Jersey, Channel Islands

The old lifeboat shed was the venue for a have-a-go-row and given the recent good weather and boat show there were a number of novices gathered to try coastal rowing. Coastal rowing could not be more different from Oxford v Cambridge but the larger seagoing boats are accommodating and forgiving and ideal for novices on their first venture into the water.

After a basic induction on indoor rowing machines, the club captain divided the attendees into random crews of four with an experienced rower as their cox, coach and coordinator.

One crew in particular protested that the teams were uneven and unfair. “Our crew are all girls, we cannot compete against the men, it’s not fair!” Their cox, however, was more confident and used the perceived inequality to secure the best choice of boat.

Out of earshot, the cox explained to his new crew in a team huddle: “Rowing is about collaboration and timing. Even if you are rubbish, being rubbish together will move the boat better than everyone doing their own thing.”

If you rush it is like a car’s wheels spinning from the traffic lights – lots of effort but little forwards progress. Moreover, if you are not synchronised, it is like driving with the handbrake on. Boats are like cars, smooth is fast.

Once launched and on the water, the mixed and men’s teams conceded the ladies crew a boat-length head start. This was a show of confidence in the absence of experience and the cox knew it and how to play on it.

The crews made themselves ready. The final advice the cox gave the novice crew was: “Ignore everyone else and everything else, just listen to me each time I call ‘stroke’ and stay on that rhythm. Focus on what you are doing and nothing else matters.”

At the first victory, racing over 1,000m, the ladies were jubilant, but the cox (small, bossy and loud) feigned surprise to their rivals who trailed by nearly a boat-length. Clearly a fluke, he shrugged. But the second heat cut their head-start by half.

A combination of overconfidence by the women and prudence by the other teams meant the ladies crew came in a narrow second place on the second heat.

Ironically, the third-heat win and best-of-three victory was made easier when the women went back to basics, and the mixed and men’s teams abandoned technique in favour of all-out effort and a clash of oars and personalities.

After the race, the club captain and cox chatted: “I bet that’s the first time any of them have won anything since they left school, and in some cases that was clearly a long time ago!”

For the rowing club it was just another have-a-go-row, but it dawned on the cox that even that experience was intoxicating for people who possibly have forgotten what it feels like to be a winner.


There are some rowing lessons about teamwork, timing, technique and a bit of gamesmanship – to underplay your hand or overplay your hardship. There are also lessons in leadership: stay simple with a clear message and an obvious, achievable target. Leadership is sometimes helping others succeed with your help but with no thought for reward or status. But there are some life lessons too…

Coordination + communication = collaboration and this beats the solo effort of individuals that just happen to be in the same boat. 

Never underestimate your opponent. Decisions without data (or experience) mean you give your rival a head start from which you may not get a second chance.

You cannot win them all. However, provided the ups outnumber the downs you’re a winner, even Darwin knew that. The only certain way to lose is to not try.

A loss can make you humble, a win can make you complacent, both may change your fortunes. But your ultimate success is not about luck, it is about repeatedly doing simple things well.

At this time of physical isolation, when working together requires new ways of thinking, can we not only get into the same boat, but also pull together in harmony? 

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