Thames rower Pauline Rayner reminisces on the Women’s Head and rowing

President of Thames RC, Pauline Rayner MBE is 80 this year and is racing in the 80th Women’s Eights Head of the River Race on Saturday. Martin Gough meets her

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Pauline Rayner pictured at Thames RC with special guest HRH Prince Michael of Kent (c) Jo Harris

Pauline Rayner has missed the last couple of editions of the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race but she is determined to take part in this year’s event, two months before her 80th birthday.

After rowing for Thames RC for four decades, Pauline celebrated the 60th anniversary of her first Women’s Head in 2014, when her Masters F crew – with an average age of over 60 – finished in the top half of the field.

Of course the race today is a long way from the one that saw her debut in 1954, a 13-year-old in the three seat of the Alpha ARC eight which finished third out of 10 crews.

“You always put the worst person in the three seat, don’t you?” she jokes, looking at a photo of herself obviously leaning away from her rigger.

“We had pencil blades. You had to make sure you got very quick catches or you wouldn’t hang onto the water. Otherwise it was like putting a pencil in the water.”

The moment I walked into the boathouse, there was a particular smell and there was this excitement

The race at that time ran just two miles from the White Hart pub by Barnes Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge. Although races in the 1930s covered the full four-and-a-quarter miles of the Championship course, it was felt after the Second World War that rationing had left women too weak to race that distance.

Rationing ended in that very year, 1954, but the shorter course remained until the 1970s.

Pauline, whose maiden name was Sanson, first got involved in rowing when she followed her brother John to Thames Tradesmen’s RC. Her parents had a particular view of the role of women and wouldn’t allow her to leave the house alone.

“The moment I walked into the boathouse, there was a particular smell and there was this excitement,” she says.

The Thames Tradesmen’s RC captain George Cooper suggested she try a ladies’ club, Alpha RC – and her father was suitably mollified by a visit to their base at Tom Green’s boathouse, which was used by several clubs.

“There were nice ladies there,” says Pauline. “My father hadn’t realised there were men’s clubs there, but I was only interested in the sport. I couldn’t have cared less [about the men] at that time.”

Green’s was in the shadow of Barnes Bridge where Tradesmen’s is now. The clubhouse, which eventually burned down, was ramshackle at best.

“You would open the door and it would be pitch black. All you could see was a sign saying ‘Public Bar’ on a piece of glass. That was the loo. There was no gas or electricity. We had an oil lamp and my friend Rita used to bring a hot water bottle, wrapped up in a towel, so she could have some hot water to wash with after the outing.”

Six years later, and just nine months after the birth of her son Nicholas, Pauline raced for Great Britain at the European Women’s Championships on the Welsh Harp Reservoir in Willesden, north-west London.

She and Pam Body – also a new mum – finished third in the doubles’ heat. Two daughters followed and Pauline struggled to row regularly around family commitments, although she still managed to row in the Women’s Head.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that she got involved in veteran rowing for the first time. She moved to Thames for logistical reasons and has been coach, captain (1991-1994) and is now club president, as well as organising tea, toast and flapjacks between squad outings.

My friend Rita used to bring a hot water bottle, wrapped up in a towel, so she could have some hot water to wash with after the outing

She began coaching in “1983 or ’84”. The Batten sisters, Guin and Miriam, Great Britain’s first female Olympic rowing medallists in the quad in Sydney 20 years ago, are among those who went through the Thames squad during the following decade, with Pauline teaching both to scull.

“After the Olympics in 2000 we had over 40 women join Thames, and four novice eights rowing the Head,” she says.

“I thought there was only one way of sorting them out: I made them stand in a line with the tallest at one end and the shortest at the other. Who were the fastest crew? The tallest, always, taught properly.

Women's Eights Head preview

You can read our full preview to the 2020 Women's Eights Head of the River Race here.

“We just taught them how to row. People make it so complicated. You just have to glide, keep yourself symmetrical and relax every part of you. You only work for one third of your outing. For two thirds you’re on the recovery.”

Pauline is not keen on volunteering outside of her own clubhouse.

“The only time I’ve ever helped with timing was at the Fours Head and I realised I was far too interested in the crews to be of any use. I didn’t want to be an umpire because that would limit my racing ability.”

She believes last year was the first time she failed to win her category at the Vesta Veterans’ Eights Head of the River Race.

The only time I’ve ever helped with timing was at the Fours Head and I realised I was far too interested in the crews to be of any use

“We did a mixed eight,” she explains. “One of the crew had just broken his collarbone, there was Jackie with the flu, me with my hips, Mark Panter had just broken his foot but came back to stroke us. So we didn’t finish too badly – third out of 10.

She makes sure she does some exercise every day. The day after we speak she is planning an hour-long session in the Thames rowing tank.

And how different is the Women’s Eights Head now compared to Pauline’s first event 66 years ago? Well, with 310 more crews likely to take part this year, there will be more boats to overtake for a start.

“Luckily they put fairly fast crews like our veterans in the middle of the race, with the novices at the back,” she says.

“I’m so polite normally but if I’m up against a crew that won’t get out of the way, it’s a red rag to a bull.”

Find out more about the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race here.

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