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The 1978 OULRC Blue Boat: Some Recollections by Bill Baker

At Henley in 2018 I reconnected with John Chadwick at the Vincent’s Club picnic held on Friday of the Regatta. The next day, I ran into Sir John Bell in the Stewards Enclosure. In retirement I have found time to cross the pond on a regular basis to attend the Regatta. The last time I competed in it was forty years ago with Chadwick and Bell. We were members of the 1978 Oxford Lightweight Blue Boat rowing as Cherwell Boat Club. We qualified to race in the Ladies and were knocked out on the first day of competition. Earlier in the spring our boat had lost to Cambridge in the Lightweight Boat Race on the Henley Reach. Hardly impressive results to be sure. Yet my time with the Oxford University Lightweights was one of the happiest and, in terms of an enduring lesson learned, one of the most important ones of my rowing life. My path to Oxford and the OULRC would not be described as typical. I was raised in upstate New York USA, attended Cornell University and, while at Cornell, fell in love with rowing on Cayuga Lake as a member of the Cornell Lightweight Crew. Upon graduation, my plans were hardly long-term: Continue to row competitively on the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts and, while there, secure a job to put food on the table. The former was enabled by membership at Union Boat Club, the latter made possible thanks to the bet a downtown teaching hospital took on me to serve as an administrative fellow. When I did peer into the distant future (two or three years out), I imagined a return to Cornell and a graduate degree there and, if I was lucky, things might also continue to progress with my girlfriend, who happened to be at Smith College not far from Boston. Things were going according to plan when John Bockstoce, a friend from summers spent in Maine, suggested I investigate graduate studies at Oxford. John, a Yalie, was the first American president of the OUBC. “Nice idea,” I said, “But I’m not Rhodes Scholar material.” John—not a Rhodes Scholar, but by then a D.Phil. in Arctic Archaeology—replied, “You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar, plus you can row competitively, representing the university as a graduate student.” I was intrigued, and then became hooked on the idea. In 1976, St. Edmund Hall offered me a place and I came up to Oxford intent on pursuing a growing interest in social policy and competing for a place in the Oxford (heavyweight) Blue Boat. As the purpose of this missive is to convey some reminiscences of the OULRC in the last century, I will spare the reader an account of my “Examination of Views Regarding the Relationship between the Public and Private Sectors in the Allocation of Health Care Resources, etc., etc.” and, with respect to my time as an OUBC trialist, report that I won a seat race that led to my racing on Boat Race day as bow man in a creditable Isis crew. It was the first year of significant external Boat Race funding and even the second crews participated in the weigh-in organized by primary sponsor Ladbrokes. Beneath my pullover was a five-kilogram weight borrowed for the occasion by my Isis boatmates from the London Rowing Club. My first Oxford rowing year ended with Summer Eights and memories of wild racing, huge crowds, and amazing English weather…the kind of weather, I came to learn, reserved for Summer Eights. When I returned to Oxford for my final year in the fall of 1977, I did so as a married man. Well, sort of. Things had certainly progressed on the relationship front and everyone at home was in favor of moving up the wedding by a full year…except my future father-in-law. He stated that my intended must first complete her baccalaureate at Smith. The compromise solution was that we would be married in June, I would return to Oxford in time for Michaelmas term and Mrs. Baker would join me ten weeks later, after her final semester. My father-in-law drove a hard bargain; he also made it clear that, as a married man, perhaps all that rowing wasn’t such a good idea. Not wishing to upset my father-in-law, I did not trial for the OUBC, but made myself available whenever a stroke side oar was needed. And then I heard about the OULRC, still very much in its infancy. It was the perfect solution for remaining involved. Preparing for a 2000m race instead of a four miler meant less time training, yet I would be on the river, hopefully honing my rowing skills, staying fit, satisfying my competitive instincts, and having the opportunity to meet new friends and teammates. By the time the Bakers had taken up residence at Caroline Street in married student housing, I was participating in OULRC practices at Godstow. I have no recollection of coaching from anyone in a launch or from a towpath. It was an entirely athlete-driven experience; teammates pitched in to make everything happen. There was no uniform practice kit and certainly no blazer or club tie. We were always in an eight and there was no second boat. A college must have lent us a shell and I recall taking it through the Osney lock. Then as now—but long before iPhones and instant messaging—squad members understood the importance of being present and on time for practice. Not once do I remember having to abort a training session because someone failed to show. What I do remember is an Aussie from Perth named David Bean; an OULRC Blue who was a Rhodes Scholar. David had the unfortunate habit of oftentimes separating his shoulder when he hoisted a shell over his head. His time as a competitor put on hold, he became our sometimes manager, logistician, and driver. These rather indistinct memories prompted me to reach out to Chadwick and Bell. Bell’s memories are similarly hazy, though he does remember our finishing coach being Jock Wishart—Ian MacClennan having performed the role the year before. He also recalls being concerned about the extent to which his medical school coursework was taking a backseat to rowing. (Things seem to have worked out for Sir John in that regard!) From Chadwick: “…have now managed to dig out my diary.” His diary?! Absolutely. We have an OULRC historian in our midst. He should be telling this tale. John C. recalls a pre-Hilary term fortnight on the Tideway before I joined the squad: “The weather was often cold, wet and windy and I remember one afternoon coming back to find the tide very high and poor Al Watson's car on the embankment submerged in water to the height of the seats and the windows.” He characterizes our coaching as “intermittent” and notes the invaluable help provided by Mike Rosewell, then a teacher at St. Edward’s School. Our boat was kept in the St. Edward’s School boathouse. As for Godstow, John offers this memory: “One ALWAYS seemed to be rowing into a headwind whether rowing upstream or downstream! It could be very cold there and as bowman I recall the water splashes would sometimes freeze on the back of my tracksuit top.” Despite the challenges, it was believed the 1978 boat had the makings of being a good one. It was further strengthened when Adrian Ball agreed to come out of retirement, joining fellow Blues Al Watson and Sam Menafee. Menafee (three seat) was a former Yale lightweight. Bob Maguire (two seat) from Princeton was the third Yank in the boat. Our cox was OUBC trialist Simon Orme. Chadwick and Bell (the latter yet another Rhodes Scholar) were anchored in the bow and seven-seat, respectively. I started in the stroke-seat and then joined Adrian, Rob Morris, and Sam in the engine room. Watson, a bladework specialist, was the perfect stroke oar. When we headed to Henley in March, we were confident of a third consecutive Oxford Lightweight victory. It was not to be. Cambridge beat us on a blustery day featuring some chop and a headwind. The Tabs were good, but not great. After a satisfactory start and an early lead, we were threatened and overtaken. We did not respond and were beaten by two-thirds of a length. What happened? Not much hindsight was needed. As hard as we had prepared and as fast as we could sometimes be, we had trained in near total isolation and had never been tested. Not once in practice did we have side by side competition. When Cambridge came even with us, we were surprised and unprepared because the crew had never been in a similar situation. The disappointment of that day has long been tempered by the joy of seeing our son’s rowing career far eclipse my own, in part, I like to think, because of what he heard (more than once!) from his old man about a race on the Henley Reach in 1978. As important are the bonds of friendship formed more than forty years ago which, as the writing of these recollections has proven, remain strong to this day. The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of geographer and landlord extraordinaire Nigel Blackwell, M.A., Isis ’68.


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