School convinced me that I wasn’t a sporty person. I never understood the rules of netball nor the point of it. Many a time I experienced the sight of an object speeding towards me (tennis ball, volleyball, whatever ball), while people yelled incomprehensible instructions and all too comprehensible insults. Meanwhile, I dodged out of the way, thinking that it would be bloody sore if it hit me.
The defining moment of my school sports career took place one winter’s morning when I was in second year at high school. Catriona Meldrum (name changed) emerged from the fog, charging towards me across the frozen surface of the red blaes* pitch, hockey stick raised. She was a tall, strong, Amazonian of a girl and I was a big fearty. A single glance at her brought my well-developed sense of self-preservation to the fore. I dropped my stick and ran in the opposite direction. Running as fast as possible away from a potential source of pain was something I understood very well.
*If you’re not from Scotland, red blaes was made of spent shale (tiny, sharp splinters of stone), oxidised to a rusty red colour so that the blood of thousands of Scottish schoolchildren wouldn’t be visible to the casual observer.
Those labels from school have a habit of lingering and so although I did various things through the years to keep fit – aerobics, gym, swimming – these were solitary pursuits and I never thought of sport as being for me. Years later, I discovered coastal rowing.
I tried it at a taster session and took to it straight away. I’ve always had a fascination for the sea and loved being on the water and so it was an enjoyable way to spend time, but what I didn’t expect was that I’d be good at it on a competitive level.
In the previous few years, I’d been in a bad place, emotionally, physically and literally. Rowing helped me to cast off the last of those shadows, and to shed a few pounds along the way. I felt fitter, stronger. My confidence, in and out of the water, grew.
Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I’m not the most sociable of people. As an occupation, writing suits me. I like spending all those hours alone, but rowing is not a solitary pursuit, it’s a team sport. Team sport – two words that only a few short years ago would have had me running screaming to my hermit’s cave in the hills. Yet there I was, part of a team. I’ve made some brilliant friends through rowing; training, racing and winning medals with them. Yes, unsporty me winning medals, many of them gold.
Coastal rowing has been a gateway sport. Since taking it up, I’ve started running, often over hills, usually through mud, often in the rain. I’ve even been part of a triathlon team. In the winter, I run in the dark. John, my rowing pal, is also my regular running buddy. Occasionally, I run with my husband, Charlie. Mostly I run alone. I run out my stress, I do it to clear my mind. Often, I do it just for the sheer fun of it. Just because I can.
I’m not built like an athlete, I get hot and sweaty, my hair sticks out and my face glows like a Belisha beacon. The best part about all of that is that I don’t care. To begin with, learning not to care what I look like took as much effort as the running. Now I just get up and go.
You need five people for rowing, four rowers and a cox, so it takes a little more organising, but it’s worth it. Racing is exciting and winning medals is delicious, but last year something clicked in my head. Just after crossing the finishing line, knowing that another medal was in the bag, I suddenly thought, okay, that’s that, but I wasn’t done with rowing. Instead of a 2k race, I wanted a longer rowing challenge, something that would test me physically and mentally. I also wanted to know what it felt like to row out in the swell, feeling the deep pulse of the ocean. The obvious answer lay in the body of water I look out at every day: I wanted to row the Minch from Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides to Ullapool on the north west coast of the Scottish mainland.
At the same time as those thoughts were occurring, I was witnessing the slow physical decline of a friend suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. I felt frustrated and helpless and wanted to do something, anything, to show that I cared. If possible, I wanted to make a difference. Thus, Rowing the Minch for MS came into being.
I approached four of my rowing friends and, without hesitation, they each signed up to #MinchRow. On paper, we’re an odd assortment. Anthony is a former ballet dancer turned teacher. Kathryn ran her own HR consultancy. Gary was once a department store Santa Claus and now makes his living diving for scallops. John, who spent most of his life in the catering industry, now works part-time for Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry provider between mainland Scotland and 22 of the islands on the west coast. And there’s me, the writer. Though we may look like as an unlikely bunch as you’ll get, one thing we haven’t had to work on is chemistry, that’s been there from the start. There’s a great energy in the boat arising from the trust that comes from knowing that every one of us will give it their all. Most importantly, though we’re serious about the cause and the challenge, we have a great laugh together.
It’s going to be a slog. 50 miles across open sea, taking 15 hours to complete. Shorter if we’re lucky, several hours longer if we’re not. Either way, there’s plenty of time to develop blisters in places you don’t want to think about.
We had our first crew meeting on 9 August 2018. A year of organising, fundraising and training later, we’re within days of setting off. Our target date is 10 August, but we’re at the mercy of the weather, so it could be then, or it could be the 11th, or 14th or any other day. The not knowing is part of the deal, but coastal rowers are used to dealing with ever-changing conditions. That’s part of the excitement. One particular thing that makes the Minch row so exciting, is knowing that we are raising funds for a revolution.
Although there is currently no cure for MS, revolutionary research undertaken at a world-class facility in Edinburgh means that it is highly likely that a way will be found to stop the disease within the next seven years. That’s a massive breakthrough and a huge ray of hope not only for people suffering from the disease, but for those who care for them. We are raising money to contribute to that research. Our target amount is £22,683, which equates to £1 for every stroke of the oars we reckon it will take us to make the crossing. If you would like to support our cause, you can make a donation via our Just Giving page. Donations will remain open until the end of the year.
Once the row is underway, you’ll be able to track our progress using this link http://yb.tl/RowingtheMinch
Coastal rowing is reckoned to be Scotland’s fastest growing sport, with clubs appearing all around the coastline. Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club members range in age from teens to 80+ and we’re not unusual in that respect. As well as training sessions, most clubs have social rows. Some rowers enjoy coffee and cake in coves only accessible by sea, others fish for mackerel, or simply use rowing as a way of enjoying our glorious outdoors. Seals often accompany us, and some have been lucky enough to spot otters or row alongside dolphins and porpoise.
If like me, you’ve never considered yourself to be a sporty person, why not give coastal rowing a go. At the very least, you’ll enjoy a new experience, but it may just change your life.
Minch Row Crew
The crew is made up of five members from Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club. They are keen competitive rowers and have won many medals between them but rowing the Minch will be their greatest challenge yet.
Kathryn Bennett, 57. A true northern lass from Wigan, Kathryn cut her teeth in the dance music scene. Though she has traded northern soul for northern lights, this keen Wigan Warriors fan still rocks that sharp mod style. Team speciality: logistics; the devil is in the detail.
John Grant, 63. Originally from Drumchapel in Glasgow, John pitched up in Ullapool just in time to misspend his youth during the crazy klondyking years. He then misspent his entire adult career in catering. Team speciality: diet; freakishly fond of beetroot juice.
Gary Lewis, 57. Hailing from Wallasey, Gary fled a short-lived career as a department store Santa Claus for his true calling as a scallop diver in Ullapool. Team speciality: hard core training all the way from this Celt Man Extreme Triathlon Champ.
Anthony O’Flaherty, 61. Our Irish-rooted crew-mate from Auckland lends an international flavour to the crew. If he can make it as a ballet boy in New Zealand, he can make it anywhere. Team speciality: keeping it cool and to the beat.
Lorraine Thomson, 54. Lorraine grew up in modernist new town experiment, Cumbernauld, before spending four years at art school tearing up paper. She’s now an author who loves sharks and loathes mayonnaise. Team speciality: an ideas woman; it’s all about The Big Picture.
Total Crew Years: 292
Lorraine Thomson is the author of seven published books including noir thriller, Boyle’s Law, post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn and the The New Dark trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.