Alison Dewynter tells the story of the 1993 Women’s Lightweights
Seat racing for the 1993 women’s crews took place very early on a clear December morning. Mist hung over the Reach, tinged with pink as the sun rose. It hid the boats. From the bank, you could hear blades thump in gates, water splash and coxes call, but could see no more than a shadow moving through the thick pink haze. Above us, the sky was turning from the grey of dawn to the blue of day. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
This was the end of a number of weeks of trialling. We’d done ergos and outings, numbers had been whittled down but a lot rested on today’s results. Some of us had been in the 1992 squad, but new rowers had come through and nothing was certain. Fi had said to me, “You have to ensure that they can’t afford not to select you”. Had I done enough? After the final seat race, once boats were put away, crews were announced by Ron and Roger upstairs in the Maggie boat house. I remember sitting on a slatted bench next to a row of pegs as names were read out. It was 30 years ago but that image persists.
I’m not sure if we rowed together before we broke up for Christmas, but we came together as a crew at the Marlow Scout camp in early January. This was a cold experience. We used de-icer on the riggers to free them up before getting on the water. Outings were disrupted by us gawping at amazing river-side properties whose gardens ran down to the river’s edge. Meals were cooked by Dawn, a rower from the 1992 squad. I’d always disliked custard and rice pudding but ate bowl loads that week to stave off the hunger that comes after 5 hours a day on the water. One evening we had a weigh in. For some reason, the lightweights thought it would be funny to push balloons up our jumpers and down our trousers to give the impression that we all had huge hips and busts. We filed in straight-faced and stepped onto the scales one by one. Eventually someone from the heavyweight squad noticed and laughter followed.
We did a number of events in the run up to the boat race. We’d won Head of the Nene the year before and defended our title in 1993. I remember Helen, the cox, trying to find landmarks for us to push to but the route cut through monotonous fields with nothing but the occasional telegraph pole to break up the course. On Tideway, we came third beating heavyweight crews that, on paper, we shouldn’t have been close to. Where ever we went and how ever we got there, one thing was certain, Wendy would arrive last and only after the rest of us had taken the boat of the trailer, put the two halves together and rigged it. This earned her the nick-name “Jack”.
Our boat was a men’s boat. Looking back, the attitude that prevailed towards women’s sport in Cambridge during the early 90s, makes me boil inside. Back then, we just got on with it. We felt the injustice but few of us fought it. The men’s squad rowed out of Ely. They had so much free food delivered to their boat house in Cambridge, that occasionally they would donate a can of baked beans to us. Their sponsorship meant new top of the range equipment every year and kit smothered in company logos. We paid for everything and rowed in cast off boats. We did have a sponsorship deal, with a company that produced vitamin pills: they gave us vitamin pills that turned our wee green, and an energy drink that didn’t taste of anything. As lightweights, none of us saw the point of consuming calories that tasted of water so we never used it. So our boat was a men’s boat, but thankfully a lightweight men’s boat. Because we were on average 17kg lighter per person than the boat had been designed for, it sat very high in the water. We loved it. It was beautiful inside, all narrow wooden struts, and rowing it was like being on a tight-rope, the slightest imbalance and it would crash to one side, but we were good and could sit it. Because we could sit it, it flew, and with so little of the hull in the water, there was nothing to hold us back.
The week before the boat race, we stayed with a family in Henley. The weather was sunny and we had outings every day. Between times we relaxed, had haircuts, we might even have studied as a few of us had finals that summer. We all felt a bit sorry for the Oxford lightweight crew. We saw them out a few times on the water and knew they didn’t stand a chance. The only question was how much we would win by.
On the day, the verdict was ‘easily’.