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Jolly Boating (Caning) Weather
An VIII-Thrashing On The Thames
Just a little tidbit to celebrate the regatta season along the way, based very loosely on an actual incident reported by an American prep school VIII crew during a 2009 Henley Royal Regatta practice race ...
Some pranks you can overlook, others demand a scowling verbal response, yet others a firm “or else” lecture. Yet, there are a few that can do with nothing less than a full blown shoulder-wrenching thrashing, an VIII-thrashin to be specific. My boys had given their all, God knows, but some days at some races, you simply are not meant to win and yes, even though the fates seem to include a racing umpire who just seems to not be on his game that day, to be kind.
I was sitting in the stern of the racing umpire's motorboat at the start of the 1500 meter race on a rather tricky stretch of the mighty Thames. My job was done as coach, my first VIII boys trained and now on their own at the starting point, their opponent formidable, if not impossible to beat. I knew that, but I had not told the boys my opinion. That would have been grossly unfair and tainted their best efforts to win the race and the cup. We had got through three hard opponents over three days of racing, one of them the prior year's winner with three returning oarsmen and we had beaten them, soundly actually, so why not one more, in the finals, for all the glory?
I watched, the umpire dropped his red flag, “Go!!” and off the two shells went, mine and my opponent, their coach, a good friend really, sitting opposite me, helpless to further aid his boys as well. My boys got off a clean start, oars in the water to a stroke count (SC) of 41, maybe 42. The other boat matched my boys of course and the two bows stayed even for the first 400 meters then dropped down to a count of 32, the other boat to 33. Stroke counts are sort of like calorie counts. Every crew has a limited number of strokes that they could possibly muster within the entire racing distance and they had better be doled out at the correct rate and at the right point in the race or all is lost.
The next 100 meters passed to the 500 mark when the boats started to drift in towards each other some as the channel now narrowed. That's when the umpire called out for my boys to angle to starboard to avoid their opponent, or so he thought. I thought the other boat should have been warned to port, but one cannot challenge the racing umpire. At any rate, our side lost a few seats of length to their opponent and at the end of the maneuver and near to the halfway point of the race, we were behind one-half boat length, but no time to panic. My cox correctly ignored the deficit as I would have wanted him. I grew pensive, I had seen this kind of thing before, an umpire seemingly hell-bent to just make one boat miserable, leaving the other alone.
I held my breath as at 900 meters with just 600 left, the half-boat length lead for the other team remained, but time was growing short. I anticipated my cox making a move, he had to. The other boat might respond, but they had the advantage. My coxswain did and called up the stroke count to 39, the other boat responded with a quick 37 to conserve some energy for the finish. We would gain, but might run out of steam at the end, it was always a gamble.
Suddenly, out of nowhere the racing umpire called out a warning for my boat to veer right again to starboard, apparently suspecting that my boat was drifting too far to port. This was both unnecessary and dangerous in my opinion, I didn't see the need. Not only that, the racing channel had narrowed and the bush ravaged river bank was too near. I looked at my coaching counterpart and he looked as mystified as I was, but neither of us could peep.
My cox responded as ordered, but in doing so, our pace was thrown down by three strokes per minute just long enough for the boys to have rowed like hell at the higher rate for nothing. The other boat actually gained a few seats of lead. I was furious. There was no need for the call, but the umpire had glanced back at me for some reason and I had to maintain an unemotional countenance or be penalized.
My cox tried like hell along with my oarsmen and rowed at a furious pace of 45 strokes per minutes, but the other boat only had to respond roughly up to 41. My boys ran out of gas, lacking only 18 inches of bow to their opponents at the finish and came in 2nd. I was besides myself, but could say nothing, absolutely nothing to the umpire or be banned from racing. If I liked, I could lodge a protest to the board of umpires of the race, but in doing so would almost always lose and then be found “suspect” of poor sportsmanship. I was not about to do that.
I looked at my friend, the other coach and I could tell he sympathized. That helped me, but not my boys. They knew what had happened and knew or suspected that the racing umpire was, as they might say, “a buggered idiot!” I could only sigh and feel a great deal of empathy with my lads.
The motorboat slowly rounded the two racing shells now dead in the water. The winning boat was congratulated by my boys as befits proper sportsmanship and I shook the other coaches' hand. He whispered a quiet, “You were shafted,” and I nodded my thanks. The driver of my boat then rounded the shells and passed right besides mine as they prepared to slowly row back up to the boating docks to disembark the river.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, my cox yelled, “Do it!” and four port-side rowing oars splashed enough water up onto the motor craft at just the right time to drench the racing umpire, head to toe, knocking his natty hat into the river! Nothing was otherwise said by the boys, nothing need be said. They had offered their opinion of the man's judgment in true oarsmen fashion, a kind of watery “fuck you!”
The umpire flew into a rage and yelled at me, “Meet me at the docks!”
We had two more regattas to attend that season, for all but one of my boys, their last races for their beloved school. I was not angry with them, just frustrated with them and at the whole situation.
We docked as ordered and the umpire met us at the boat-house, his face beet red with anger, “I could be very happy to have your VIII banned for the rest of the season unless you give me a very good and immediate solution to this outrage!!”
I breathed a little easier, we could salvage this if I did the correct thing. I took our cox aside and conferred with him, warning him about the consequences of inaction or insufficient action and offering my opinion about what would most likely mollify the angry umpire. The other team and their coach had by now docked and curiosity had naturally caused them to gather closely about, along with the combined parents of both teams.
I looked at the parents on my side, they looked sheepish and chagrinned. What their sons had done was obviously wrong, though understandable on some level. My cox conferred with his oarsmen and they agreed. The cox returned and conferred with me and then I spoke to the umpire. The solution would satisfy him if carried out as I had suggested, but first, we needed something.
My cox conferred with the concerned parents on our side and luck would have it that the needed item, a stout cane, happened to reside in one of the vehicles driven to the meet, God knows why, but who cared. Corporal punishment was a well established tradition still practiced at both schools and the idea for punishment that I had suggested to the drenched racing umpire seemed to please and satisfy him.
At any rate, soon thereafter and inside of the very warm boating tent, surrounded in a half circle from behind by a sea of invited onlookers that included all parents, the other winning VIII, their coach and of course the offended racing umpire, my eight oarsmen and one cox had their respective one piece rower's singlets pushed down to their knees and their jockstraps or undergarments otherwise lowered as well to reveal eighteen very well developed bare bottom cheeks, a handsome lot I must say.
Our rowing shell was turned upside down and lengthwise to the need on its stanchions and I ordered my boys to stand bolt upright, their front-sides close into the boat's inverted hull, their hands on top of the keel. One by one, starting with the cox, I was to give each boy a full dozen strokes of the cane, “laid on hard,” as ordered by the racing umpire. I complied.
I ordered my cox to push his bottom side outwards and bend forward and lay himself partially over the keel, the palms of his hands flattened down to the other side of the acutely curved hull. I lined him up and started in. Each boy was to count out his own cuts to twelve.
The cane started to whistle, cut and pause, whistle cut and pause, the cox counting them out as if in a bizarre training exercise. He winced his face and his bared buttock cheeks writhed, his legs warbling a bit towards the end as I was laying them on hard, my shoulders and forearms very strong from my workouts with these very same boys. I would glance at the umpire, the other boys and parents to see if any of this was making sense to them.
The umpire seemed pleased, he was grinning ear to ear, the silly bastard. The parents looked on approvingly however, my boys' parents especially so. Family face and reputation would be saved. The winning VIII looked as if they had won two regattas and not one, my counterpart however looked a bit glum, what you'd expect of a real friend.
The cox finally called out the dozen and I had my boy stand up straight and resume the same position as before, his bared striped bottom for all to continue to see, his hands on top of the keel until all boys were done. Down the line I went, one after the other, my shoulder telling me towards the end that caning nine boys twelve cuts each is more difficult than it seemed, but since it was for a good cause, I could never complain. At the last call for the last cut, I really wound up and give him, a very large and strong boy, a real zinger, eliciting just a tiny yelp.
The crowd erupted in applause of all things, the winning VIII actually cheering. I looked, the umpire was nodding his approval and then slowly walked down the line in back of the boys visually inspecting my handiwork, his hands clasped behind his back starting with the last boy I had caned and ending up at the cox-end. Then he turned and said,
“Well done! Prank excused, but never, ever do that again on my river!!” and walked out of the tent just like that. My boys did not move until I told them to step back and replace their clothing over their sore bottoms, but after that, even the winning VIII surrounded and congratulated my boys in a show of excellent camaraderie, my coaching counterpart whispering in my ear,
“I'm not sorry my boys saw all that, maybe I'll be spared the same fate some day when this gets around school!”
I had to grin my agreement and was congratulated by all the parents on an excellent show of quick thinking, also mentioning that they thought that all the boys present would benefit.
The nice ending of the story for my boys and myself actually was that on the last day of the last regatta race in their school-boy careers, my boys took the cup, winning versus the same VIII that had beaten us that day that I was forced to cane them. To nobody's surprise, the losing VIII heartily congratulated my boys, teasing them about not having to get caned this time. My friend, the losing coach, did the same, humorously congratulating me for my shoulder not having to cane nine boys, twelve cuts each.
The best part however was the same racing umpire that had forced the penalty that prior finals several weeks before, had also judged that final race. Afterwards and uncharacteristically so, he went up and shook the hand of each of my boys, saying “Well done! You earned that cup nicely!” to each one, leaving my boys slack jawed for words other than “Thank you Sir!” What could I say, maybe he was right in the first place; maybe a good VIII-thrashing alongside the Thames-now and again was a good thing after all.
© Copyright PJ Franklin July 3, 2009
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Last updated: July 3, 2009