The Wolfson Novice ‘A’ crew won Christ Church Regatta 1995 in glorious fashion. The crew (from bow) was Chris Russel, Francesco Gonzalez-Gonzales, Bill Steel, Rob Wills, Cartsten Heide, Derek Kennet, Richard Holland (capt), and Phill Biggin, with Jo Perkins coxing and Lars Wulf coaching. Richard Holland has written up his memories of the epic novice campaign, still legendary at Wolfson. His story follows.
Waiting for Jesus: the story of the 1995 Christ Church Novice Regatta winning crew
It’s hard to imagine given where they stand now, but in the 1990’s Wolfson men’s boat club struggled. Strangely, during this period the college was always full of experienced, tall rowers, but they all seemed to find excuses why the crew was not good enough for them, or why their honour had been slighted, or that they had a funny feeling in their toe, or that they needed to write their thesis (the least acceptable excuse). This generally left the Torpids 1st eight full of novices, and only short guys remained to fill up the Summer Eights crew, leaving us generally running as fast as we could just to tread water. However, there were some bright spots, and one of them actually came about as a consequence of such a mass desertion.
1995 had been a particularly bad year, with the men’s captain allegedly alienating just about everybody and the 2nd eight being THE comedy moment of summer eights (they never made it to Donny Bridge). This left incoming captain Lars “jumping higher” Wulf with an empty locker. However, he decided rather sensibly to get cracking on novices as soon as possible, and take advantage of Wolfson’s graduate status to utilise the quiet conditions on the Isis during summer to persuade new talent into the club. I was one such sucker. I had arrived at Wolfson to do my DPhil the year before, armed with the knowledge that rowing was far too hard work and involved early mornings which I was averse to. I was therefore not taken in by the hard sell at fresher’s week. I was also captain of the squash team who had done the triple (both term’s leagues and cuppers) and was a crucial linchpin in the cricket team, so did not see how I could abandon these for the absolute dedication that rowing appeared to require. I had not, however, bargained on the fact that my office mate (and later co-boat club captain) Theresa Burt, would take up rowing and spend every minute I was in her presence telling my how great It was. Thus, as a scientist, I felt I had no option but to collect the evidence myself to demonstrate that this was clearly not the case.
So it was that I signed up for Lars’s summer novice training. Evening outings and warm summer evenings (the last of the 1990’s) eased us in gently, and by the time the term started and the rest of the novices arrived, we had a core of 4 rowers (Phill Biggin, myself, Carsten Heide and Derek Kennett) who were rowing full slide and firm pressure and would go on to make up the stern 4. After fresher’s week and some initial selection, to this was added Rob Wills, Bill Steel, Francesco Gonzalez and Chris Russell. Jo Perkins, our cox, had the kind of accent that made the Queen sound common, but its authority had us at her beck and call. Lars’s magic touch was to instill one of the toughest land training programs that Wolfson had seen for a while, and he managed to get all the novices coming along. The circuits became legendary for his cries of “jumping higher” and “jumping even higher than before” at the burpees. He also took no prisoners on the river, and I still remember his cry of frustration at our failure to achieve perfection in an exercise: “It’s so simple Wolfson! Hands THEN bodies! Why can’t you do it!?” For some reason I was elected (or maybe just appointed) crew captain, an apparently meaningless title in a boat, as the cox as authority on the river, and the coach off it. I was, nevertheless, honoured by this title.
By Autumn IV’s, the stern 4 were advanced enough to be entered as a four, a fairly rare event then. We did the race in Wolfson’s ancient wooden 4 “The Graduate”, and little did we know that a film crew was filming scene setting shots for the movie “True Blue“, the story of the boat race mutiny in 1987. Our wooden boat went well with the opening lines of the movie, so if you watch, you can see us lifting the boat out at the boathouse, and then ploughing down the river. (I, in my red cap in the bow seat am immortalized on film leaning to the right at the finish of each stroke.)
Apart from preservation on film, this gave us some good race experience and it seemed that we were coming together as a powerful crew. There was a sense of quiet confidence, but tempered by knowing that Wolfson had never got past the semis, and rumours abounded of the big undergrad colleges siphoning off athletic novices and sending them to intensive rowing farms to prepare them for the regatta. We did not seriously think we could win, but we expected to put on a good show. That was until we drew Merton ‘A’ in the first round. The day before our first race we saw them cruise past as we pulled our boat out of the water, 8 rowing Adonises, perfectly balancing their boat. Oh well, we thought, there is always the repecharge. Nevertheless, the first race came, and we sat tense at the start, not yet accustomed to the adrenaline that goes with a rowing start (although I still get butterflies at the sound of a five minute gun or the thought of “attention . . . GO!”). Then we were off, and after our frenetic start (in which Rob at 4 always seemed to dump a gallon of water in my lap at 7) and the stride out we could see we had left them for dead already. We cruised across the line 2 lengths or so ahead, and the quiet confidence we felt came back.
The next race on Friday, also against an A crew (I’m going to say Mansfield, but apart from a couple, I can’t remember all the crews we raced), was another comfortable victory, although nerve wracking for me as my shorts got stuck in the slide (after Rob’s water dump) and I had to row half slide from about half way down the course. I went and bought some cycle shorts that evening. Saturday arrived with us into the last 16, and again we raced an A crew first up, possibly Exeter. It was also one of those miserable November days, with incessant rain. Again, we won comfortably; it seemed we had a start that just destroyed other crews, rarely did we not have clear water by the OUBC [Univ] boathouse. Our next race was against a B crew, Jesus, and after a massage from the women’s 1st eight, we got into the boat and were told “you stay on the river now until you win or are knocked out”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that the latter would be preferable, as it would be a shorter route to the warmth of the Head of the River pub.
Waiting on the bank for the start, Lars was greeted by the opposition coach who asked him who we had beaten to get here. “Well, we have beaten Merton A, Mansfield A and Exeter A, but good luck anyway” was his response. As we sat in the gut, waiting to be marshalled forwards, we were asked by a steward “are you in this next race, Wolfson?” Our cox Jo replied, in that cut glass accent of hers “NO, WE’RE WAITING FOR JESUS”. The race itself was most memorable for our 6, Derek Kennett, appearing to have the draw out calculating who we would face in the semi-finals before we had even wound up the last 10 strokes for the finish. I remember nothing of the semi-final, other than that it was the same pattern, we left the other crew for dead at the start and the rest was a cruise. So, we were in the final now (to quote Terry Griffiths). Who were we facing? Christ Church A. The pressure of facing the hosting college in their own regatta: surely we would not be able to beat them. Off we went, frenetic as usual, a gallon of water in my lap, but this time also soaking my oar. As we strode out, Christ Church was still with us. This was new territory; how would we cope? Then we hit OUBC and the roar was incredible, we surged ahead and by the end of the boathouses we were a length in front. We had broken them. 3 strokes before the finish, I had a heart stopping moment as my oar slipped out of my hand at the finish. However, it just glided forward and I grabbed it and took the catch with everybody else. I guess it was our day. Wolfson had won Christ Church Novice Regatta for the first (and still the only time) in our history. The celebrations started with the whole boat club taking over the top floor of Bella Pasta and went on long into the night. At some stage it involved me drinking my one and only yard of ale in Wolfson bar (most went down the front). My housemates told me that despite looking like death warmed up the whole of the next day, I had a perpetual grin on my face.
It did not take long for the recriminations of an upstart graduate college wining such a prestigious event to start. The OURCs online forum was particularly active. Surely it could not be legal for graduates to train before the start of the term? (It was.) The stroke had been seen rowing in the Oxford City regatta the previous summer, which would disqualify him. (He hadn’t.) But they had photographic evidence! (They didn’t; they had mistaken him for someone else.) Not surprisingly, the Christ Church A crew we had beaten in the final were particularly vocal on the injustice of it all. What was temporarily forgotten was that any “advantage” had been present every year, and this was the first (and, I am told, only) time a Wolfson crew had won Christ Church regatta. I suspect a similar lack of success from the other graduate colleges but I don’t have the figures to hand. At the end of the day however, our victory had no impact on the rule makers, there was no change the next year and the same rules apply today.
This victory was pretty much the pinnacle of my rowing career. I almost quit after that, following the “George Costanza” Philosophy (one for Seinfeld fans) but was tempted to row in the Torpids first eight, which went down 8 places. I spent the next 3 years, including one as Captain of Wolfson boat club trying to recapture the magic of that Christ Church victory. While there were many good times and some great crew spirit my final record in bumps was something like 2 for and 13 against. I probably should have quit while I was ahead and gone back to squash and cricket, but as anybody who truly gets the rowing bug knows, that would have been impossible.
Richard Holland, DPhil 1994-1998
WCBC Captain of Boats 1996-1997