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Avoiding congestion of the Cam is a technical test in the Cambridge Rowing Tank

Downing rowers at Downing Boathouse on the river Cam using their new rowing tank . Picture: Keith Heppell
Downing rowers at Downing Boathouse on the river Cam using their new rowing tank . Picture: Keith Heppell

New facility at Downing College Boat Club

There is indoor rowing, and then there is rowing indoors.

What is the difference, I hear you ask. Well, at Downing College Boat Club, the difference is there for all to see.

At the front of the club there are ergometers – indoor rowing machines – for the athletes to get the mileage done, and put in the hard graft. While at the back of the venue is the Cambridge Rowing Tank, complete with 20 tonnes of water, to help perfect the technical elements of the sport.

The Cambridge Rowing Tank, as it is officially called, has been in use since the turn of the year, and it has proved popular with both the college and town rowing societies.

All but one of the town clubs have booked an introductory session, and all bar eight of the 35 college boat clubs have been inducted in the tank.

It was a feat of engineering to deliver the tank upstairs in the clubhouse, and the catalyst for doing so was medical student Charlie Slater, who is the tank officer.

Ian Watson, the director of rowing at Downing College, had wanted a rowing tank for several years, and it had kept being mentioned at the executive meetings of the college, but was not considered given the cost.

Slater then entered the Downing Enterprise competition, which is run by ex-Downing College students and alumni for current students who want to start businesses.

A proposal for the tank was put in by Slater which got through the first round, before a full paper was submitted and presentation delivered.

After all the stages, Slater won a £20,000 start-up fee from the enterprise, which was used to pay for the feasibility and architectural studies at the beginning of the project, which all came back successful.

“By that point, we had essentially proven that the entire project was possible and that we could go ahead with it, having got that initial funding to kick-start it,” said Slater, who hailed the impact of Downing alumni Simon Wood and Jeremy Boardman in dealing with the financial detail.

“We had a pretty good starting point to approach the college and all its management bodies to say ‘this thing can happen; on the engineering front and the architect’s front they say it’s fine, are we okay to go ahead with it and try to get the rest of the funding for it?’.

“We eventually got the go-ahead and started fundraising and got around £200,000 from some of the endowments the boat club had. The rest of it, just under £500,000, was got through donations from the alumni of the boat club.

“From when I entered the competition in December 2015, it then opened for use on January 15, 2018. The actual construction only started in June last year, so six months and the entire thing was up, the previous 18 months was finance and planning.”

With such good access to the River Cam, and further beyond to the Great Ouse, you have to wonder why there was felt to be such a need for a rowing tank, which is the first of its kind in the east.

After all, the highlights of the college rowing scene are the Fairbairn Cup, the Lent Bumps and the May Bumps which are really condensed into a seven to eight-month period.

“The Cam is so congested,” said Slater, pictured right. “On a morning it is absolute chaos.

“Crews are going out and they will be out there for an hour and a half, and there might be a maximum of two minutes continuous rowing at any one point.

“The rest of the time is just broken up by traffic.

“This is open from 7.30am to 7.30pm, and you can sit on there for an hour continuous, and not get disturbed. It’s warm, you’re not having to deal with bad winds, crews crashing into you, ice on the river.

“It’s a completely stable environment where you can do some really good training.

“The coach can walk up and down the boards on the side of the seats, and hold the rowers to put them in the right position.

“There are cameras down each side so you can analyse the technique.

“Using those, you can get some really decent analysis of peoples’ strokes.”

The Lent Bumps, which start on February 27, may be a bit too early to see an immediate impact on the Downing College crews, but that will certainly be one of the aims.

There should also be a significant benefit to the wider rowing community in Cambridge, with the interest in using the facility coming in fast.

So the sport in the city looks well served to continue growing.

And bookings to use the rowing tank can be made by visiting cambridgerowingtank.co.uk

*The Lent Bumps are taking place on the River Cam from Tuesday, February 27 to Saturday, March 3.

The director of rowing

Ian Watson believes the Cambridge Rowing Tank will have a significant technical impact on rowers.

The director of rowing at Downing College Boat Club, who has held the post for 12 years, has had the training aid on a wishlist for the last eight, but it got shuffled to the bottom of the pile at executive meetings.

“The impact is being able to get in closer to the athletes,” he said. “It’s a controlled environment. We can be consistent with the rowing, rather than stop-start.

“I think you can build and shape a good rowing stroke on the tank, obviously at closer quarters. You can see mistakes being made and correcting them quicker before they become ground in faults which are harder to change.

“From that point of view, you can build slightly more technical based oarsmen and women, rather than putting them out on the river where little things creep in that you can’t see.

“I can walk around the tank and see just about everything.”

He added: “I never really thought it would happen.”

The captain

Matthew French feels that the benefit of being able to develop the art of the sport in a rowing tank will be seen in future years.

The Downing College men’s captain, who is a third year engineering student, has already noticed the difference of the state-of-the-art environment.

“The biggest thing with the tank is being able to see yourself row while you’re doing it,” said French.

“You can take a video on the water, but then you do the whole hour-and-a-half outing, come back, look at the video and you won’t go out again until the next day.

“It’s quite hard to put all those things together, but in here you can look at yourself from all the different angles and see what your coach is talking about, which makes it so much easier to adjust.

“I did my first hour continuous paddle in a crew on here the other day, and that just helps bring on timing so much faster.”

He added: “The biggest difference we’re going to see is next year when we have our next group of novices and they can get all the basics of rowing out of the way quickly.”

The novice

Grace Eickman only started rowing last term, but looks set to be in Downing College’s W1 crew in the Lent Bumps.

The first-year natural sciences student feels the ability to have errors picked up quickly and adjusted will serve novices like herself well in the future.

“Out on the Cam you are so far detached from your coach because they are on a bike on the towpath, here you are much closer in,” she said. “They can get in the boat and actually move you so you are in the right position.

“As a novice on the river, people have told you what to do but until you feel it, you have no idea where you are supposed to be, where your arms are supposed to be and what it feels like to do it properly.

“In the tank, you can move, you can see yourself and make corrections accordingly until you can go ‘that was what I’m supposed to do’.”

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