"Remorum Cognoscere Causas" - [this is a latin word-play on the LSE's motto "Rerum Cognoscere Causas"]
In 1991-92, while pursuing a Master's degree at the London School of Economics, I had what had to be the most bizarre year I have ever spent in this sport. I was involved in the re-foundation of the rowing club at the LSE, dormant since 1977. The experience needed to be chronicled. This past Summer, I discovered an old computer disk with some of the records from that year. I here provide excerpts from various clippings and from my end-of-the-year report as Captain of the LSE Rowing Club (a.k.a. Party Chairman of the LSE SSR):
Hearing rumors that the LSE actually owns equipment, but that no crew has actually existed in fifteen years, Heather Fraser and I man a desk at the Freshers' Fair to drum up interest. Nearly sixty people sign the forms, most of them novices. A core have varying levels of experience, but do not feel like putting in the six-days-a-week four-hours-a-day training that the University of London goes through (not to mention that rowing for UL virtually requires already having won an Olympic medal). Some adventurous types locate the boathouse in Chiswick. UL Head Coach Marty Aitken shows us the LSE's equipment left over from the 1970s: a coxless four ("Dictatorship of the Proletariat"), the bow section of a coxed four ("Tyranny of the Majority"), and a single ("Mao Tse-Tung"). Rumor has reached us that there was once a pair ("Josef Stalin"), be we are unable to locate it. We have no oars, no seats, no tools, nothing except old, decrepit wooden boats with holes in them and moss growing on them from fifteen years on outside racks. Apparently, Marty shows people from the LSE these boats every October and then never sees them again. To his surprise, we come back.
We try to convince the AU to give us money to buy an eight that floats. After leading our hopes on, they neg that idea because they claim that we cannot guarantee that the program will exist next year, since, of course, it has not existed for fifteen years. Of course, without a stern-coxed eight, we will be unable to train novices safely, and that makes it less likely that the program will exist next year. Oh well.
Meanwhile, we have fixed up the equipment we have. The boats take to the water. Our women's program disbands almost immediately, however, as most of the women flee in horror after trying to row the Dictatorship. Heather spends most of the rest of the year as the only woman. She has, in the interim, appointed herself Treasurer and has appointed me Captain, since the AU requires that all teams have officers. We figured that if the LSE had boats with these sorts of names, then we did not want officers - everybody should pitch in and do his thing. But if the AU wants officers, we might as well have undemocratically selected ones. Over the course of the year, we give team members appropriate titles (I become "Party Chairman").
The AU does give us some money, but it is not enough to buy much in the way of proper equipment. Because the AU's rules do not allow us to have our own bank account and we realize that any money left unspent at year's end will get lost, we buy what we can to make our current equipment rowable, and buy lockers to keep seats and footstretchers and anything else safe. Most of our budget gets spent keeping a stock of beer in the lockers for after practices, and on throwing parties for ourselves.
The team boils down to a small group of people, mostly from overseas, who have done this sport seriously for a number of years and have decided that we might as well have fun with this and not take ourselves too seriously for a change. We decide to practice on Saturdays and Sundays at mid-day - not too early, of course. Our policy is simple: if you show up, you will get to row; if you don't, you won't. If anyone wants to come down during the week, they are welcome to take out the Mao, or arrange directly with other club members to take out another boat. Chiswick is not exactly conveniently located, so we do not venture out there too often. The boathouse has several college and medical school programs rowing out of it, and we hear that they train regularly, but we rarely see anyone else.
We do our best to keep out of the way, generally head upstream where there is less traffic, and also realize that for some reason virtually no one practices at the times of day we are out. Our equipment is also so bad that most people are afraid to come near us anyway for fear we will drag them down too when we sink.
Matthias Mahlmann becomes responsible for entering us into our first race, the Watney Head. Unfortunately, no one understands the British point system. Not realizing how this system works, we enter too high a category. We assume, for example, that "novice" means what it means everywhere else in the world - "someone with zero prior experience." When we show up to race, however, we find some pretty good novice crews that simply do not have any points between them. Some have been training. All have better equipment.
We have one condition for racing: if you say you will race, you have to show up on race day. For practices we don't care since we can always shift to smaller boats, but for races the whole crew gets screwed if someone doesn't show. At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of the race, one the oarsmen decided not to row. We switch Jon Teacher, the ex-coxswain who would have coxed for us, into the two-seat and Matthias wakes Heather up and convinces her to try coxing. We are passed by every single men's crew starting behind us plus two elite women's crews. Heather nearly crashes us into a bridge. But the boat finishes without taking on too much water, and we are satisfied to actually cross the line.
Two weeks later, we throw an entry into the Head-of-the-River-Fours. We get a real coxswain from a friend of a friend of a cousin of Heather, but we don't actually have four rowers available that day. I call around the entire list of experienced rowers at the LSE and find a Mexican who says he can row. The day before, we actually decide to practice together. The Mexican demonstrates a technique we are unfamiliar with: crab-wiff-crab-wiff. It will be a long row if we have to row with him. Fortunately, City University is down working on their equipment, and one of them, Mike Smith, an American on Junior Year Abroad from Buffalo, volunteers to row with us the next day to replace the Mexican. We have a reasonable line-up this time, and City lends us a stern-coxed Janousek and Dreissigacker oars. We decide not to warm-up before the race, because we are all out-of-shape and might get tired. We arrive at the start exactly on time, just as they are calling our number, but the umpire screams at our coxswain in British English terms that fluster her but which we don't understand. We row well, but tire out coming around into a headwind at Hammersmith. Nevertheless, we actually pass crews, beat over twenty "Senior 3" crews, and advance 42 places. It takes us over an hour to row back to Chiswick from Putney. Heather cooks dinner.
The Beaver, the college newspaper, reports: "Most of the crews that try to have competitive programs train both to keep in shape and to keep the same people together. Due to decrepit equipment, lack of a budget, and limited available practice time, the LSE has had to forgo both of these conventions, practicing at most twice a week and never boating the same four people together more than once."
Gradually, we start to add to the LSE's equipment. As they were doing work on the outside racks at the boathouse, a sign went up saying that any boats left there after a certain date would be burned. So we nationalize an unclaimed pair when the deadline passes. Marty Aitken also gives us a set of seven aluminum oars (understandably unclaimed) that he has found. The pair proves an invaluable training tool. Between the pair and the single, we actually can get in a reasonable amount of rowing during the year and we make great improvements in our technique. And although the oars may be atrocious and twisted, at least we don't have to keep begging to borrow old wooden oars from other clubs.
We enter a some other regattas, and take the opportunity to try out some new rowers. Some are dreadful, some are respectable and join our permanent core of regulars. Matthias and I become pair partners, and this combination works despite the fact that he is a foot taller than I am. However, he bails out on vacation just as we are scheduled to enter one race, leaving me to change my entry to the collegiate open single. I entered in the Mao with our newly-purchased wooden sculling oars. Everyone else shows up in Empachers and Simmses with Dreissigackers. That gives them an advantage even before the Mao breaks ten strokes into the start and sinks. The water is very cold. I have to swim the boat back to Chiswick.
We wind down our Fall season. British universities have long vacations, so everyone leaves.
Winter begins; we tone down our practicing to once a week and we fix up the equipment to have it properly rowable by Spring. We paint our oars with a pattern suggested by Karl Wildi: hideous purple with bright yellow spackling. We decide not to spend money on extra paintbrushes, so after we put the purple on, we simply use sticks to apply the yellow. The patterns turn out different on every oar and reminiscent of a Jackson Pollack painting. We figure that since the LSE has horrible colors, we might as well make the most of them. I design our team clothing in garish mixes of fluorescent yellow and purple.
A core of dedicated rowers has now formed, including Oliver Bange, a German phenom who rowed as an undergraduate several years ago at Aachen with much success including a tour of Britain which put British university crews to shame; Gregor Cameron, a former schoolboy sculler who has not rowed in years and whom we teach to sweep; Heather Fraser, formerly of the University of British Columbia; Arnor Halldorsson, a stocky Icelander (the shortest and heaviest member of the team) whose only previous experience came in whale boats on the Arctic Ocean and whom we have to start virtually from scratch; Matthias Mahlmann, from Hamburg, who had spent the previous summer leading rowing expeditions on the Rhine; Giles Monnickendam, a freshman with some experience with a small club near Nottingham; Chris Wheeler, on Junior Year Abroad from Colby College in Maine; Karl Wildi, a Canadian National Team prospect in the mid-1980s who had not touched an oar since; and myself, an ex-cox, oarsman wanna-be, whose only previous rowing experience in the UK had come coxing for Notts County. Several others straggle in and out throughout the year.
Still once a week. Our uniforms arrive, much to everyone else's dismay when they realize that our lycras and splashtops glow in the twilight. We are featured in the Evening Standard.
The pinnacle of our year, as we start to race again. We train in small boats, because we still do not own an eight or eight oars, but Charing Cross Hospital lends us an old wooden eight with eight matching wooden oars for races. There seem to be no London collegiate championships in side-by-side format, so the London University Head in March has to suffice for local bragging rights. Knowing who we are, the organizers start us last of the men's entries. Our goal is not to get passed by any women. For lack of anyone else, Heather agrees to try coxing again. Several people are late arriving, so we launch with barely enough time to make it to Richmond for the start. We race back. Not only do no women catch us, but we pass several crews and end up winning the whole thing by 29 seconds. No one other than us seems amused, although random spectators cheer us on throughout the race (we have no idea who they are, since we have no fans there and did not tell our friends we were racing - must be the uniforms). Stroke Karl Wildi pants afterwards: "I forgot how tired you get during a race. I don't think I want to do that again." Besides, he adds, "I don't think the lycra looks good with my belly." Halldorsson, entering his first ever race, declares that "I was more excited to see if we would make it to the start on time than whether or not we would win the race." The whole line-up gets nominated for special colors: (bow to stern: Wheeler, Monnickendam, Halldorsson, Cameron, Mahlmann, Ehrlich, Bange, Wildi, Fraser).
We miss this month (another stupidly long vacation with most people overseas). Heather tries to go down to scull, but the boathouse is locked and no one is around.
The action is scaled down while people study for exams and stuff. We can't find anyone who wants to race us anyway, and we don't own a trailer to go anywhere else. We do have a crew barbecue where we consume a lot of Pimm's and appoint Giles the next Captain (a.k.a. Party Chairman).
We start racing again. Apparently, we learn, it is illegal to row in this country unless the Amateur Rowing Association specifically recognizes the club. It does not matter that we are a college rowing under our college's name. Rowing and competing all year, no one has ever bothered to tell us this. The LSE SSR always thought of itself as a subversive organization, but we never thought that we really were. The ARA informs us that we will have to file an application to be allowed to continue to row. In the meantime, since we have mingled periodically throughout the year on and off the water with King's College, London, King's is amenable to us rowing under their name, although we continue to display our own colors.
I file the papers required by the ARA. This includes registering our blade colors with an official discription: "Purple with gold spackling and a black neck," for which I am also supposed to draw a blade (yeah, right!). I am also supposed to provide a constitution, covering several basic issues such as membership, officers, and colors. They have a generic formula, which we are advised to copy and follow. So this is what I provide them:
London School of Economics and Political Science - Constitution of the Soviet Socialist Rowingclub
The Rowing Club will promote and administer Crew at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Any member of the Students' Union (as defined in the Union constitution) will be eligible for membership of the club, on signing the register of members and payment of the appropriate subscription.
The Club Politburo, composed of volunteer members, will organize the activities of the Club. For external relations, the Party Chairman will serve as "Captain" and represent the Club in official business. The Minister of Finance and Planning, serving as "Treasurer," will control the budget, acquire the appropriate funds from the Athletics Union, and handle all receipts and accounting. These two officers will be appointed at the end of each academic year by arbitrary decision of the Politburo, their terms commencing the following Fall. In the event of the withdrawal of one of these two officers from membership in the Club, the remaining members of the Politburo will determine a replacement.
The Crew will race under the colors of the LSE (purple, gold, and black).
Everyone disperses - I head off to work at the Olympics in Banyoles, where I get paged one day to find Mike Smith, the junior from Buffalo who had spent the year at City University and had rowed with us off and on, standing at the gate. I arrange for him to get a press pass into the Olympic Village, and we scratch our heads about the contrast in environments.
I return to London. The ARA approves our constitution, and our club becomes legal. I pack everything into our lockers and leave it for Giles when he returns to lead the club. So ends a bizarre chapter in my rowing career.