‘Row, row, row your boat…’ – Christchurch Rowing Club
John Newth tells the story of Christchurch Rowing Club
Published in February ’16
In the years after World War 2 there was an upsurge of interest in sport. Partly it represented a return to normality; partly it was a reminder of the camaraderie that was one of the few positive aspects of military service; partly it was a celebration and thanksgiving by those who had returned unscathed that their physical powers had not been taken away from them. It was in this climate that Christchurch Rowing Club was formed at a meeting at the Kings Arms Hotel in the town in February 1948. The meeting was chaired by B A Mead, who became the club’s first chairman. ‘If we are going to have a rowing club, it must be a successful one,’ he declared in no doubt ringing tones. ‘It must have a reputation not just in Christchurch but all over England.’ In its almost seventy years of existence, the club has done a fair job of achieving that ambition.
In its very early days, it was a rowing club without any boat to row in, but Westover and Bournemouth Rowing Club, which was already almost a hundred years old, offered its upstart neighbour strong and generous support, including the loan of boats. In May 1948, however, the fledgling club acquired its first boat, a racing pair christened ‘Twynham’. By August of that year there were already a hundred members, and in the same month, the new club announced its arrival in the most spectacular way by winning the Dudley Ward Challenge Cup for four-oared boats at Poole Rowing Club’s annual regatta, beating on the way clubs that were much longer-established and much stronger on paper. Then, to prove it was no fluke, they won it again the following year.
In its early years, the club launched its boats from the Quomps. Its changing facilities were on the first floor of Place Mill, the former monastic building hard by the walls of the Priory. It was hardly a satisfactory arrangement and it was not long before the club moved to an asbestos Nissen hut-like building at Wick Ferry. By 1965 the club was strong enough to build its present clubhouse on land granted to it by Christchurch BC on a 99-year lease; a grant of £3600 was given by the Department of Education and Science towards the total cost of £8600. The building was designed by a local architect, Roy Bishop, and incorporates the ‘flying balcony’ which makes it so distinctive. Beneath the foundation stone a time capsule was buried, containing a copy of the Christchurch Times, some Beetle Club forms (in tribute, one can only assume, to the fund-raising efforts of organisers of Beetle Drives) and some newly minted coins – pre-decimal in those days, of course. The new clubhouse was a symbol of how well-established the club had become, and the 1960s marked the start of the club’s modern-day successes, with Christchurch RC crews distinguishing themselves at Henley Royal Regatta and other prestigious events.
Today, the club has some 350 members, of whom about a half are active rowers. A new member will be made to feel welcome and will soon be recommended to a ‘learn to row’ course at the Hengistbury Outdoor Centre in Christchurch Harbour. Given that the club is run entirely by volunteers whose availability is inevitably variable, this has been found to be the best way to ensure that everyone has the very basic skills, as well as an awareness of safety and other factors. Then, in the case of an adult recruit, the rowing committee will help him or her to find a place in a suitable crew where the basic training can be built on and more sophisticated skills developed.
Juniors – those aged between 12 and 16 – are treated separately, going out mostly in sculling boats. Sculling involves two oars and is preferred for juniors because rowing with one oar in a pair, four or eight is an asymmetric activity which can be detrimental to bodies that are still developing. So the juniors at Christchurch RC operate mainly in river boats and take part mostly in inland regattas at places like Dorney Lake and Holme Pierrepoint near Nottingham. It seems to be working: two of Christchurch’s under-16 oarsmen have recently joined the bottom rung of the GB rowing squad ladder. To encourage new recruits from this age group, the club has close connections with Twynham School, where it helps to organise the indoor rowing club, and with Bournemouth Collegiate School, which is a separate club but uses Christchurch RC’s facilities.
Rowing is a sport that can be suitable for all ages and at the other extreme from the juniors are the masters – a new title for those who used to be called veterans. A four regularly takes to the water from the club that includes three rowers over the age of 75. More significantly, there has recently been an explosion in the popularity of women’s rowing – and a proportionate improvement in standards – with almost half of Christchurch RC’s rowing members now women.
Given its position close to where the River Stour meets the less placid waters of Christchurch Harbour, Christchurch RC rows in both river boats and coastal boats. River boats tend to be sleeker, whereas coastal boats are wider and have a higher freeboard and have a slightly shorter slide up and down which the seat runs. The seats are often slightly offset from the centre line, too, but there is a trend towards what are called FISA boats (FISA being the international organisation that administers rowing), where the seats are aligned, so single sculls are becoming more common. FISA boats are also wider and longer than traditional coastal boats. In terms of technique there is not much distinction between river and coastal rowing, although the shorter slide means a slightly different body position and the rougher water encountered in coastal rowing can be a test of a rower’s skill in controlling the blade. Coastal rowing is not to be confused with gig racing, as practised in Swanage, Weymouth and Lyme Regis (see March’s Dorset Life), which happens in much sturdier, clinker-built boats, on fixed seats and with a completely different grip on the oar handle.
There are twelve regattas along the South Coast each season and Christchurch RC sends crews to them all, culminating in the South Coast Championships. The highlight of the year is its own regatta, normally held in late June. Crews race along a course from just upstream of the clubhouse to a turning point near Christchurch Sailing Club and back again. It is a feature of coastal racing that it involves a 180° turn, and a skilled crew with a good cox can do it in three strokes. As well as the summer regatta, the club organises in March a ‘head’ race, that is a time-trial, from Mudeford beach up the harbour to the sailing club.
Any sports club faces a basic philosophical question: is it about winning trophies, or does it exist to provide the maximum amount of pleasure and exercise to as many people as possible? At Christchurch RC, there is a natural pleasure when its crews do well, but the first priority is to have all its members out on the water, enjoying themselves. For that reason the committee advises on, rather than dictates, the make-up of crews. Ideally, a group of people who enjoy rowing together will work towards competing in a regatta; they will take it seriously and be keen to win, but the main aim is enjoyment. The club’s president, Peter Staddon, who joined as a boy cox in 1960, admits that it is a tricky balance to hit but has no doubt that the club is about the flexibility for people to enjoy themselves rather than about pot-hunting: ‘We’ve been through that,’ he says. ‘It’s great when you’re winning, but the club must focus on all levels of rowing because if too much emphasis is put on those elite crews, there is not enough development of the whole club.’
Rowing is not a cheap sport, with a sculling boat costing around £6500 and a coastal four north of £10,000. The club also has to pay an annual fee to Bournemouth Water Company for the ten moorings which the company could put outside the clubhouse but which would impede the club’s access to the river. Over the last fifteen years there have been strenuous efforts to put the club on a sound financial footing. Whether or not it has ‘a reputation not just in Christchurch but all over England’, the success of those efforts, plus the high levels of both performance and enjoyment achieved by its oarsmen and oarswomen, mean that Christchurch RC is by any standards a notable success story. ◗