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If you're not sure who Robert Zimmerman is, and the phrase 'Who loves ya baby?' doesn't bring a certain bald Lieutenant to mind, then you're almost certainly going to wonder what the fuss is all about. For the rest of us at MRC the weekend at Coate Water Park was a memorable one.
Take up rowing in your teens or twenties and you can be confident that, if you apply yourself, it's not so much a matter of if you'll make it out of Novice but when and where. On the other hand, if you've passed the Big 40 with a waistline heading in the same direction, a couple of kids, a job in London and a partner who can't quite understand how anyone could possibly spend 12 hours a week paddling in a boat, then getting through Novice can be seriously formidable.
But let's rewind to last September, when a mixed band of novice and Senior 4 veterans agreed to take on the challenging task of making the transformation from people who row to rowers.
Amongst those present were the usual suspects:
Bob Thompson – Slim, elegant suave – if I look this good at sixty I'll be well pleased.
Rob Thomson – Ageing rocker who spends a lot of time clad in leather and has recently bought a motorbike as a cover story.
Ray Swordy – Old enough, but can't quite remember who Robert Zimmerman is – or how to get on the M4 for 8.30am – but in good shape as you'd expect from a man whose diet in his formative years was defined by his ration card.
Jonathon Walne – A man who looks as if he forgot to say 'when' as he was being poured into his all in one and has a worrying habit of foaming at the mouth during races. We've stuck him down the blunt end where he can do least harm – although we have had a high turnover of coxes as a consequence.
Graham Hyman – How's this for dedication? – Retired (very) early to get out of Novice and puts up with a daily diet of Richard and Judy for his troubles. If you need updates on any of the soaps, this is the man to ask.
Kelvin Read – Has made ultimate sacrifice and moved to low tar in the quest for glory. Determined to add to his previous wins.
Graeme Armstrong – Captain Nemo lookalike who gained a couple of wins in the days when Barbara Windsor was a sex symbol rather than the ageing bag behind the Old Vic bar. Fancies replicating former successes at MRC.
Mark Wells – A youngster in his late twenties  – another ex-boxer in the Nick Hoare mould, but unlike Nick, prefers gardening to winter ergos.
Winning – just, the clamour to coach this pool of tapped untalent was Mike Landers – not so much a has-been, more a never-was, but has the advantage of being able to row neither side and can, using warm spoons and butter, just about get in the cox's seat – although this tends to restrict the bow seat to people with a cool head for heights.
Some of these athletes had been hanging around MRC for half a decade, but had found the first win tantalisingly elusive. Early outings indicated that all they lacked was fitness, flexibility, strength, technique and some half-decent equipment.
The programme started in September with a combination of weekend outings in The Bismark (blue eight), hard midweek circuits courtesy of Jane Mannering and some technique-based work at the rowing tank at Oxford. Like everyone else, we suffered from time off the water due to the flooding but made up with ergo work, Pound lane runs/wades, cycle rides around the triathlon circuits and the dreaded 5k tests. These came as a shock to a couple of people who thought that their lives were flashing by until they experienced the 5k ergo test 'time stands still' phenomenon. What the ergo tests also proved was the important bit that can't be coached – that a willingness to suffer was also present in abundance.
One of the things the group really lacked was race practice, so it was doubly disappointing to cock up the entry to the Vets Head, where we were determined to improve dramatically on the 30th (from last) performance of last year. To prevent any recurrence of this nonsense, Graham H kindly agreed to take time out from an empty diary to be our entries co-ordinator, and improve his selection chances in the process.
We've used a couple of coxes so far this year – thanks to both of them. Crispin, thankfully, prefers women and Jane prefers rowing to coxing, so the dread prospect of having to lug 75kg(ish) of me up regatta courses was enough to kick off a search for a proper racing cox. Thankfully one emerged a month ago in the small but perfectly audible form of Karla Boddy who comes with all the basic qualities (50kg and 120 dB). What she also brought was a great degree of confidence and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for telling people what to do.
Our first regatta of the season was a learning experience to put it mildly – up against Shiplake, Pangbourne, Eton et al over 1000m at Eton. We were second after 250m and last after a 1000, having covered the first 500m at 38 and the second at 34. It was a similar story in the Senior 4 eight, but at least we knew that our start was quick and that 36 was sustainable over a 1k course.
Some fine tuning over the next fortnight and some pieces alongside Paul Cox's eight, where we lost about a length for each minute rowed, suggested that we could give a decent account of ourselves if we learned to relax with someone alongside us and with a better race plan.
So we set off to Coate Water Park in high spirits with a cunning plan – get ahead and stay ahead  - with Nick Hoare, Alex Lovisetto and Dan Tipney filling in for Rob Thomson (on holiday yet again) and Ian Chamberlain, who claimed to have joined the jet set but was actually at some tedious conference in the USA.
Ian, whose son Mike rows in the second eight, and Chris Tipney, whose sons Ben and Dan don't seem to know how to lose in sculling boats, had joined the squad in October and February respectively and, being as flexible as the Tin Man and slightly short of peak condition, had both slotted in nicely.
The senior 4 race was not hugely encouraging with the Marlow eight of Karla, Jon, Bob, Graham, Kelvin, Alex, Mark, Nick and Chris coming in 3 lengths behind a Magdalen College Oxford eight that caught us cold but was also too classy and too clever for us.
With a couple of quick changes we set out to give Magdalen's novices and an eight from Hertford College Oxford a good kicking. Half a length down off the start, we held Magdalen until the enclosure, when the winter's training paid off in some style; rating 38 MRC pulled through both college crews to win by almost a length. Quite as nice feeling, I'm told, rowing through people half your age in the last 200m!
The final was against Exeter RC who had dead heated with Weybridge in their semi and won the rerow by half a length. Exeter had looked worryingly good as well as young and fit and will surely be out of novice in the next few weeks. Marlow took almost a length off them at the start, which was down to about three quarters going passed the enclosure, and held on, or rather were driven on by Karla, rating a lengthy 36 as Exeter pushed hard for the line. At the finish it wasn't immediately clear who had won and a desperately tense 10 minutes passed before MRC were given the verdict by a canvas.
Winning sculling races is routine stuff for Dan Tipney (bow), but it's unlikely he'll race too often in the same boat as his dad. Certainly winning anything is, or rather was, far from routine stuff for some of the other crew members Ray Swordy, Chris Tipney, Alex Lovisetto, Mark Wells, Graham Hyman, Bob Thompson, Jon Walne and Karla Boddy. At least a few of these gents must have wondered if it was ever going to come their way. Nice to win in style over 850m as well, beating 5 other club and college crews, most of whom were half our crew average age of 39 years old – 43 if you exclude Dan.
Many thanks to Karla for some excellent coxing; I mistakenly thought it might take her six months to get to this standard, but amazingly it took only one. If Dan keeps it up and goes on to represent England or GB I can see a few 'mature' gents telling their grandchildren how they once rowed with him.
There's still some unfinished business to attend to – Rob, Ian and Graeme were away whilst we were at Coate and Kelvin deserves a win this season. Having come this far it would be a mistake not to capitalise on the crew spirit, fitness and technique that have been carved out over the last nine months. 
That having been said I'm pretty sure that even if the crew goes on to register other wins in the months and years to come, as some surely will, this one will still linger long in the memory.

 

Mike Landers

PS. Many thanks to those who rowed with the crew this year – Paul Hyde, Ali Hughes, Charlotte Hill, Roger Martin-Fagg, Nick Hoare, Alex Lovisetto and Dan Tipney.