Down by the riverside

The river may not be the pristine one of yonder days, but members of the Madras Boat Club continue to venture into it, driven by their passion for rowing

Published - July 15, 2014 06:31 pm IST - chennai

The Madras Boat Club, home of rowing in South India for almost 150 years, deserves a better-cared-for river

The Madras Boat Club, home of rowing in South India for almost 150 years, deserves a better-cared-for river

Crrrrunch! The boat sounds like it has hit a rock. We are in the middle of Adyar River close to Madras Boat Club, and I wonder if the boat will come apart. There is no fear of drowning: the water is around two-feet deep, there is a lifejacket; boatmen Shaktivel and Kubendran are experts at rescue. I'm terrified I'll fall in the filthy water. I've seen enough — garbage floating, garbage dumped on the banks, effluents pouring in through giant pipes…. Will I ever feel clean?

The Madras Boat Club, home of rowing in South India for almost 150 years, deserves a better-cared-for river. “MBC rowers known for their technical skills, are the envy of rowers from other clubs,” says Captain Ravindran. “Our student rowers have done the Club proud by representing overseas universities in collegiate championships and winning medals.”

As I walk through the low-roofed clubhouse with oarsman Krishnamohan, I feel the strong colonial air wafting through the hallowed premises, brushing the plaques and photographs dating back to 1867. I stop to admire the 1929-built store, the insignia above the entrance, the names of the pioneers on the wall, the stacks of elegant boats in the boathouse, the spectacular boat-themed Kingfisher Easy Oars bar and the Bow Side lounge. At the river-front yard, I sit in the Rower's Corner beneath the “sacred” tree, and watch rowers returning from their morning outing. They shrug off the stench from the river. “Once you are out there, it is just you, boat and water. You are oblivious to everything else.”

Old-timers Revi Thomas and Radha/Radhakrishnan saunter down to share non-fishy tales. They talk of British rowers giving “berth” to the MBC, importing “clinker” boats made of wood pieces for the rowing teams, the competition between Ennore and Madras in 1867, growth of the MBC, floods, Parry's-Metal Box rivalry, bankers getting afternoons off for rowing, and dress-code demanding jacket-and-tie for sit-down lunches. “We were travelling execs, so we planned our work around practice for the Regatta. In 1975-76, MBC won the M&B trophy under Abraham Kandathil, aka “Boat Whisperer.” James here beat Dalbir Singh in 1989 to become Asian medallist.” Competition is now at club/inter-university/national level. “Our boys Siddharth and Ram have won silver in two events.”The club means everything to the young rowers. Fourteen-year-old swimmer Dhitika joined so she could be on a boat and is grateful “the club and rowing have given me new friends.” Ashwathy, after eight years of swimming and winning gold medals at Nationals wanted something different. Dad suggested rowing, she joined, was impatient to get moving and on her second outing, fell in the river. “Following the tradition, I had to buy 10 plates of French fries.” In four months, she represented Tamil Nadu, and won in the Junior Nationals. “The girls section hasn't lost a race,” she brags. Siddharth Sunil, 19 and all of 6 feet 3 inches, is from a family of rowers, and joined in 2008 to lose weight. His boat kept sinking till he came down to 82 kg from 115 kg. “It moves now, my life has changed.” There is no other sport like rowing, it's explosive, he says. Ram Saravana Raja, 21, zonal-level basket-baller started rowing a year-and-a-half ago to go solo. Concentration that rowing develops is a big help in academics, he feels. In team events, the camaraderie is excellent.

But coach James talks of the intimate relationship between club/river/rowing. To develop aerobic (heart/lung) capacity, you need a minimum of 8-12 km of daily rowing, a stinking river is not the best place for it, he says. In the 70s, the winning crew would throw the coxes into the river, boats would go up to the broken bridge, and circle the island near Theosophical Society. Today they watch out for leaks in the sewage pipes above, sludge below. This is the only club in Chennai with a river-front, the only club that promotes the sport. Alas, MBC is now more a social-club than a boat-club, rue boat-lovers. They want rowers who are assured of jobs, and the Regatta revived. “In 30 years, my students have gone on to become VPs of Fortune-500 companies, thanks to the motivation and drive rowing gives,” says Abru. “After cross-country skiing, this is the toughest sport, but gets the least support.” The 35-km stretch where rowers practise must be dredged, the banks cleared, trees planted. “We need more Boat Clubs, at least one across the river, competition is good for the sport.”

Read Down by the Adyar by S. Muthiah for the MBC story.

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