Cambridge University Women's Boat Club 1941 - 2014

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Accounts by Presidents and other members


The role of the president has evolved with the club. On this page there are accounts from past Presidents of CUWBC from roughly each decade about their times with the Club.  They date from the following years:

1961 - Valerie Goldsbrough

1973 - Vicky Markham

1984 - Nonie Ray

1989 - Jo Burch

2007 - Claire Hansell

 

On this page you can also see material such as a report from 1949 in the Captain's log book and an account by Averil Wootton who rowed as a spare in the 1960s, as well as accounts by various members of their rowing activities since Cambridge.

1927 - Coxing the Boat Race - transcript of an interview with Margaret Rhys on BBC Radio, 23rd March 1989

1949 - A page from the Captain's log book

1966 - Snippets by Averil Wootton

2013 - Sue Fenton (nee Wrenn), coastal rowing in Argyl

2015 - Helen McFie, rowing at the US Masters Regatta

 

 

1961 - Valerie Goldsbrough

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1973 - Vicky Markham

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1984 - Nonie Ray

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1989 - Jo Burch

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2007 - Claire Hansell

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1927 - Coxing the Boat Race

Transcript of an interview with Margaret Rhys on BBC Radio, 23rd March 1989.

Coxing the Boat Race M Rhys001

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1949 - A page from the Captain's log book:

1949Captains book c 

 

1964-66 - Averil Wootton, who was at Newnham 1963-66, wrote this account of her involvement with the club:

 

Some memories of CUWBC – Michaelmas 64 to Easter 66

August 64: Natalka Flem(m)ing (NH) asked me to consider rowing. Numbers were so low that the attempt to revive women’s rowing could fail. Agreed to give it a go as a favour to her (especially as she’d treated me to a cup of coffee at Kenco). Had thought vaguely about it before but lacked the nerve to do anything about it. In the end, my view was that I’d rather make a fool of myself than have someone else do it.

Swimming test –what swimming test?

Cost: Nothing – I understood it was all covered by Combined Clubs, paid as an integral part of the fees paid by my local authority.

October 64: Bank tubbing & tub-pair outing, with another novice (NH), Keith Tovey coaching. Had difficulty with coordination but decided to stick with it, having seen (and heard) the Blue Boat powering thro’ the gloom. It was an exciting moment & I wanted to be part of that world. For a while, I was the only Newnhamite on the river.

Novices would be shown the place of CUWBC’s greatest humiliation. A hapless cox had sometime earlier rammed the bows of the eight into the bank, just downstream of the Pike & Eel pub (later The Ferry, now defunct). The bow was thoroughly wedged in the concrete piling and had had to be cut free, leaving the prow behind. The bobble & some of the metal framework was still visible from waterlevel.

Fellow Rowers: mainly New Hall at that time but an increasing number of Newnhamites, Girtonians & Hughes Hallians.

There seemed to be a preponderance of scientists & engineers. Maybe we were the ones least satisfied with the traditional view of a woman’s place & both subject & sport reflected this.

Modern rowers would be surprised to see that physically we were a fair cross-section of the Cambridge women of the time – nobody particularly tall – no Amazons – some real lightweights. I was 5’5”, weighing 10st 3lbs, (bmi =24.9).

Boathouse, boat & blades. Our resources were minimal.

The eight, a wooden clinker, was kept in the City of Cambridge boathouse (next to 1st & 3rd) I believe it had been found in CCRC boathouse by Ann Glithero.

We relied on the Trinity boatman for technical support and for the loan of the four and an eight (`Hervey de Stanton’). These too were clinkers. Don’t know who owned the tub, probably 1st & 3rd.

We carried the boats underarm, not throwing them up to shoulder height as the men did. This did cause some amusement but I seem to recall us trying it, successfully, once or twice near the end of my time. It’s ironic that it’s all underarm now.

Similarly, everyone except me dropped their knees apart as they came forward ( `…body between your knees…’). I, however, began rowing as stroke and could not bring myself to come forward to a male coach/cox with my legs apart, such were the niceties of the time (just as I didn’t like my skirt riding up above my knees when cycling). Hence, I’d graze my thighs with my thumbnails, on one occasion, outside the boathouse, eliciting the wisecrack from a passing male `Here comes the bloody stroke!’). Now everyone rows with straight legs, it seems.

Oars were the `traditional’ shape of c.1950. Shorter `barrels’ were used by some men’s crews but deemed inappropriate for the women’s traditional style relying on technique rather than power. As we were frequently exhorted, `Rowing’s like ballet - grace, rhythm and poise’.

We were quite experimental in our rowing at times. We tried doing it metachronally, much as ragworm paddles, which caused a great of mirth both in our boat and the other craft nearby. It wasn’t a disaster but there no obvious advantage beyond the cox being spared the punch in the back.

I’ve a vague feeling we may have tried some rigging changes to correct the bias to stroke side but gave that up as well. Not too sure about that.

Club colours: We were not allowed to use Varsity blue; instead of that particular shade of duckegg/pale turquoise it had to be Sky blue, the standard light blue of the time. Moreover, I assume, just to make the point that we were nothing to do with the Blue Boat, we had a white stripe across the blade. To me, it suggested a Bar Sinister, with the suggestion of illegitimacy.

As for scarves, we made our own – 2 yards of 36”wide Clydella, a much cheaper version of Vyella), folded lengthwise & stitched, with hand-knotted tassels of sky-blue-nylon knitting yarn. The theory was they would serve as stoles for formal evening wear. I used to joke that they’d make good shrouds for the watery burial of drowned rowers – but I was grateful for mine, as a towel, when I overturned a Trinity scull in February (well, I was backing her down both sides… by the boathouse, luckily. Good job I didn’t try it by the Gasworks Wall, especially as my tracksuit was waterlogged)

We did buy very cheap tracksuits in Royal blue from the little sports shop on the corner of Trinity Lane, now felicitously occupied by Sweaty Betty. (as in Canon Duckworth’s name for us). Said tracksuits came from somewhere in the Eastern bloc – when the elastic gave way, I discovered some 60” (1.52m) of fabric gathered into the waist. Small wonder it was bulky, my waist was a shade under 26”. At least the blue wasn’t as dark as Oxford’s.

When competing, we wore white: shorts (often men’s rowing shorts in stout cotton, with side openings and reinforced seat, shaped for sitting down), tops of any design, long or short socks and white plimsolls.

I may not have been even a half blue but I did get my First Boat colours, which entitled me to sew a sky-blue ribbon about 3cms wide, down the side of my shorts.

Fitness training: almost non-existent as far as I could see. The Canadian 5BX Program (for men) was published in the UK c1965. I for one gave it a try & decided it was too risky (leaping up from lengthy floorwork, for one thing). Ann instructed us to do circuit training at Fenners; I tried it once but the place was so bleak it put me off. `Sports Science’ hadn’t been thought of; very little was known about the physiology of performance; decent rowing machines were nowhere to be seen.

Relationships with the men. My perception is that, apart from the diehards in CUBC, the general attitude was favourable, except when we beat the men (OK, it’d be the rugger boat, so no great glory there). A couple of incidents in Easter ’66 stick in my mind:

Clayhythe: One fine day in Easter Term ‘66, we took the VIII to the Bridge pub at Clayhythe, Jim Peachey coxing us. We arrived at lunchtime and drew up in full view of the dining room. Jim aroused little interest but when we popped up above the bank, we caused a sensation. The exclusively-male diners, all of a certain age, came to window in astonishment and stood there, gaping, as we trooped to the Public bar for a swift half. I will swear that they still had their napkins tucked into their collars and were clutching their knives and forks.

Mays ’66: We’d manage to get the 1st VIII onto the river for this, not at the bottom of the lowest division either. CUBC presumably couldn’t tell them to clear off when they were above a number of men’s crews. The 2nd VIII should got on as well but we were cheated - the boat that had just pipped us in the Getting-on race had dropped out but CUBC wasn’t having a second women’s boat there. We’d have rowed over and secured a place for `67.

Anyway, the !st VIII did row, over in fine style. I was standing somewhere near the Plough as they came by, passing many of the men’s boats that drawn up, having been caught. The women were rowing perfectly, the sun was shining and one chap shouted out `Bellissima! Bellisima!’. The cry was taken up by the crowd and saxboards were loudly drummed. It was an amazing accolade.

Coxes Society: I mentioned previously that some of us went to their dinner (speaker: John Snagge) & were taken to the Hawks Club afterward as guests. Was that Canon Duckworth’s doing?

The only time relationships were strained was on the way back from Oxford in the shared coach - a conflict between those of us who were being taken to the Cardinals’ Ball, and need to get back, and the men who wanted to stop at pubs along the way. Somehow, a compromise was reached and we made it in time for our dates, albeit in a mad rush.

The Coaches: Several engagements & marriages here. Bruce McClellan posted a heart-shaped valentine for us on the boathouse door in `65 or `66:

C is for Cover, Crisp and Clean,

U is for Unity, not often seen,

W is for work in all sorts of Weather,

B is for Bounce, which sometimes gets Better’

C is for Captain, Coxswain and Crew,

And the handsome young Coach who loves all of you.

Bruce’s nickname, of course, was `Tigger’.

`Bumps Supper’: My idea, I think. I’d suggested we should get together for a meal after the Mays in ’66, with boyfriends, before going on to separate parties. Only 5 others were interested so there were 12 in all. As I recall, I booked what was then the Old Hall Dining Room (now the Barbara White Room -- there was a serving hatch where there’s now a fire place), did the shopping and the minimal cooking required as I wasn’t on the river that afternoon. Help came as soon as the others could make it.

The menu:  

Grapefruit

Chicken salad

Strawberries and cream

Cheese board (selection of English cheeses)

With white wine, followed by Nestlés Blend 37

It sounds so ordinary now but chicken, cream and Double Gloucester/Wensleydale/etc still seemed rather special then. I expect the wine was a `Spanish Burgundy’ as it was then called. We then did our own washing up before heading out to boogie. And of course, we’d worn our scarves as stoles. I do not know if the idea was taken up after that.

How significant were our efforts?

I went down in 1966; in that Michaelmas I heard from the then Captain, C Anne Robinson, that the club might be getting another boat, a shell eight, a sure sign things were looking up.

My disappointment at not making the Blue Boat was quite acute at the time – as I now say `it was a time when only nine women at Cambridge rowed and eight were better than I was’. Nevertheless, I console myself that had I not usually been available to make up the crew it might have taken longer for CUWBC to make a mark.

However amateurish we might have been by today’s standards, and despite us not being the original pioneers, I firmly believe that we helped, by dogged determination (bloody mindedness?) and making a moral point, may have moved the cause of women’s rowing on to the point where it could take off properly when women came up in larger numbers.

With hindsight, I’d say there was probably more institutional sexism elsewhere in Cambridge than on the river.

At the recent Newnham 50-year reunion, those of us who were scientist expressed the feeling that we had been significantly disadvantaged: in supervision arrangements with male supervisers concerned with their own college members doing well; being blatantly ignored; being given the rubbish equipment in the labs; on field trips led by men, being given little chance of privacy to attend to personal needs (memories of unemptied bladder & saturated sanitary protection) and being expected to keep up in mountain terrain, no matter how exhausted; and a downright refusal of one lecturer to take women on a tough but significant expedition. At the time, we accepted it, because it seemed to be in the nature of things and pointless to protest as we could have harmed ourselves even more by so doing.

My view is that these factors had had a significant effect on our learning, our Tripos results and our long-term success in life. Far more damaging than anything CUBC could do.

Averil Wootton, November 2013

 

 

2013 - Sue Fenton (nee Wrenn), coastal rowing in Argyl

Sue Fenton (nee Wrenn) of Newnham College & CUWBC 1971-4 gave the club this account in late 2013 of her rowing in later life.


WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS – COASTAL ROWING

I little expected to be rowing competitively some 40 years on from my Cambridge days. The resurrection of my undergraduate rowing career involved first building the boat!

On moving to the Isle of Seil last summer, near Oban (Argyll), I very quickly became part of a team in a cowshed, helping to make the community’s own St Ayles skiff and meeting many of the 540 total population of the island in the process.

Until the 1950s, many coastal communities in Scotland staged regattas using local craft, particularly in the Fife mining villages where timber for the build was ‘liberated’ from the collieries. The St Ayles skiff design was commissioned by the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther (Fife) in 2009 and digitised for kit manufacture for construction by communities. Initially intended to be built by former fishing and mining communities on both banks of the Firth of Forth, skiffing caught the imagination of coastal communities right around Scotland. There are now over 50 kits built and on the water in the UK (including two in England!) with 19 in build in the UK; there are currently ten overseas boats launched and 18 being built.

The 22 foot skiff is based on the traditional Fair Isle skiff and is usually rowed by four people, each with a single oar on fixed seats together with a cox. With a beam of 5 foot 8 inches, it is very stable and seaworthy; skiffs have been raced in force six winds, with four foot waves over a 13 foot swell. All the crew wear lifejackets.

The purchase of our basic hull kit was funded in the traditional Viking way, by dividing the cost into sixty-four shares. Oars, rowlocks, stretchers, rudders, gunwhales and thwarts are added by each community to its own design and specification. The oarlocks are wooden thole pins and all artificial fixings are banned. Spoon blades are also banned, to keep both the cost and difficulty of manufacture down for amateur boatbuilders. They are reputably less successful for sea rowing anyhow and most clubs choose not to feather. The design and length of oars is a live subject at all gatherings of coastal rowers.

Standard racing gear includes an anchor and chain, flares, first aid kit, tide tables, charts and a VHF radio. Coaching is usually combined with coxing – no towpaths available out at sea! The minimum weight of the cox must be 9 stone.

ULLAPOOL
The Inaugural World Championships for the St Ayles Skiff was held in Ullapool, Wester Ross in July under the auspices of the The Scottish Coastal Rowing Association. 32 entries were received from the Netherlands, Australia, USA, Scotland  - and one crew from Blakeney in Norfolk, England. The championships were opened by HRH the Princess Royal and were blessed with tourist board weather.

We on the Isle of Seil only launched our skiff, Selkie, in June of this year but were determined to take a crew to the Worlds. The course, laid in Loch Broom, was 2 km long, with a buoy turn and 14 lanes per heat. Seil’s same stalwart crew rowed in the mixed open, the mixed over 40s, the mixed over 50s and the mixed over 60s (!) reaching the finals of two events. Coigach Coastal Rowing, from the small community of Achiltibuie in Wester Ross, won overall. 10% of their population, aged from 16 to 75, were on the podium to collect a well-deserved trophy.

Rowing has once again become an important part of my life; I coach young people on the island and we attend local regattas. Some of the older folk have had more leisurely rows to different islands in the excellent cruising waters of the Argyll coast.

Editor's note: The next "Skiffieworlds" will be held in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland in 2016 and Sue hopes to be there competing.

For more information see:
http://scottishcoastalrowing.org/
http://www.seilskiff.org.uk/
http://skiffieworlds.com/


 

2015 - Helen McFie, rowing at the US Masters Regatta

Helen rowed for CUWBC in the early 70s and then went on to row internationally in the GB and US crews. Recently she sent us this report about returning to rowing at Master's level.

 

HelenMcFie USMasters

 

Helen McFie-Simone at the US Rowing Masters Nationals, Camden, New Jersey, August 2015.

This story really begins in 1994 when, after 23 years of rowing intensively at Cambridge with CUWBC, in Switzerland with Lausanne-Sports and in Philadelphia with Vesper Boat Club, I took up the offer of a horse to exercise for free and left my single in the boathouse. My daughter at age 6 had begun riding lessons at a stables near where we lived and the manager there, when he realized I knew how to ride, showed me a grey mare in the field who was not getting used. A couple of years later, since the grey mare was really full-time, I donated the single to the club, thereby severing my tie to rowing completely. I have to say that on a daily basis on my way to work I would see the boats on the river and think how nice it would be to have time to both ride and row, as I had been able to do in Cambridge. This year, by a strange set of circumstances, that dream became a reality.

It is odd in life how one thing leads to another. In February of 2013 my own horse died, I had purchased him after the death of the grey mare and my daughter’s horse lived on a farm in New Jersey, where she had lots of space to run and where we had put her when my daughter left to go to College. So I was riding only once a week, since it took me 45 minutes to get to the farm where Dream was boarded. Then a friend whose daughter was in her turn going off to College in the Fall of 2013, asked me to exercise the daughter’s horse. He has a reputation for being difficult but was good with me until May of 2014, when he decided after only about 10 minutes from the barn that he was not going out for a trail ride in the park, spun and headed back home at a full gallop. At one point I had to duck under an overhead branch, he then put in two huge bucks and sent me flying. I have been wearing a safety vest for several years and that helped a lot and I was really lucky not to have broken anything but I did injure my neck and for months was unable to turn my head to the right.

This accident was in fact the seed of what brought me back to rowing! In August of 2014, after three months of seeing the chiropractor on a regular basis and still having problems with my neck, I decided to join a gym and work with a trainer. When asked by my trainer what my goals where I replied: “ I want to be strong, so that I can hurt less the next time I fall off a horse”. Naturally I had decided that that particular horse I was no longer going to ride, but Dream is now in the same barn and I ride her two or three times a week. She seems happy with that, since she is now an old lady of 21. The gym proved to be a huge help, I could feel the difference in my neck and in my whole body after a session with working on the erg, with weights and finishing off with a swim.

One evening in March, as I came out of the shower I heard a voice behind me: “Helen?” It was an old rowing friend from Vesper. When she heard I was turning 70 in June, she said that I really ought to consider Masters Rowing again. Karin Constant, a veteran rower from Vesper who organizes a national and an international group of women rowers in their 60s and 70s, would be interested in me, so Ann said. Karin is a genius at making up composite crews, but of course I had to show that I had the conditioning to row with the group. Ann and I began to row the double twice a week and she quickly realized that even though I had not been rowing I had not been idle and so I passed the test.

I have to say I was stunned to see that I would be rowing in no less than five races at the Nationals, but Karin made sure that in most of those races there was no heat. My second surprise was to discover that I was stroking three boats. Karin said she had faith in my ability to stroke, based on my results in 1991 in the FISA internationals, when I won the gold in the C single and in a quad with her in the boat. I couldn’t believe she had records that went that far back!

It was a very exciting and enjoyable four days of racing. The run-down of the regatta is as follows:
Thursday, August 13th, 2015, first day of the regatta: we raced in the G4+: it was my second time in a sweep boat after the 21year absence. Since Karin had decided I was to stroke, I was quite anxious about letting the side down! The new oars felt weird, I had always used wooden oars and for 5/6 strokes in the middle of the race I was actually rowing in the air!! On top of that, at the start I was distracted and late – but luckily saw other boats were moving and off we went in hot pursuit. After ten strokes we had the bow ball of the leading boat, after 20 strokes were in the lead ourselves and we held on to it for the rest of the course. It was a wonderful feeling to get the gold on Day 1!
Friday: Straight G4: I stroked again, but we had a sub in bow and had a terrible time staying in our lane but again worked our way to the lead with 500 to go and held on. Gold number 2!
Saturday: This for me was the best day! I was 3 seat in the G4x, I love the quad and was really able to just concentrate and pull, we had an awesome boat, it just flew through the water. We won our heat in the morning and then went right out to the lead in the afternoon and won with open water. It was glorious. Gold number 3!
Sunday morning: Club H4 (only Vesper), with a woman in the bow who is 78 years old. I stroked this boat as well. We raced with the G boats and came over the line second to the winning G boat, got the medal for H. Gold number 4!
Sunday afternoon: the next most satisfying race: G8. The favored boat to win was San Diego Rowing Club, which constantly wins the Crew Classic in California. Word was that they had come over to the East Coast thinking they could easily win here. Well, once again we got into the lead at about the 250, held on, and at the 500 decided against taking a power 10 since we had a comfortable lead and waltzed to the finish in grand fashion. It was so much fun!! In this boat I was in the 4 seat, so there was much less pressure.

So, naturally, I am now committed to the Nationals in Worcester, MA in 2016, and am basically living the dream of riding Dream two to three times a week and rowing just twice a week in the double with Ann as well as going to the gym 2 to 3 times a week (usually on my way home from the stables). And I have to say I owe much of my conditioning to daily hikes with my two dogs in the Wissahickon Valley Park, which is five minutes from my house. Morning and evening we are hiking up hill and down in all weathers.

Rowing has given me so much in the past and now continues to give me so much. My hope is that every other masters rower has the same satisfaction that I have had rowing with this extraordinary group of women. The fact that at our age we are out there on the river having fun is testament to the enduring attraction of this sport.

Helen McFie-Simone
2015.