How Rowing Found Me--First in a Series

When rowers sit around and chat, they share a lot of rowing stories that are by turns heart-pounding and laugh-til-coffee-shoots-out-your-nose hilarious. But it's come to me with the start of this blog that I haven't the foggiest notion how most of my rowing friends got into the sport in the first place. 

Philip Johnson is a good example. He's rowed with me here in Minneapolis for years, and while his accent brands him as a definite out-of-towner, I didn't know his story. Luckily, he was wiling to share it. Enjoy!


I realized I became hooked on rowing back when I was at high school and probably my most memorable event was rowing for the first time at the Schools Head of the River Race (SHRR) in London. (The “Tideway” is the name affectionately given by rowers to the stretch of river between Putney and Chiswick on the river Thames in London England).

I went to a small high school called Reading Blue Coat School which was an all-boys school situated on the river Thames in a small village called Sonning about thirty miles due West of London. The school had just over three hundred boys from the ages eleven to seventeen. Sports activities were compulsory. We had official sports classes on Tuesday morning, all of Wednesday afternoons and Thursday morning, and competitive matches against other schools on Saturday afternoons. We had to attend academic school classes on Saturday mornings, I guess to make up for all the time we were playing sport. The rowing club was one of many sports that the school had to offer so building a strong team was always challenging; we were always in competition with other sports teams for talent. As I had never been good at running I thought rowing would be ideal for me to slack off. Little did I know at the time how much running I would be expected to do as part of my rowing training.

The SHRR is rowed on the same course as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race but it is run in the opposite direction, we rowed from Chiswick to Putney in the Schools race which is downstream with the tide, whereas the Oxford Cambridge boat race is rowed up-stream but with a following tide. As you can see from the photo above, we started 113 in the race. Back then there were only about 180 boats which entered. Today it is typically in excess of 300 high school eights entries.

Back in the 1960’s when I started rowing all racing eights were made from wood. Top quality racing boats were scarce and often required ordering more than a year in advance to get one. A typical wooden eight took more than a month to build; every single wooden strut was hand made to fit, they were also much heavier and more fragile than the new plastic boats we have today.

Wooden boats were also much quieter to row, wood seemed to adsorb the sound of the oars, there was almost no “clunk” sound when the wooden oar was feathered nor did the coxswain have cox boxes or microphones to amplify their voices.

The SHRR I mention was made extra special for us because it was the first time our school had ever had an entry to the race. It was also the first time any of us had ever rowed in a wooden racing shell. The boat we managed to borrow was from a local rowing club especially for the event. As kids you can probably imagine just how special it felt being able to use real racing equipment similar to the boats the top competitive rowing clubs were using.

Above is a picture of us racing in the SHRR, I am rowing (6). The year was 1965. 

As you can see from the picture we weren’t able borrow new modern oars. Our oars were made from wood and the shape is what we nicknamed “pencils”, because the blade was much thinner than the “Macon” blade which only came out in the early 1960’s; both these older oar designs have been superseded by the modern “hatchet” design which today is an all plastic and carbon construction.

The way the London Head of the River Races are organized in England is crews are marshalled along the river bank in numerical order with bows facing up-river, with the number 1 crew positioned most upstream, actually some distance above the start line. When the official start time for the race arrives there is a cannon that is fired and the first crew turns out from the river bank into the middle of the river and starts to row down-stream to the start line of the race, where they will receive instructions from an umpire to start racing about twenty strokes before they reach the actual start line. As somebody new to rowing you can imagine how impressive it is to see literally hundreds of eights and thousands of competitors all in one race proceeding up to the start line and then turning to follow each other down the course racing.

While we didn’t finish in the top ten of this race I can tell you that five of our crew went on to become various national rowing champions, three of us represented our countries for rowing, and the three man in this eight went on to win a bronze medal at the world championships in a lightweight coxless four. I am sure something must have clicked to keep us all rowing after we left high-school.


Philip Johnson started rowing in 1965 at high school in London. In 1970 he joined Upper Thames Rowing club and raced the same year at Henley Royal Regatta in a coxless four with his two brothers. By 1973 he was rowing for England in a double scull with his younger brother. His rowing accomplishments include:

                President of Newcastle on Tyne University rowing club

                Silver medal in the single scull at the British University Championships.

                Captain of Upper Thames Rowing club

                South African single scull champion.

                Rowed stroke seat in first eight ever to race for South Africa internationally.

                Rowed in first lightweight coxless four ever to represent South Africa internationally.

                President of Vikings Rowing Club, South Africa

Philip arrived in Minneapolis in 2000, and continues to race at the masters level for Minneapolis Rowing Club.