From Zero to Hero: Learning To Row In An Elite Squad

Published in PRIMOLife Magazine May 2015

The water, oily and soft in the early morning light bulges up slightly just before the blade of the oar breaks the surface. As it sweeps up and back, droplets rain back down into the Swan River. I focus on keeping my oar level, and look toward the backs of the six rowers in front of me who make up the Guildford Grammar School 2nd VIII. It’s 6:30am and we have already been on the water for an hour. Rowing with these guys, elite schoolboy athletes, is a pretty rapid promotion to me, considering that I only learned to row yesterday, but thanks to the fact that my Dad is their coach, I’ve been allowed to take a spot in their shell for the morning.

I haven’t just got onto the water willy-nilly though, some training and preparation has been had. About 3 hours to be precise. The day earlier, Boat Shed Manager Josh Wilkes ran me through the basics. In a single scull, I learn to rotate the oars at the correct moment so they are either parallel to the water (feathered) or perpendicular (squared) and move my body forward and back in perfect sequence (legs - torso – arms, then arms – torso - legs). It sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not.

There is an awful lot to remember, and when I get one thing right, something else goes out the window. I ‘bum shoot’, get out of sequence, over-rotate my wrists, dig my oars in too deep or miss the water altogether, and even manage to get the oar behind me, jabbing into my kidneys. Josh is patient and encouraging, but I’m glad that there are few witnesses to my early attempts. Even when I do eventually coordinate enough to move through the water, I’m ungainly and have no spare attention to look where I’m going. Luckily, the kayaker zooming past gives me a wide birth. I come to appreciate why my Dad has spent so much time over the last 25 years coaching here.

As he puts it “you can learn 95% of rowing in the first day, but that last 5% will take the rest of your life”.

Back on dry land, Dad puts me in a training tank to learn how to row ‘sweep’, that is, with a single oar. Feeling a bit like a slave in a galley, I practice drawing the oar through the water, and to my delight, find it much easier than coordinating two oars at the same time. Good job too, as this is how I’ll be rowing with the crew.

On the water at the dot of 5:30, I first sit in the coaching tinny as the crew warms up then practices ‘starts’. Dad counts them down, and they are perfectly still on the smooth surface water, focused and humming with energy. “ROW!” Dad roars and the river explodes into a frenzy of activity. Oars flash in and out of the water and in a blink they are gone. I can’t believe how fast they are moving.  “HEART BURSTERS!” Dad demands, and looking at the strain showing on their faces as they give everything they’ve got, I’m seriously worried that hearts might actually burst. The tinny’s engine screams to keep up, and I learn later that the coaches are given special dispensation to break the 10 knot speed limit of the Swan River, just so they can keep up with their crews.

The fate of a race can hinge entirely on the speed of the crews start. These guys are capable of 48 strokes per minute at the start, and settle at a race pace of around 37, or approximately six meters per second. Six meters per second. It’s been agreed that when I get in, we will start at 16 strokes per minute and see if I can go any higher.

When the time comes, I am feeling pretty nervous. I don’t want to waste the boys’ precious training time, or more importantly, look like a total wally in front of Dad. At “Row!” I panic and begin madly hauling away, completely out of sync with the rest of the crew. After a few laughs and deep breaths, we settle into a 16 rate. I’m getting it ok, and give a nod to increase the pace. Then again, and again, until we sit at around 23 rate. I am at my limit: if we go any faster, I’ll lose it. The moments when it all comes together don’t last long, so I try to enjoy them while I can, feeling the power of a team of eight rowing in time.

The rhythm becomes hypnotic: the sound of the blade hitting the water ‘at the catch’, the drag of the seats sliding back and forth, the clacking of the oars in their gates, the steady breathing of the crew. We are light and sleek, slicing through the top of the water like a blade. As I puff and pant away, I’m amazed to think that the guys are capable of twice this speed.

Once it’s all over, I massage my already aching muscles, and observe at the most amazing thing of all: these serious, disciplined oarsmen put on school uniforms and transform into regular teenage boys, horsing around and chatting about their upcoming school ball.


Anna learned to row thanks to the Guildford Grammar School Rowing Shed, Josh Wilkes, Graeme Hartley and the boys of the 2nd VIII who took time out of their tight training schedule to let her have a splash around.

Want to read more of my crazy adventures like rock climbing, rowing and flying trapeze?? Click here!