Racing the Women’s Head at 80

This Saturday (7 March 2020), so long as gales, floods and coronavirus don’t cause it to be cancelled, I’ll have the privilege of coxing the legend that is Pauline Rayner at the 80th Women’s Eights Head of the River Race, just a few weeks before her 80th birthday. Many happy returns to both of them.

I’ve coxed Pauline at the Women’s Head several times before but we’re a bit under-practised this year as a crew, so we’ll be relying heavily on past experience. Fortunately, she has more of than that anyone else in the race, having first taken part in it 66 years ago in 1954 at the tender age of 13. She hasn’t competed in EVERY race since then, but she has done most of them, much as the event has had a few years off since it first took place in 1927.

Since then, a few things have changed, of course: wooden boats have been replaced with composite hulls (we’ll be rowing in the Maurice Rayner, named after her late husband, a London RC man), blades are carbon cleavers not wooden ‘pencils’, and she’ll be wearing various technical fabrics rather than cotton shorts and a knitted jumper.

But one thing that remains the same is the cameraderie in crews, and Pauline’s pivotal role in getting people together. In the the course of researching the history of GB women’s rowing for the ‘year-by-year’ and ‘people’ pages elsewhere on this site, no end of people have told me how they went along to Thames RC and the first (and sometimes the only) person who welcomed them there was Pauline. So it’s fitting that this year’s crew is very much a ‘friendship grouping’ and we’re racing as a composite because we’re as fiercely loyal to our clubs as we are to her.

Joining Pauline and me in her 80th Birthday Eight will be Hilary Cook, Lesley Baguley, Pauline Peel, Alice Jenkinson, Birgith Sims, Liz McVeigh and Jackie Darling.

It’ll be my 24th race: I just hope I’ll still be doing it when I’m 80 too.

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