It started with an email heading: ‘Slightly Mad Idea’. Find an amenable landowner with some sort of boat house; get funding; buy boats; get coaching qualification; single handedly teach as many people as possible to row in one summer as possible; convince them all to become members…and start a rowing club. Simple!
There were cautions: the numbers were ambitious; the plan had snowballed into a huge project. The site wasn’t just a shed: it was a multi-million pound building project for a state-of-the-art water sports centre. And the numbers would generate more members for Lakeland Rowing Club South in one year than Lakeland Rowing Club North had amassed in seven years. And it meant raising tens of thousands of pounds to buy a club’s worth of boats in just one year.
But broken down into these tasks it seemed possible. And when a young lady called Sophie emailed to say she’d just moved to the area, rowed at University and loved the idea I realised we might actually pull this off. She didn’t need to have all the passion and enthusiasm to give her every waking thought to it like I was, she just had to be there when it mattered which meant now that I wasn’t alone this might actually work. Fortunately, she surpassed that, becoming 50% of the coaching team and eventually a member of the committee.
And we pulled it off. Somehow I’d convinced charities to give us £22,000 in a year, we bought the boats we needed, we had agreements with landowners and my press releases and media interviews had generated a waiting list of over 70 people wanting to learn to row.
It wasn’t without hiccups. The building project fell through; another landowner came to our rescue the week before our first learn to row courses started. The weather was horrendous and I didn’t have a plan B for my back-to-back sessions; but we ploughed on anyway – I only had to shove stroke out of her seat in a hurry once to row us away from the fast approaching concrete bank . One week we outstayed our welcome and were thrown off site 10 minutes before the start of the first of four sessions; I begged a neighbouring landowner to help us out (The Langdale Chase Hotel – thanks legends!) and they generously helped us out. We found a new site and moved mid-course to our new home at Fell Foot Park, joining another exciting multi-million pound water sports development…but it upset the sailors; we made friends and quickly learned we were, as the Tories would say, stronger together! People said the club was run on cake and smiles and it was no exaggeration: we had nothing except an ability to appeal to the Cumbrian spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
My best cock up of all was bringing our new members and our latest learn to row course to our first competition: an Explore Rowing event, designed for rowers just off learn to row…and then realising in the safety briefing that it was a sweep event, not a sculling one. “So there’s this thing called Sweep rowing,” I announced to 20 new rowers in a pre-race huddle, minutes before they were due on the water. “It’s a different sport to what you’ve been learning but it’s really very similar. And do you know what, we don’t have the money for sweep equipment so we’d never otherwise have had this opportunity so let’s just do our best and have fun!”
They were brilliant: we became the talk of the race, first as the hopeless newbies who didn’t know what they’d let themselves in for, but then as more coaches started to come and offer their advice it became the best mass coaching session you could wish for. Our members were buoyed by the support they received from fellow clubs and we left the race with kudos if not points: we were the fun club, the ones who were up for anything and gave it a go. We were the underdogs and though we lost every race we didn’t lose by much and that was a hell of an achievement in the circumstances. For me, I learned it was time to stop trying to spin all the plates at once.
We formed a committee and I learned to delegate and let others take on what I had been doing, knowing they wouldn’t do it like me: they might do it worse, but they’d probably do it better but whatever the outcome, it was better than the current unsustainable fiasco of me trying to do it all. And if eight people could take on what I was doing, it was definitely time to stand aside!
Within a year of starting the club, we’d quadrupled the membership of Lakeland Rowing Club, and had as many boats. With 70+ people we were already ready to fly the nest and become our own club: Windermere Rowing Club.
Two years on from that first committee meeting we have a vibrant club, with an army of coaches, a fantastic, hard-working committee, a healthy membership, a good variety of boats and a water sports centre that is very nearly built. There are clubs that have been going for hundreds of years that can’t boast that (there are also plenty that have more than we could ever dream of!).
But I wasn’t happy. Rowing had become meetings to me. All I’d ever wanted was to be able to do the sport I’d found so much enjoyment in before I moved to the Lake District, but now I barely rowed and thought of rowing as a chore: meetings, coaching, commitments, responsibilities.
I cried when I looked up in a moment of clarity and knew I needed to leave. Rowing had become part of who I was, that’s how a lot of people knew me and divorcing myself from it felt like losing the right side of my body. And yet letting it go was the most beautiful, happy, incredible achievement, because it wasn’t me anymore. What started as a selfish desire to row became something that gave over 70 people great enjoyment, some had changed their bodies, their social life, their lives because they found rowing. And it was a club. I could now walk away and it would survive perfectly well without me, because it was so much more than me now and then I realised that I had changed too.
In those three years I had found other sports and other things to fill my time where I once rowed five times a week and I was longing to do more of those things: not only was I not the rowing club, the rowing club wasn’t me.
It’s taken half a year to complete the process of letting go: seeing out my coaching sessions, wrapping up the duties as Chairman I needed to see through, but now it’s all done and it ended as it began: shouting at a bunch of newbies till they smashed their first race – and their expectations of what they thought they could achieve just six weeks ago – filling a boat with jokes and laughter, and toasting their success with cake.
I’ll be back in a few years, but now it’s time to do some stuff for me, and when I return it’ll be to row, not to manage or command, because I learned something important about myself: I’m a visionary, I can create an idea and make it happen, but I’m not the steady pair of hands that will maintain it for the long-haul. But the next Chairman can: he has those skills. And that’s what building a club is all about: seeing each other’s skills and building that variety into a team that can achieve more than one person ever can.