Until a couple of months ago my only experience of sculling (or skulling) was downing a pint of beer. Then I signed up for a series of rowing lessons on the Thames and ended up sculling in a tub for four. The plan was to get some cross-training while preparing for a half marathon, give my knees a bit of a rest, and enjoy the lovely river on my doorstep.
For six weeks things went well. I progressed from feeling uncoordinated and unnatural, to rather getting the hang of it. I was enjoying being on the water (as I’m usually running beside it watching the rowers) and I found it wasn’t difficult from a general fitness point of view. Remarkably for autumn, I was also Blessed with good weather every session. Of course I had a few blisters on my hands to show for it, but I was gradually getting confident enough to stop gripping the sculls so violently. And by heaven that was a good thing, as the middle fingers on both hands were suffering some kind of impact shock – my knuckles still locking on occasion, definitely a sign of wrong technique and/or sudden onset of arthritis!
So I turned up for my final beginner class, ready to enjoy the low tide and sunny morning. As we waited for others to arrive I told the instructors I would definitely be back for the intermediate course, and they complimented me on my steady rhythm when in the stroke position (seat 4) a few days earlier. When enough people arrived to make up an 8, I was the odd one out. So I offered to try a single scull and the tutor quickly consented. I was nervous but excited to be trusted on my own after such a short time on the water.
An intermediate student helped me get the boat down the hill to launch, then assisted me empty the water out when a big vessel went past unusually fast and the waves flooded the place where I was about to sit. Little did I know that big boat would cause me a lot more havoc down the line!
Finally I got out of my wellies (aka gumboots for Aussies) and my feet were strapped in, the seat adjusted so I could stretch my legs out fully in the backstop position. The instructor appeared nearby in a dingy ready to shout out instructions and, hopefully, help me stay afloat. It might have been a beautiful October day but the Thames is not clean and in low tide particularly sludgy, so keeping my balance was the number one priority if I did not want to end up in the water.
I had always had a cox in the boat before, so had never had to watch over my shoulder. The instructor had the good sense to navigate for me, while we moved to the other side of the Thames to face in the direction of Hammersmith. It was crucial that he called out advice re which scull to put pressure on, or which one to use to turn, so that I could take my time to get the feel of being on the water on my own and find a smooth and rhythmic movement. Once we were safe in the opposite channel, close to the northern bank, he was quiet while I got myself into ‘the zone’. When he pulled alongside again to offer further instruction, I quickly told him I realised so much more, now that I was in a single, how important it was for both sculls to go into the water to the same depth. It had only taken a minute to feel the intermittent danger of tipping, when one side catches more deeply in the water than the other. We agreed that balance was the major element to concentrate on, to which end I had to: drop my shoulders; keep the sculls at an even height; keep my arms straight until my legs were fully extended; and of course manage the feathering and even dipping into the water.
For the next thirty minutes I was all concentration, until I felt significantly more relaxed and confident. I had certainly picked a nice gentle day for it, sun shining, low tide, few vessels in the vicinity. Calls of encouragement, as well as shouted tips when I lost form, were most welcome. As was the help with navigation: such as warnings to keep parallel with the riverbed but out of the shallows (which in a twisty river like the Thames is not as easy as you might think).
Just at the point I was feeling most satisfied with my efforts, it was time to turn, cross the river to the other side, and make our way back to the club house in Putney. I’d been stroking continuously for about 45 minutes - no short periods of rest as we’d had in group tuition – and no doubt my initial adrenalin had subsided. As I realised my upper body was tired, that I’d perhaps not saved enough fuel in the tank for the return journey, everything negative happened at once.
The tide turned. Yes, you’ve heard the phrase before no doubt: “the tide turned”. Off our tongues it rolls, glibly and without any visual or visceral appreciation of what it means. Well, I tell you, it will never be said or heard glibly by me again. For the turning of that mighty waterway we know as the Thames is so much more serious and strong than I could ever have imagined. She is a monster. And by God does she turn quickly and fiercely!
One minute I’m sanguine and in control, the next I am being sucked up the middle of the river in the direction of Windsor: too tired to resist her pull AND too weak to reach the slower channel on the southern bank where I had been headed. The instructor is issuing loud instructions but I’m beginning to panic, so I stop for a wee rest in hopes of re-establishing my equilibrium and technique. WRONG! When you stop sculling against a fast tide you not only don’t go in the direction you wish to be heading... you go more quickly towards Windsor!
Then the bandaid comes off my most tender blister and things really get rough. The pain in my palm is too great to apply the pressure I need to on the right side, to get into the slower channel. The instructor is getting concerned we’re ‘losing ground’, which will only make things worse in the long run. But I am going in odd directions, without a fraction of the finesse or consistency I’d showed previously. I am also getting increasingly tired as nothing is flowing naturally anymore.
Moreover as my right hand starts to puss and seep, the pain is so great it is impossible to control what I’m doing. Start, stop, drift. Start, stop, drift. The instructor is nice but firm, yelling: “you cannot stop Julie, you must keep going, you must!”. I get into the slow channel at last but I have a long way to go and tide resistance is still strong. For a few minutes I power through. Perhaps it is going to be ok. But then I’m too close to the bank, my scull hits the sludge and pebbles, so I try to move out a little – only to end up in the fast run again. All of these elements are compounded significantly by my inability to apply equal pressure to my right hand/right scull. Nor am I dipping the right scull at an equal depth anymore. The sculls are occasionally grabbing badly - my balance getting dodgy right at the time there are more vessels (aka more waves) about.
I’m not sure what’s worse: the prospect of going into the water or the pain in my right palm? But finally I’m back again parallel to the bank. I’m hurting and tired. But it’s a safer place to be and surely it can’t get any worse?
Oh yes it can! A huge dredging boat has taken up a position immediately in front of me - one hundred meters ahead they have completely blocked my path in the slow channel on the south bank of the river. I now have no option but to leave the bank, again, and to move to the centre. The force from the tide pulling me to Windsor is now matched by the pull of the dredger to my diagonal right. The instructor is shouting: “Julie, you have to get far enough away from it so that you won’t get sucked in!” I can see the water being sucked aggressively beneath it, and feel trapped in some kind of torture vortex. But try as I might, I don’t have any power left. Indeed if my instructor had not forced me to keep going, I honestly would have dropped the sculls, cried, and floated all the way upstream to Neverland. Or to that place the Hobbits and Elves sail to when the mission is complete. I just wanted it to be over!
OMG how I did not fall into the water before finally getting back to our dock will remain a mystery. But as I nurse the wound on my right hand I pledge the following: I will never again think the Thames a small waterway (compared, say, to Sydney Harbour). I will never again take for granted the ‘turning of the tide’; never again row or scull without gloves and waterproof bandaids (and I don’t care if that makes me a big girl); and never again show off so much in the first half of the session so that I utterly wear myself out and nearly kill myself in the second half!
Ok, I probably will show off again; in life I mean. But not in a boat - where all the forces around me are trying to kill me! I am suitably chastened. And yes, if you must know, chaffed. OUCH!!!