When Richard Haig applied to St Andrews in his final year at Bradford Grammar School, he accepted that his rowing career would not extend past his school days, given that the University appeared to have no rowing club. Richard was not the first, nor the last, to fall foul of an peculiar St Andrews tradition, by which the University refered to the rowing club as "boat."
This slightly odd tradition was ended in 2015, at which point the rowing club was rebranded Saints Rowing, from the former (and slightly oddly named) Saints Boat.
Below, Richard recalls his time at St Andrews and his memories with the club:
"I joined the rowing club in my first year at St Andrews in 1994-5. When researching universities I was keen to extend my rowing ‘career’ having had seven years at Bradford Grammar School, winning a few national championship medals on the way. To my dismay, the prospectus for St Andrews did not list rowing as a sport. So I applied based on the academic pedigree of the University and warm feel of the town. It was with a heavy heart that I would not be rowing, or so I thought. It was to my surprise and delight after I was accepted that St Andrews termed the rowing club simply as ‘Boat’. Lycra to the ready!
The squad in that year was limited to around 25 men and women. The limited numbers were actually in our favour as we did not have enough working boats to cover everyone. We could just about get three fours out. The first four was a two-tone Aylings. Whilst this might sound fancy, I believe the red front end and slightly pink rear end was probably down to the latter being left out in the sun at some point. At least the blades were all uniform in colour.
The view looking North from the old railway bridge in Guardbridge. Pictured on the left is the old Curtis Fine Paper Mill, where the club first rowed from in 1962. To the south of the old railway bridge stands the old boathouse.
When trying out for the club, I also threw my hand in to play for the fresher rugby team. Bradford was a big rugby school. To my amazement I scored two tries in the try-out match for freshmen and got selected as inside centre. I was also selected for the rowing team initially as stroke for the two-tone first four. I could not realistically do both so opted for the joys of walking out and back on the mud on the Eden.
Our crew was a motley bunch. Me a fresh-faced first year student, a strong second year student, now head of rowing at a London school, a final year student who smoked a lot, some of it tobacco, in the centre seats and a crafty bowman who liked a drink. Steering was courtesy of our Glaswegian five foot but all-intimidating coxswain. We appreciated the support from the final year student as he had a car and would ferry us to and from races. The car had structural damage and it was a little daunting seeing the road flashing through the gaps in the floor and feeling the chassis twist around corners.
Training on the water was always constrained by the clashes between the changing tide times on the Eden and fixed times for lectures. We did train hard and the rowing circuits at 18.00 each Monday were soon known by most as one of the toughest workouts and attracted a few hard men and women from boxing and rugby. Despite the lack of water time we were quick and we were successful in most regattas. We also did well in head racing including in an eight, borrowed of course, and picked up a pendant or two over the season. I would have preferred if the head race in Glasgow could have been timed not to have the Tennants brewery on a production cycle, spewing out noxious smells 250 meters before the end just about when we were ready to spew ourselves.
The lack of working rowing boats was resolved through maintaining good relationships with other clubs and borrowing boats if we had to. This was most acute in sculling equipment. I learnt to scull ahead of sweep-oar and could jump into a scull and get on with it. This was a useful skill as there was no working sculls in the club. Despite not being able to train at all in a sculling boat, in the regatta season I entered races knowing we did not have a boat to race in. My tactic was to bring a seat from one of our inoperable boats and approach one of the other rowing clubs to borrow a boat, claiming ‘our trailer had not turned up yet’. Most clubs were happy to oblige, despite me beating their entered sculler in the process. Key to this tactic was to approach a different club in for each regatta to minimise the risk of being found out. Whilst I would usually be given a basic boat which I was thankful for, I do remember the broad smile getting into a very nice Carl Douglas with the inlaid wood stern and curved wood in the cockpit. The feeling was akin to getting into a F1 car for the first time.
We had a lot of fun racing during the year. Wins, albeit few and far between, would be celebrated wildly, usually back at the flat of the final year student on South Street. Our most memorable race was in the Scottish Championships at Strathclyde where we beat the Edinburgh University crew to win what was effectively the Scottish University Champs. We had entered a class lower to avoid a classy St Andrews RC four and other elite club crews. It was a tough race into a headwind but we raced hard, dug in and the two-tone Aylings was first across the line.
For our efforts, our crew was awarded half-blues which we were delighted with. More surprising is that based on my entering sculling races with just a seat tactic, I was informed that I had accumulated enough points for a full blue. This was humbling and unexpected for my first year in the club. I had hoped to perhaps gain such an award after a few years. There is a picture of me looking a bit sheepish with the other blues awarded that year including a very young Chris Hoy after his one and only year in St Andrews University. Lack of a velodrome might have had something to do with him moving on.
I had one more year with the rowing club, joining the committee and put in charge of boat maintenance. This proved no easy feat as the previous committee member in this position handed me over the tool set which consisted precisely of one 10mm and one 13mm spanner. I added to this with an adjustable spanner, some WD-40 and a bit of elbow grease to keep what boats were operational on the water. Our championship winning crew had moved on with members graduating. We picked up the services of an American post-grad and a strong freshman. We never quite found the same winning ways but we still enjoyed getting out to train and race occasionally.
Having been awarded a blue, I reigned in some of my activities in the club, leaving sculling behind. I was now spending more time in the Officer Training Corps after looking for a new challenge with most weekends taken up on activities. I did have a smile passing over the Eden bridge in the back of a 4-ton Bedford and looking out for the boathouse and the slight lean it had.
After hanging up the lycra for a few years I did get back into a boat having moved to South West London and raced for Kingston Rowing Club before a snowboard accident and resulting shoulder injury ended my rowing career. Whilst racing for Kingston we were one of the revered fours on the southern circuit and we prided ourselves on being a tough crew to beat. My first race for Kingston at Henley Royal Regatta in the Brittania Cup we beat the local favourites, Henley RC, by two feet. We pushed our next opponents Harvard University in the next round but to no avail. I later met the Harvard Coach, Harry Parker, whilst on a business trip to Boston. I was poking my nose around their boat house entrance to see all the latest boats. Having recognised Harry at the back of the boathouse, he was happy to have a conversation and recalled the Brittania race in question. I was surprised to learn our crew was the one they were most worried about and had their coaching team secretly video taping and timing our practice efforts. Harvard had split their top eight to race in the Brittania and both crews met in the final. It was after this year the stewards changed the rules to restrict the Brittania to club crews only. It is with sadness I learnt that Harry passed away in 2013 after 50 years as coach of Harvard.
Before I stopped my rowing career I picked up sculling again, this time with a dedicated boat. One of my most memorable experiences was being first boat out on the water with your bows cutting through the mist rising off the calm water. I hope that students at St Andrews have the opportunity to experience the same in the new rowing facilities now that the boathouse on the Eden is no more. I suspect the increasing lean angle of the boathouse may have had something to do with it."
Our thanks to Richard for sharing this fantastic story.
Image source: Mary and Angus Hogg / The Home Of Curtis Fine Papers / CC BY-SA 2.0