Stroking an eight – feel the fear and do it anyway

Some are born to the stroke seat, some achieve their place in the stroke seat, and some have the stroke seat thrust upon them.

It was the last race of the day at the inaugural Shandon Boat Club Masters Regatta. Would I race in a mixed eight? Why not? I already had two races with Lee Rowing Club under my belt, including a convincing win in the Women’s 8+ (me in 4 seat). Having never rowed with these girls before, and being mainly a sculler these days, with a little euphoria anything seemed possible. 

Lee Rowing Club - Noosa Rowing Club winners of the Women's Masters 8+ at Shandon Masters Regatta August 2019
Lee Rowing Club – Noosa Rowing Club composite, winners of the Women’s Masters 8+ at Shandon Masters Regatta, August 2019, with Tom Rose, President of Shandon Boat Club

Now, as we stood alongside the shell, the claiming of the seats was swift and decisive. The four men self-selected the engine room, clearly keen to row as a unit. Quick as a flash, someone said ‘I’ll go in bow’, followed by another with ‘I’ll go in 2’.

Consternation welled up inside me. I looked at Viv. Viv looked at me.

‘I only row bowside’, she said. ‘I only row strokeside’, I said.

Everyone else seemed unnaturally absorbed in adjusting their footstretchers, spinning their seat wheels, or counting their socks.

Over 3 milliseconds, all of these thoughts jostled inside my head:

  • You’ve never stroked an eight in your life, never mind in a race.
  • I’ve stroked lots of quads (sculls, not quadriceps) and fours. It can’t be that different.
  • You haven’t raced a sweep boat in years, except for an hour ago.
  • Like riding a bike.
  • You’ve got a sprained wrist. They’ll understand.
  • My wrist has held up well today. Stop looking for excuses.
  • You might crab.
  • I know how to row. This is an opportunity. Take it.
  • What if you let them down?
  • There are 8 other people in the boat. It’s not all about me.
  • Well, let one of them stroke it then.
  • They may well be as scared as me.
  • Go on, go on.
  • Maybe I can.
  • Nooooo…

I had recently read a Bend the Blade article about vulnerability and taking risks—maybe some of it stuck with me. 

As we carried the boat down to the pontoon, I felt like I was watching myself from above. I took my seat, still with a sense of disbelief, waiting for someone to call me out for the impostor that I was.

‘Bow 4, take us out.’ No turning back now.

‘Join in, Stern 4.’ Here we go… Oh joy, stability! This might yet be ok. 

We paddled the 1 km to the start where our opposition sat ready and waiting. The strengthening tide made lining up tricky which was a good distraction.

‘What kind of racing start do you want?’, I asked no-one in particular. I can’t remember the answer. ‘What kind of rating do you want?’, I asked, though I didn’t have a Strokecoach. The answer was something like, ‘Take it out nice and handy, and then settle it’. Ok. 

Noosa-Lee-Fermoy-Shandon composite mixed 8+ head to the start at Shandon Masters Regatta August 2019
‘Bow 4, take us out.’ There’s only one way back now.

It was on the starting line that we discovered we had a 15-second handicap, which seemed absurd looking across at the fresh-faced opposition. I guess the organisers hadn’t been advised of the old-fart on board.

15 seconds never seemed so long. The coxbox crackled and squealed. ‘Turn it off and just concentrate on steering a straight course’, I said, with the authoritative tone of one who is seasoned at this.

We got off clean and I found myself on auto-pilot. My thoughts were, ‘Don’t rip it. Try to relax the upper body. Let the engine room do their bit. Just lead them in with your blade (a Harry Mahon tip for strokes). Keep a steady rhythm’.

Now and again, I bored holes into the cox’s eyeballs, willing her to say ‘You’re catching them’, even if it wasn’t true—especially if it wasn’t true. Stony silence; maybe she couldn’t read my mind. I stole a sideways glance; we didn’t seem to be making ground. 

Then, horror, I don’t know why, I got stuck at the finish of a stroke, and followed this with another messy stroke before getting it back together. Then, ‘BEEP’. Job done.

Port of Cork flag flying at Shandon Masters Regatta 2019
Shandon Masters Regatta 2019

Ok, worst fears realised. Yet, strangely, what I felt was more akin to faint elation than crushing humiliation. 

As we put the boat away in silence (always a telling sign), I quietly confided to 7-seat: ‘That was my first time stroking an eight’. She stared at me for a moment, laughed, then shared it aloud as if it were something for everyone to be proud of.

And, for me, it absolutely was. Not my technique, not my rhythm, not my strength or stamina. What I felt proud of was that I had felt the fear and done it anyway, corny as it sounds. 

On the pontoon at Shandon Masters Regatta 2019
Shandon Masters Regatta 2019

A different kind of rowing bucket list

I didn’t get to the Head of the Charles. I didn’t get to Lake Velence. I didn’t get to Henley Masters. No classic bucket-listers ticked off. But, stroking an eight? Tick. Stroking an eight in a race? Tick. Stroking an eight in a race with a bunch of strangers on the other side of the world? Tick.

Instead of a bucket list, I think I’ll have what I heard a Kiwi friend call a ‘phucket’ list (my spelling). It’s a blank page. All I have to do is accept random opportunities to do things that somehow challenge me.


Thanks to all my good friends at Lee Rowing Club where I took my first strokes several decades ago. To be still welcomed in with open arms and ‘old-fart’ gags is a joy and a blessing. Special thanks to Neil and the masters women for including me in the racing, to Liz for taking me out in the double (who knew we’d make it onto the telly!), and to Mick for chauffering me to Farran for the national champs. 

Thanks to Shandon Boat Club for putting on a dedicated masters regatta. It’s great to see support for the growing masters scene.  

[Feature image of crew courtesy of: KB]River Lee traffic rules





5 thoughts on “Stroking an eight – feel the fear and do it anyway

  1. Great to see mixed masters crews. I am back and permanently located in Dublin and looking forward to getting back into a boat when this crisis is over.


      1. Most recently China. But my work has allowed me to row in America (NYAC), UK (Thames & Vesta), Russia (Moscow Dinamo), and, of course Ireland (Neptune & Old Collegians).


      2. I enjoyed your thoughts on stroking. I can only row on the stroke side and initially, being the least experienced rower I was put in at 2. However I was asked to stroke the 2nd coxed four and loved it. I learned a lot about myself and derived great confidence, and subsequently stroked the elite 8. It also helped me a lot being able to transfer the experience into something that helped me in my business life.


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