Guidance to parents of rowing children

By Bridget Flanagan

We take great pride in the age and long history of our Regatta, but its continuing success relies on youth. Each year it is invigorated with fresh energy as a new group of eight year olds becomes eligible to row and cox.

The colourful posters showing a children’s crew are displayed in early June, and then word gets round. Four weeks before the regatta, on the first night of practice the children arrive, rather like returning swallows.

There are the older ones who have rowed in previous years; they turn up in groups with their mates and can’t wait to get out on the water again, especially as they are now bigger, taller and know the ropes. And then there are the new, younger ones who come with parents; these children are both shy and brave at once, because although everything looks daunting, they very much want to have a go. We are delighted to receive them.

A well-honed system for teaching coxing and rowing has been formed over many years, and I would like to explain how it is done. The primary objective is safety; it is our responsibility to ensure that every child is safe on the water. We insist on care, discipline and organised teaching. 

To be allowed on the water, every child has to have a signed parental consent form and be able to swim 50 metres in clothes. All coxes under 16 must wear a life jacket. During the practice weeks there are adult supervisors at three points along the river with radio communication.

It is a tough beginning for the younger ones. The boats are the same for everyone – it’s not like cycling where you have small bikes with stabilisers, or tennis with soft balls and short racquets – the boats are adult-sized and the children learn to row with just the one concession of slightly smaller oars. 

Eight year olds come in all sizes of confidence and co-ordination; whereas some, in the first week of practice, feel ready to take on Sir Steve Redgrave, others tussle awkwardly with the oars and declare themselves useless. But, after two weeks in the singles boats even the most tentative child has found they can row. Many are surprised at their achievement.

Did their abilities simply appear? No – we recognise a tried and tested formula of endless encouragement and patient, one-to-one teaching with a mantra of ‘the more you practise, the better you get’. And it works. We don’t guarantee that everyone will win their first race, but we are certain they will all be able to row.

As capabilities grow, the children become at ease in the boats and begin to get to know the river. The river is a separate dimension to the village that, but for the Regatta practice evenings, many villagers (of all ages) rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. It is a wonderful place to be on a June evening. It is teeming with activity and there are so many distractions to rowing; we can watch wild-life – the bundles of ducklings bobbing after their mother, and sand martins diving into their nests in the drainage pipes of the church-yard wall. 

There are other craft on the water – kayakers, rowers, punts and passing motor boats, whilst on the bank are friends, parents and the strangely persistent fishermen. Children come back, year after year, because they love being out on the river just as much as they love rowing.

We also teach the children to cox. However this is not done in a couple of weeks, it takes several years of practice and experience before a child is a competent cox for an adult racing boat. Coxing may look easy but it is actually extremely difficult to do well. Size is entirely secondary to ability and most rowers would happily take on board an extra stone or two (or more!) of cox if they can be assured of a straight course. 

We encourage the children to learn to row as well as cox, because it is almost impossible for a cox to understand how a boat is moved and turned until they have actually done it themselves as a rower. The coxes are expected to be in overall control of the boat; they must steer safely and straight, give commands, be aware of other craft, be able to turn a boat and also guide it to and from a landing stage, understand the flow of the river and the strength of the cross-winds etc, etc. 

They also need to be of tough character, for in a race the rowers always blame the cox – as the Oxford cox in this year’s Boat Race knows only too well. The children’s coxing is assessed over the four weeks of practice by several of the adult trainers and then badges issued for the size and speed of boat appropriate to the cox’s ability. We emphasise that being permitted to cox on race day does not come automatically with age - they must first demonstrate their improved skills. And then there are real rewards; Regatta day and potential trophies apart, when 15 year olds ask an 11 year old to cox their boat, that child has made it!

Regatta Practice has become a well-oiled machine thanks to the organisation and dedication of the committee. Each year a new cohort of children fits seamlessly into the system. There is a very high standard of behaviour because of the mutual respect shared by the rowers and coxes of all ages. 

The group of people who teach and train the children gain enormous satisfaction when they can let the children off by themselves and see that they are competent and having fun. And parents, just think - in less than twelve years' time your eight year old could be competing for the Vicar’s Sculls or perhaps be making a start on those five Olympic gold medals...