It’s early on a chilly Saturday morning as a group of slimline boats glide silently into the water. Soon the rowers are pushing their oars through the Solent waves, completely in unison.
As dog walkers and joggers watch from the seafront, Southsea Rowing Club novices are finding out what it’s like to row in the open sea.
Following the London Olympics and the success of the Great Britain rowing team, the sport has seen a massive increase in interest, with clubs across the country being inundated with requests for membership.
Four golds, two silvers and three bronze medals continued a tradition of Olympic success that has included five gold medals for the legendary Sir Steve Redgrave and four for Sir Matthew Pinsent.
British rowing authorities say 32,000 people have signed up for learn-to-row courses around the country following London 2012.
Southsea Rowing Club is just one of the clubs that has benefited. Created in 1860, the small club is the oldest on the south coast and has a clubhouse on Southsea seafront. Members regularly take part in head races (a time trial competition) and regattas, which include a series of races.
Graham Baggaley, who lives in Southsea, joined eight years ago and has been the team captain for the past two, although he has recently stepped down. He joined originally because of the social aspect of the sport.
He says: ‘I had no sailing experience, but I had recently moved here and had always loved sport. It’s a great way of getting involved with the community and meeting people. It’s such a team sport, which is what you need when you’re learning.
‘Being near the sea, it seemed like the perfect thing to do.’ Although it’s coastal rowing, which is slightly different to river rowing as the boats must be shorter and wider to make them more stable, the club has a small waiting list to get on to its courses.
Graham says: ‘Across the board everyone has seen a massive increase. It’s been up and down over the years, but it’s definitely on a massive up at the minute thanks to the Olympics.’
Because of the amount of interest from novices, the club has recently started running learn-to-row courses for new members twice or three times a year, which tackle the basics (the minimum age is 15 for safety restrictions).
He says: ‘We started the courses and the Olympics has given a massive shot in the arm to the club. People spend 65 hours doing it and they get fairly large lessons which they’re all involved in.
‘Everyone gets on the water as well, which is important. It’s really helped as before people would come down and want to learn, but there wouldn’t be a set time for them to do so. It’s an exceptional way for people to get involved.’
Southsea Rowing Club has a number of fours, doubles and pairs boats (which means four people or two people at a time can row), with their names including Harry Bishop, White Ann and Bernie Thompson.
Graham says: ‘We don’t have eights because with coastal rowing the waves would just break them up. The action is always the same though, and we mainly have sweep boats, which means each rower has one oar, not two.
‘All the club boats are usually named after someone associated with the club, such as someone who’s been with it a long time.
‘We have one named after the boat mechanic.’
The season starts in March with 5km head races on rivers and then 2km regattas start in May, which are coastal. They even have social parties at the clubhouse, with previous themes including a James Bond casino night and a summer heat party. This Halloween there will be another fancy dress party.
But all this is down to the hard work of the members, with fees going back into the club.
Graham says: ‘We are called a CASC, which is a community amateur sport club and means we aren’t a charity but we do put something back into the community. It’s completely run by the members for the members.’
Emily Harrison is the welfare officer with the club and is heavily involved with training up the youngsters through the learn-to-row courses. She first became interested in rowing when she was at university and when she moved to Portsmouth for her job, discovered the Southsea Rowing Club.
She says: ‘I think in general rowing has had a really good year, and especially highlighting how well females are doing with it nationally. I think for a lot of people it’s down to being inspired by the Olympics and there’s more coverage of it now.
‘People think there’s a club nearby and it looks good on the TV, I might go have a look at it.’
She adds: ‘We have got a really good team, especially now we’re doing the courses. A lot of people are staying on after that for their novice training and it has really boosted the numbers of the club.’
Jeff Watling has been with Southsea Rowing Club since 1983 but has been rowing since 1956, and has just been appointed the new captain.
He’s taken part in a number of races and competitions throughout his rowing career and a couple of weeks ago won the Veteran G sculls and the doubles for over-65s, in a competition in Bedford.
He believes the Olympics has expanded the way people view rowing, especially for women.
Jeff says: ‘We hadn’t had a British woman win a rowing medal before and suddenly they’d won three golds. Since then, clubs have seen a lot of women becoming interested, more so than men.
‘We took on about 25 new novices and I think 20 of them were women. Rowing is a really popular sport with the younger generation now.’
Jeff has regularly taken part in races where he has been placed alongside the younger rowers, and he says they’re now better than they’ve been before.
Jeff adds: ‘I think it’s a sport that will become increasingly popular and the numbers now are just phenomenal. It’s so encouraging to see 15 to 19-year-olds who are so good at it.
‘I just hope now, as a club, we can really support the new people as well as we possibly can.’
In rowing, the athletes sit in the boat facing backwards (towards the stern), and use the oars which are held in place by the oarlocks to propel the boat forward (towards the bow). There are two forms of rowing: sweep or sculling. With sweep each rower has one oar in hand, while in sculling they have one on each side.
Single and double sculls are usually steered by the scullers pulling harder on one side or the other. In other boats, there is a rudder, controlled by the cox, if present, or by one of the crew.
The first known modern rowing races began from competition among the professional watermen that provided ferry and taxi services on the River Thames in London, and it first became part of the Olympic games in 1896 in Athens. Today, one of the best recognised British sporting events is the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race.
HOW YOU CAN BE A ROWER
· At Southsea Rowing Club, before anyone can row or train, a membership form must be completed
The club aims to run two to three learn-to-row courses each year depending on demand and these dates will be published on the website. In general there will be one around February/March and another around September/October, with a third during the rest of the year if required.
Places will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis and ideally each course is for up to 12 people. The courses normally run over six weekends for two hours each time. The learn-to-row course costs £65 which is non-refundable, and if you would like to register for the next one then please email the membership secretary on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Membership for rowers who wish to join the club without the course is £12 a month.
For more information, go to the Southsea Rowing Club website at southsearowingclub.co.uk.
· Two new members of Southsea Rowing Club are brothers Jonathan and David Osbourne, who are 15 and 16. David says: ‘Our parents were members for quite a while and we both joined this year. I think with everything going on with the Olympics more people have wanted to do it.
Jonathan adds: ‘We were encouraged to do it, but we both enjoy it. I really like rowing and I find it quite relaxing. It keeps you really fit and healthy too.’
Seb McCue, 16, has been rowing with the club for 18 months and has completed his basic training. He says: ‘My dad used to row, so it seemed natural for me to do it too. I find it really physically challenging, but it helps being around other people when you’re doing it.’