Johnathan Zemlik

JOHNATHAN ZEMLIK takes to the river this week and swears his head off. But it’s relaxing… honest.

cam johnathan zemlik johns Rowing Sidney Sussex st johns swearing the c bomb The Cam the can

The one thing everyone told me to do when I went to Cambridge was to try rowing. So that’s exactly what I’ve done.

It certainly wasn’t how I imagined it. You know the scene: jollily rowing down the river, drinking wine, eating strawberries, dressed in a cricket jumper and straw boater hat.

In reality, the river is Cambridge’s seedy underbelly. It’s where the polite, well-mannered people of Cambridge come to swear, rant and rave.

As I headed down the river at 7.45am, my concentration was abruptly broken by a shout of: “Oi! Shut the fuck up, you noisy shits. Do you know what bloody time it is?”

I understand that hearing screams of: “Full stroke, bow four, bow and 2 drop out and 5 and 6 come in,” come through the walls of your narrow little houseboat first thing in the morning might not be ideal. Still, they should be use to it by now; it’s not like all this rowing is a new thing.

But it’s not just onlookers who are angry. It’s the other rowers too. If you’re more than a minute late to the boathouse, you’ll be greeted by vicious shouts of: “Let’s lynch him!” The early mornings and sadistic warm ups make any respectable undergraduate turn into a swearing, violent monster.

Once you actually get onto the river, mutual rage only increases. Being shouted at simultaneously by the cox and coach may help us improve, but it’s bloody stressful.

The real antagonism comes when the more arrogant, experienced boats barrel pass without asking, taking risks, slipping through tight spaces and running risky bends, like a waterborne game of chicken. Sometimes this doesn’t pay off and angry collisions lead to harsh words, a mangled mess of oars and congestion right down the river.

Even with novice crews, the friendly competition quickly builds into a fierce rivalry. When Sidney boats pass a low rumble of “Who the fuck are Sidney Sussex?” can be heard, and when John’s pass by, no-one belies a brief rendition of: “We’d rather be at Oxford than St. Johns….”

If this is the rivalry in practice, I dread to think how this could escalate once we reach competitions.

And yet despite the fierce rivalries, harsh words and angry locals, no one can deny the therapeutic nature of being on the water, or the team spirit that is built by a good sprint down river. Of all the things I have done this term, learning to row has ironically been the most relaxing.

Plus, it’s nice to know that the otherwise well-mannered Cambridge undergrads aren’t beyond whipping out the two-fingered salute or dropping the C bomb.