On learning to row

“Watch carefully, Bill.”

Aged about 12. We were leaning against the rail  looking down at the water.

A small,  elderly man was descending the wooden steps from the quay next door. He was dressed in a blue fisherman’s jersey, baggy grey trousers and canvas shoes.

Half way down, he nodded a good morning to us, untied the end of the frape and gently hauled his dinghy to the tiny landing stage beneath him.

It must have been about half-tide to have exposed this platform. Along this side of the harbour, dinghies were moored on frapes to allow the boat to ride the considerable tides and also to prevent them going aground at low water –  (in all but the lowest of low spring tides), so that they were always ready for use.

He untied the boat from the frape, remoored it to the ladder and stepped neatly into the middle of the boat. It barely moved.

The thwarts were wet from the previous night’s rain. He found a cloth and dried them.

Then he raised a bottom board and bailed the small amount of water collected there. He sponged it dry.

Facing aft, he sat down on the middle thwart, shipped both rowlocks and then the outside oar.

Twisting round, he untied the painter, coiled it into the bow and gave the boat a gentle push. Now he had room to ship the other oar.

As the boat drifted further away from the ladder, he was able to pull on the port oar turning the boat towards its destination.

With barely a glance over his shoulder, he took the weight on both oars and glided effortlessly away to the quay across the water.

The oars dipped with barely a splash – an economy of movement that gave the sense of a single unit – man and boat.

Even I could see the natural focus, the self-possession and the strength of someone doing what they have been doing for decades – a master in his element.

This was Randolph Johns. He was probably in his late sixties. That seemed ancient then – I no longer think so.

Over the next two or three summers, there would be the occasional lesson in our pram dinghy or a few words on shore.

From watching and listening to him, I learnt how to row and how to handle a small dinghy.

There was never any formality in his teaching – just the passing on of knowledge and the acquiring of some skill by doing.

I will never forget Randolph Johns. I learnt from him what it meant to master an activity – to have reached a point where the movement itself ceases to be an aspiration and becomes part of your being. He wasn’t a man who went out for a row – rowing was part of how he lived. He didn’t think about it much.

Had I rowed every day since, I doubt if I would ever have been as capable of doing this deceptively simple task as well as him. Even in those days, outboard engines had taken the necessity out of rowing and were turning it into a leisure activity. There was now choice – the attitude behind it had changed. Most of the masters of rowing nowadays will have mastered a sport, not a means of transport.

At 12, of course I didn’t understand this. But I did begin to look at how other people did those things I wanted to do – and I did learn a little from doing this . . .  and then a little more  . . .

“Watch carefully, Bill.”

Fowey, circa 1959. I took the picture. See the number of moorings compared with today. The tug on the right is St Canute which later went to the Exeter Maritime Museum.

One thought on “On learning to row

  1. Hello

    I guess this is what you call “A walk down memory lane” 🙂
    I have been to Fowey on a foggy cold day, crossing with the small ferry…Some houses were peering out of the fog over there with windows extending over the water (Oh! The envy!!! 😀 😀 :-D)

    The mooring you describe is almost the norm in Greece, not only close to beaches but also small ports (as also are young children “playing” with the ropes 🙂 )

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