Last year, the lovely people of Cambridge’s twin town, Heidelberg, very kindly allowed us to row against Germany’s Olympic silver-medal winning men’s eight. So when the call came this year – royalty were visiting, could we help them out by coming for a special rowing race? – we were torn. ‘But it’ll be Bumps week!’, we said, ‘And even rowing in front of royals isn’t as important as Bumps’. ‘Not in front of royals,’ they said, ‘William and Catherine want to be in the boat with you’. Ah. We accepted, swiftly. A new, and quite surreal challenge. Who would have ever thought it?
And thus we rowed yesterday on the Neckar river with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as our coxes. And they were charming, and informal, and natural, and friendly. I was in William’s boat – named ‘Cambridge’ – so didn’t see much of Kate, coxing ‘Heidelberg’, but Fillip Adamski, the 2012 German eight gold medallist who was stroke of her boat, blamed their loss on laughing too much at what she said. William coxed us properly, calming our stroke, Darcy Weaver, when she kept apologising for splashing him (‘It’s all right, Darcy, you really don’t need to apologise’), counting down the metres for us, and urging us to push harder (‘This is an important race. Don’t be gentlemanly!’). He did miss the main arch of the bridge, though. And he – and we – won; and she – and we – lost, but not by much.
Four of us rowed in each eight, along with four men from the two main Heidelberg rowing clubs; serious rowers, some drawn from the national squad, some on rowing scholarships in the US. We arrived Wed lunchtime to be divided into teams, ‘Cambridge’ with us at bow pair and stroke pair, ‘Heidelberg’ with us as middle four (‘the power house!’). A practice row revealed a certain, er, unevenness within each crew in terms of height, stroke length, fitness, strength, age, weight, … . But astonishingly, on the day we rowed like a crew, and it was fabulous. We were told to row easy and to stay neck and neck for most of the race, so that it would last longer and be more exciting for the hundreds of spectators lining the banks, and to let it rip only in the final hundred metres. There is dispute (among us) over whether William’s boat picked it up a little before that, the rowers’ local knowledge of the river perhaps outweighing the advantage of Kate’s Olympian, though her boat was gaining when we crossed the finishing line. A narrow victory. William seemed modestly pleased (see photos of him air-punching and high-fiving with Darcy) and the men in his boat were bent on beating Adamski, their childhood hero, ‘because he used to try so hard in every race that he had to be taken to hospital after’. William replied, ‘Tell him he wasn’t trying hard enough today, then.’ Banter!)
William’s boat was a beautiful, classic wooden boat, rigged for sculling and with a steering plate at 7 (coxless octo, anyone?). Apparently it doesn’t get many outings, and we were privileged to use it. It had to be handled with great reverence, which didn’t stop our boys from removing half the rigging during the night after the practice, so it didn’t weigh quite as much the next day. We met what we are learning are the usual niggles of international rowing – wait, you do WHAT as your start sequence? Where are the boat shoes? And the coxbox and loudspeakers? What kind of a footplate do you call that? The rudder works how? Hang on, where is the rudder? And so on. Flexibility and good humour were shown by everyone.
All the Heidelberg organisers and participants were incredibly hospitable and friendly, as last year, and the amount and quality of the work that went into making the royal visit a success was truly extraordinary. “Deustchland-GB, #Freundship”, proclaimed the t-shirts that we all rowed in, and that was exactly how we all felt. We were privileged to join in such an amazing community effort, and look forward to visiting our Heidelberg friends again next year. We have requested the Obamas. (And invited the Duchess to take part in the next Cantabs L2R.)
With special thanks to Viola Schwabbaur and Malena Reissfelder in the Heidelberg Mayor’s Office, to the Heidelberger Regattaverband e.V., Heidelberger Ruderklub 1872 e.V, and Rudergesellschaft Heidelberg 1898 e.V., to our coxes for the practices, and to all our lads!
Jane Gilbert, Cantabs’ Royal Correspondent