Training had comprised a mere hour or so the evening before, in our lone craft, on a quieter tributary. Now it was the big race of the day and the boats did not just jostle their way towards the starting line, they positively thrashed their way forward trying to secure the best position. After a false start, the race commenced, with the crowd’s shouts and cheers crashing like waves over us. Desperately, I took a bead and headed as sure and straight as I could for the first buoy marking the turning point. But that’s where the other nine boats were headed as well. Terrified of ramming any of the other teams and being disqualified, I took too wide a turn only to be met by groans from the crew when they saw the ground they had to make up. All muscle and slog, they had no idea of the battle I was fighting with the rudder and the tide. Soon though, we were making up ground with the captain repeatedly asked me to hold a steady line. This I tried to do, but the melee of oars and craft was confusing and next minute we had careered into the nearest boat with the whipcrack of breaking wood filling my ears and bringing tears of misery. Both sets of men took to swearing at each other but it was obvious we were not going to finish the race, and I sat huddled at the back of the boat, cold and wet, the sun now behind clouds and my hands welted with blisters.
On reaching the shore, the young men clambered out of the racing boat, their shoulders sloped in disappointment, barely looking at me, their backs broad and unforgiving. I felt my failure keenly, sharp and raw, but sharper still was the bitter blame I laid at my uncle’s door. Shrugging off his help, I too clambered out onto dry land, remembering how he had suggested me as a coxswain for my cousins’ boat. I turned my back to him, less broad but just as unforgiving.