M1 on the Tideway – A full day at the Head of the River Races

On Saturday, 30 March, M1 raced the Head of the River Race. For the SSBC boys, this was a full day of adventure, much more than just the rowing itself. This is bowman Tim Schmalz’s immersive account of the events of that day – one of this year’s highlights for the men’s side. Improving on last year’s result with almost a minute was only one of M1 achievements, as they took SSBC rowing beyond River Cam yet again.

4:15am.  The alarm still buzzing, the momentary daze of confusion as to why I was getting up before the crack of dawn on a Saturday after seemingly just having fallen asleep changed sharply to adrenaline and focus.  Quick to rise, coffee brewing, a brisk shower followed before double-checking my kit bag.  Wellies; check.  Layers; check.  Snacks and water, check.  It was all there and ready to go.  Out the door at 5:10, it was a chilly cycle to the station where, one by one, we emerged from the darkness.   We were London bound, and, with excitement and sense of purpose, while most of the country were still fast asleep, we were off.  It was race day.

On Saturday, 30 March, M1 raced the famous Head of the River Race on the River Thames in London.  Founded in 1926 by Jesus College, Cambridge rowing innovator, Steve Fairbairn, HoRR is a 6.8km timed processional race on the same stretch of the Tideway as the legendary Cambridge-Oxford Championship Course, but in reverse.  Most of the best clubs in the country—and some from further afield—make a showing, and for many, this is the race for which they train the entire year.  In 2019, over three hundred crews put in their strongest effort.  Returning to the Tideway for the second year in a row, after over a decade hiatus, the M1 crew were determined to give it their all.

If anything, we started the day with luck on our side.  The Tideway can pose notoriously challenging conditions to rowers, with a fast stream, breaking swells, strong winds, on top of typically unpredictable British weather. Recent memories of an admirably unwavering Cambridge University Women’s crew in 2016 despite nearly sinking lurked just behind the excitement for the race, reminding us that we may have committed ourselves to a wholly gruelling and soaking wet ordeal that would push us to our mental and physical limits.  Well, blue, sunny skies and a balmy 18 degrees on a windless, nearly placid Thames made nine of us very, very happy.

We arrived in Putney, at the finish line, and walked along the Embankment mesmerized by the cacophony of rowers and coxes in the hundreds assembling their boats in front of the boathouses.  We even caught a glimpse of the CUW crews getting some early morning practice in ahead of their Boat Race on 7 April.  After a stroll, we arrived at Barn Elms, our Tideway host club, picked up our race number—198—and after some down time, met up with Tim, our boatman, who had Pollard, our VIII, on his trailer.  Quick to assemble our boat, it was exciting to work side by side with familiar faces from neighbouring Cambridge clubs who came to race.

Assembling the boat and controlling the race nerves in sunlight.

By 10:30, we had carried Pollard several hundred meters to the front of the boathouse and fought, inch by inch, to advance in the queue to launch our boat from the steep ramp down into the Thames.  Step by step, we descended with the boat on our shoulders until we had reached the river.  Things at this point happened quickly.  We all jumped in, secured our blades, threw our wellies to Tim on the bank, and started tapping away whilst still trying to strap in our feet and get situated.  That’s it – heads in; we’re off to the start.

A multitude of boats in procession during marshalling.

After running through our usual warm-up, our cox, Pav, threw in a few starts and bursts to get the juices flowing and to test our mettle in an environment of sensory overload – the sheer vastness of the Thames against the Cam, the seemingly endless procession of crews, the blaring of marshals’ megaphones, and bustle from spectator positions along (and above—on bridges) the course.  We’re very grateful to 5-seat Philip Saville for pointing out that 7-seat Charlie Spicer’s gate had come undone before any disaster occurred – whew!  We joined the marshalling queue beyond Barnes Bridge at Mortlake as the first crews, Oxford Brookes followed by Leander, wound up for the start.  These crews looked like machines – at the pinnacle of the sport.  In a way, that is what makes the HoRR experience so rewarding and enjoyable, that Sidney—a small College and an underdog on the Cam—can participate in the same race as some of the biggest names in British rowing. It’s humbling, for sure, but also a fantastic opportunity to have a bit of fun and to see what we’re made of in the big leagues.  It was also encouraging to hear shouts of support from Cambridge clubs we passed on the way to the start.  After the cut-throatedness of Bumps a few weeks ago, HoRR is a remarkably collegiate race where each crew races his own race and, at least for us, it’s more of the experience than the result which is the draw.

With taps from all pairs just trying to keep our boat stationary in queue against the current, we were eventually instructed to spin near the Kew Railway Bridge in order to make our way to the start.  At Quintin Boat Club Pav gave the call, ‘Draw One!,’ and we built it up to race pace as we came under Chiswick Bridge with the chasing crew starting only a second behind.  No worries, though, as we quickly settled into our rhythm and pushed off an overly ambitious Magdalen, Oxford.  Within a minute, we had overlap on the crew ahead, a weak Collingwood, Durham who were overtaken with a consolidation of the drive on Pav’s call. Sailing now, we already had our bow on the next crew ahead as we came under Barnes Bridge.  Our rhythm and length were solid coming up to the Bandstand, and we did a move past the Chiswick Eyot to liven things up a bit and to reset.

M1 on the Tideway at full steam.

Coming up to the boathouses by Furnival Gardens, Pav called a 3×10 to sharpen up the stroke and to increase the send as we homed in on the crew ahead.  We started the overtake coming under the Hammersmith Bridge and the men from Liverpool John Moores conceded the line as they verged further and further towards the Surrey bank.  This was it – lengthening out around the Harrod’s warehouse, we hit the Mile Post with 1.6km to go – the finish was in sight.  A big move came here, followed by pressure on the legs to accelerate the boat in a surge towards the last chunk of the race. As we passed the Black Buoy, we started to tier up to the finish.  Tier 1: up on the pressure.  As we started to come to the boathouses lining the Putney Embankment, Tier 2: sending it through while upping the rate.  Last 150m, Tier 3: empty out! We crossed the finish within a canvas of the crew ahead, and paddled on beyond the Fulham Bridge where we span and proudly rowed back to Barn Elms 2k upstream.

Exhausted, having given it our all, we disassembled the boat, packed up our things, had a much-needed recovery meal in Putney, and caught a train back to Cambridge almost exactly twelve hours after we left in the morning.  We managed 20:40 – nearly a minute faster than last year’s race.

We’d like to thank Tim Rhodes, our boatman, for bringing our equipment down to London and for assisting us on the day, and especially Matt von Lany from Fitzwilliam College Boat Club, who generously dedicated his time and enthusiasm to train with us the past few weeks and to fill out our crew by racing with us.  As for myself, it was exhilarating to be back in a boat with the crew once again after an injury in Mays 2018, and on strokeside no less!  HoRR also marked the final race with SSBC of immediate past men’s captain, Philip Saville, who’s been in M1 the longest and who will soon leave Sidney to begin a post-doc in Edinburgh.  With all the hard work he’s put into strengthening the men’s side the past year, we hope Head of the River was a fun and unique way to cap his Sidney career.

On the return to Cambridge, we received a message from our new men’s captain, six-seat Günther Turk, who indicated that Lent training ended with HoRR – the next day, training for Mays would begin.  With ten weeks to go, it’s time to refocus, to recommit to our training, and to put in the mileage.  For Sidney, it’s onwards and upwards.

Cox: Paavan Sawjani
S: Joris Witstok
7: Charlie Spicer
6: Günther Turk
5: Philip Saville
4: Ieuan Best
3: Matt von Lany
2: Zach Lande
B: Tim Schmalz


A smiling crew, pretending to own a trailer full of Empachers.

The Sidney Sussex M1 rowers (and Matt) wore RTHM base layer shirts to show support for the student-led campaign Rowing Together for Healthy Minds, which in cooperation with the charity Mind spotlights the issues of mental health– an initiative that SSBC supports wholeheartedly.

SSBC supports RTHM.


— by Tim Schmalz, M1 bowman

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