan noticed that Esther tended to avoid her and only smiled and nodded at her across the room, but made special efforts to make Claire feel appreciated.
On the coach on the way back to Oxford for the beginning of term, Claire made Rhan listen to some strange opinions that were apparently widely held.
‘You’re the main candidate for next year’s university stroke – unless we get an Olympic champion like Cat,’ she added sarcastically. Rhan groaned.
‘You could also be a potential future president.’ Rhan raised her eyes at this suggestion from Claire, who persisted nonetheless. ‘I hope you are; it would be great for me to say, “must go – my friend Bar, the president, is coming for tea”.’
Rhan smiled but made no attempt to quash Claire’s rose-tinted view of the pre-term training week.
‘And…’ Claire added, knowing that Rhan would find this most interesting. ‘Roger has been promoted by Esther to Peter’s deputy, above and beyond his roles as selector and coach to the junior squad. He’s really gone up in the world, but deserves it, doesn’t he?’
Rhan, feeling rather muddled by her friend’s extravagant speculations, nodded her agreement, not quite believing what they had actually achieved.