Wet Bobs from a Dry Bob – The Boat Club from the Outside

My first acquaintance with the rowing fraternity was an indirect one. At Clare (sorry) during my last two years I shared a set of rooms with one Bill Hacking, an Oundelian reading engineering. In those days, you either rowed or you didn’t row; there were no part-timers, no Gentlemen’s Boats, at least among the serious racing Colleges. Bill rowed six days every week, rain or shine, and he trained to the utmost for three years. He was rewarded by winning an oar as Clare was Head of the River in the Lents. Bill paid a price. He obtained only an Ordinary degree. Through the Boat Club and Bill’s example I was taught a valuable lesson in life. If you want to win a worthy objective, you will have to sweat blood and give of your best. You may not succeed but you will be rewarded by learning self discipline and find lifelong friends on the way.

Twenty five years later Bill was a distinguished consultant engineer and I was Dean of St Catharine’s.

My experienced predecessor, Augustus Caesar, warned me that the Club “were not so violent as the Rugby club, but were apt to be more childish.” This was certainly not my decanal impression during the next seven years. It has always been a delightfully civilised tradition in St Catharine’s to ask one or more Fellows to the major dinners. It was particularly tactful to invite the Dean. I enjoyed many Bumps suppers - and still do of course. In all male Colleges with non-existent bars, it was customary for the diners to leave the college, take to the streets, brave the Proctors, trade insults with other Boat Clubs and end the evening by the ceremonial burning of a boat. These activities mean that damage and troubles within the College were minimal so that decanal relations with the rowing men were cordial. Unfortunately, on one point of discipline we differed. Before the new Dining Hall was built at the back of Bull, there was a Fellow’s car park. Its large gates were similar to those of the present car park. Someone discovered that several determined and powerful young men could remove the gates from their hinges. In the small hours they were then carried to Silver Street Bridge and dropped into the Cam. The next morning Authority interviewed the leading Officials of the Club, though fortunately those large gates only drifted as far as Jesus Lock where they stuck. Retribution consisted of a communal fine and, worse, the onerous task of punting those gates back to the Mill Pool and reinstalling them in their original state. For some years both the perpetrators and myself enjoyed these forays and found them good fun. But there came one May week when the gates floated away for the umpteenth time and I found myself very angrily upbraiding two very nice young men, smashing a wine glass during my tirade.

I learned my second lesson from the Boat Club. Simply, when you can no longer see the humour in undergraduate activities, it is time to stop being Dean of a Cambridge College. I resigned as Dean and became a tutor.

It was as Tutor that I came to appreciate the value of the Boat Club to society in the College. Many undergraduates, hitherto sidelined in sport at school because of a lack of ability at ball games are extremely energetic and enjoy a sport in which physical strength and fitness, timing and rhythm and sheer guts are essential qualities. And, apart from the physical, rowing engenders more abstract virtues. Members of boat clubs learn to balance the splendour of a May evening outing against the pains of the cold waters of the Cam at 7am in February. They have to appreciate punctuality as an outing will be ruined by the absence of a single member.

And, above all, they learn the necessity of working as a team, the reliance of one human on a group of others with a common goal and the bond of fellowship.

I once had a Tutorial pupil from far overseas whom I shall call “George”. George had an ex colonial accent and a slight impediment of speech which combined to make him difficult to follow. One day in his first Lent term, he appeared and said simply “I ain’t getting around.” This meant he was lonely so we watched a hockey Cuppers match and then I has an inspiration and asked two oarsmen to introduce him to the river. It would be a pleasant fable to say George developed into a first class oarsman. He didn’t. In the third boat, he found self respect, a purpose and real friends. This is one of many examples of the benign influence of the comradeship of rowing on personal happiness during the formative years at St. Catharine’s.
All my acquaintance with the Boat Club has taught me, as an outsider, its value to the college as a character builder. My only criticism of our Boat Club is this. St Catharine’s has a proud history. The Association Football, Rugby, Hockey and Athletics Clubs have not only occasional, but also many lengthy spells of victory, while the Boat Club has, I believe, never been higher than fifth * and usually fills a place in double figures. There have been some excellent boats, who have won their oars in the First Division. Originating in the time of Teddy Rich, Tom Henn and Christopher Waddams, two top oars and a cox, we’ve had our fair share of blues and a president.

Unfortunately, while it is possible for a Rugby side, young and inexperienced one year, to win the Cuppers the next, success on the river requires an elevated initial position and therefore consistently outstanding boats. This consistency we have never had. Why? We have never established a rowing tradition, like that of Jesus or even of Trinity Hall probably because, with the exception of three previously named Fellows, there has been little enthusiasm amongst the Seniors to become involved in the affairs of the Boat Club. It is Fellows who give the contacts with the schools, control of admissions and above all who provide continuity of purpose.

Enough of the past for the past. One of my three proudest moments at St Catharine’s was when Herb Bate christened his lovely Four with my name. Thank you Boat Club.

Dudley Robinson (1918-2008)