An interview with Dickie Twyman, boatman at the St Paul’s Boathouse, about his role within the rowing programme at school and what he’s been up to during the lockdown.
Tell us about your role at St Paul’s?
My role is Boatman and rowing coach. The Boatman part of my role entails making sure that everything works and floats as it should in the boathouse. I’ve been here 11 years. When I first joined the boat club, it was quite a big task to get the boats up to a good standard for the direction we wanted the boat club to take. The kit was old and not in great shape at that time, and we didn’t have enough rowing machines. It has been great to see this change over the years. The number of pupils getting involved in rowing has also grown. Over time, as more boys have got involved, the equipment has improved in quality and quantity. Keeping it in good shape has given me a different set of challenges, as the design, construction methods, and materials have evolved a bit from the 20-30-year-old boats I inherited 11 years ago. Although more time-consuming to repair, the new boats are well worth the marginal gains that are so valuable in this sport. Races are often won and lost by tenths of seconds.
In my time at St Paul’s, I have coached all age groups and often help out with the J15s. Predominantly though, I coach the J14s. This group is normally our pupils’ first full year of rowing and so a very important one. Our aim at J14 level is to set up the boys with a technical model and attitude towards how they go about their training, so that can develop as they move up through the club. This prepares them for a smooth technical and psychological progression. With the whole coaching team, covering all the age groups, on the same page technically and following a programme led by Bobby Thatcher, this aim can be achieved. It would be quite disruptive if each year group was using different techniques, so consistency is critical.
My role is very busy and demanding, it’s more of a lifestyle than a job at certain parts of the year. I split my year into three terms; the J14s don’t start rowing until January, so I use the Autumn Term to prepare as much as possible and try to get ahead of the game. From Christmas through to the end of May, which is when the National Schools’ Regatta is held, it gets really busy. There is then a natural break in the season and, after the May half term, the club builds up again to Henley Royal Regatta at the end of June.
I spend mornings doing the Boatman side of my job and the afternoons and Saturdays coaching. Many weekends are spent away, towing the boats to regattas all around the country. In usual times, I also pack the boat club up twice in the Easter holidays, taking the kit to our two different training camps. The J14s go to a UK based camp in Peterborough as it has an awesome 1km rowing lake, perfect for J14s learning to row in singles. The rest of the club goes to Portugal, where they enjoy a 2km rowing lake so that crews can prepare for National Schools’ and Henley Royal Regattas.
What is your background in rowing?
I learned to row on the sea in Deal on the Kent coast, racing most weekends in the summer months and picking up a few wins, before deciding to make the move to the river. Rowing on the sea is like mountain biking, with river rowing being the equivalent of road racing. Generally, the equipment is the same, except that the coastal boats are shorter and fatter to cope with the conditions. When I moved to the river, I raced at Tideway Scullers based at Chiswick for 10 years. I was a full-time athlete for the first 4 years I was there. In that time, I picked up various domestic regatta wins, a national championship title and various other coloured national championship medals in sweep and sculling events. I also raced for England at the home international regatta.
What have you been up to over lockdown?
I have spent a lot of time repairing the sculling oars, painting them, and making sure everything is adjusted correctly. This is ready for the new crop of J14s so that, at some point soon, they can get out on the river for the first time. I’ve also got many boats out in the bays at different stages of repair, so it’s been great to have the time to get on top of all these jobs. The tideway is notoriously hard on the equipment, so it does require a lot of maintenance. It’s been really important to get all of this work done as the numbers for rowing this year are high. I’d like to think it’s because more boys want to try the sport or they have seen how great the sport is and have returned as they move up through the school. Another reason for the numbers could be because we have been able to continue rowing with fewer restrictions in the wake of the pandemic. Rowing is naturally a sport with social distancing built into it. Rowers can go out on their own in singles and when in crew boats, they sit one and a half metres apart.
What are you looking forward to most post-lockdown?
It will be nice to go racing again, as most rowing events were cancelled due to the pandemic. It is great for the boys to see the purpose of all their effort and training.
How are you training the boys remotely?
We have 52 boys on the games half (14s), which is high, but a good number. I have been running circuits with them, focussing on their coordination and core strength and flexibility. Core strength and flexibility is essential for getting them to sit in the right position in the boat. These areas are key for any aspiring oarsman to row well and generally, they’re areas that J14s need to work on. I’ve also tried to make it as fun as possible, as that’s what J14 rowing is all about.
In other news…
Recently, the Boat Club had an expected visitor. He/she was seen basking in the sunshine and wobbled up the ramp to evade the rising tide throughout the day. Photo taken by Dickie from a safe distance.