On Donning (Pirate) Hats and Catching Crabs

by Dr Yvonne Zivkovic on 23 November 2017


Seven weeks into our first outing, most of us are feeling the effects of a regular rowing practice – our palms are becoming calloused, our bums are sore most of the time, and personally I feel like I am suffering from a constant lack of sleep. It’s all worth it though – we are now assigned to regular crews, NW1, NW2 and NW3. We’re familiar with the different positions in the boat and some of us realised that they have a preferred side (I am pretty much hopeless on bow side). We had our first erging competition as novices at Queen’s Ergs on 11 November and it went really well (NW1 came 3rd and NW2 6th in their respective categories) and last weekend we raced on the river for the first time at the Emma Sprints.

The Emma Sprints are the first novice race of the academic year and they require dressing up. My boat (NW2) decided, perhaps somewhat unoriginally, to row as pirates. Despite the pirate’s natural association with aquatic activity,  however, I was surprised not to see our costume duplicated in other crews – there were rowing ducks (Emmanuel), rowing queens (guess who), rowing cats (not hard to guess that one either), rowing Vikings (Magdalene) and rowing reindeer (Darwin), amongst others. 

Our first race against the Magdalene Vikings was a textbook example for everything that could go wrong in rowing. Right at the beginning, our stroke pushed so enthusiastically that she fell off her seat, veering the boat off towards the river bank, where we became entangled. It took us two more restarts to get back to racing pace, by which time our Vikings competitors had swept past us with frightening growls. Then, just as we were picking up speed, our bow rower ‘caught a crab’ -  which is rowing terminology for what happens when a rower twists (or ‘feathers’) their blade improperly on the ‘catch’ (as it enters the water) so that it gets stuck – which feels as if a crab was pulling it down from inside the river. Crabs are caught frequently by novices but are not unknown to senior rowers, especially in longer races, when it requires prolonged focus to maintain proper technique. At best, the crab slows down the whole boat, at worst, it can eject the rower out of the boat when the oar slams unexpectedly against their chest or shoulder. As our boat captains explained to us just minutes before the start, the bow position is the worst place to catch a crab, since there is no one behind you who could help you readjust the blade. I don’t think our crew expected to see this demonstrated so soon!

I was a bit nervous before the race, since there had been a few changes in our crew composition and we had only practiced race starts once – we were still getting used to each other and learning how to keep the boat balanced. Despite the fact that we lost both our first and second race, however, something magical happened: at some point during the second race, the nervousness about racing subisided, and what emerged was a newly found team spirit. We became more synchronized, pushed hard for the final stretch, and lost the race by a slim margin. And more importantly, we were actually having fun! I have never seen so many joyful faces after a defeat. As a non-sporty person growing up in Germany, I often scoffed at the phrase “Dabeisein ist alles” (which roughly translates as “It’s the taking part that matters”) with regard to sports competitions. I thought it was incredibly cheesy, especially since I was often on the losing team. But competing with the Lucy girls has changed my mind on that one. I would perhaps also agree with another cheesy saying, which reveals itself in the acronym T.E.A.M: Together Everyone Achieves More. Or maybe, in our case: Totally Enthusiastic Aquatic Maniacs.