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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 29 November 2014

13 November 2014

On Rowing by Steve Fairbairn,
with a new introduction and notes by Peter Mallory

Why Peter Mallory? Why me? Why did I spend endless hours bringing Steve’s words back to life? I have always made every effort to give back to the rowing community that has been my adopted family all my life, and I am absolutely thrilled to introduce Steve to the rowers of a new century. I hope that passion comes through.

But wait! There’s more!

All of Steve’s writings started as pamphlets, collections of anecdotes, and compilations assembled by others. For the first time spelling and punctuation have been standardized, typos eliminated and factual corrections made. All the original illustrations have been reformatted,and many new ones have been added.

Steve was a world class name-dropper, and though these people were well known in Australia or Britain one hundred-plus years ago, their fame has since waned. One of the most fun things I got to do was to try to track these people down and give the contemporary reader some idea of who they were.

I’m afraid a few of these names may remain a mystery, but I have identified the majority, and they are an impressive bunch. Steve was quite a guy, and he was very well connected in the academic, business and athletic worlds of his time.

If you’re anything like I was ten years ago, I bet you’re thinking to yourself right about now, “Sure, maybe Steve Fairbairn was an interesting guy . . . for his time, but that was a very, very long time ago. But what could he possibly have to teach the 21st Century rower? After all, boats are so much faster nowadays. The sport must have much more primitive in the 1880s when he was rowing for Jesus College in Cambridge.”

“Au contraire, mon frère!” Of course boats go faster today. Our equipment is stiffer and lighter, but everything looks pretty much the same. Rowers of Steve’s day might give modern hatchet blades a double-take before remembering that the generation before them had indeed tried something similar. They would absolutely marvel at the lightness of the oars and the shell as they walked to the water, they would appreciate the shoes attached to their footstretchers, they would love the quietness of their oarlocks and adore their seats traveling so smoothly up and down their tracks . . . but then they would just get down to business, a business that hasn’t changed all that much in 200 years.

Rowers of Steve’s day would be much more impressed with modern athletes. Our women today are far bigger and stronger and fitter and healthier than their men ever were, and the sheer number of athletes rowing in school and club crews up to the National Team in country after country would be just short of incomprehensible to them.

Sure we train harder and smarter today. We row longer miles today, and you hear the saying, “Mileage Makes Champions!” Well, guess who made that saying famous. That’s right, Steve Fairbairn, and he was quoting the previous generation of 19th Century Thames professional oarsmen that he learned from and admired.

And, amazingly, the quality of rowing has changed hardly at all. Look carefully at the illustrations in Fairbairn on Rowing. Look at films. Newsreel footage goes back to the 1890s. Considering that rowing back then was a gentleman’s activity pursued only a few weeks a year, and practicing too long, training too hard, taking sport too seriously was frowned upon as unsportsmanlike, the best of them rowed surprisingly well, just great, in fact!

That was the biggest surprise of all from my research into the history of rowing over that last decade. There are only so many ways to sit backwards in a boat and pull on oars, and just about all of them had been tried long before Steve Fairbairn’s day. Indeed, all the right questions had been asked and answered as early as 1820.

Sure, you can look at the crews of more than a century ago and see some obvious differences. Over the years, “styles” have changed just about as often as women’s hemlines have been raised and lowered, but the basic fundamentals of boat moving are as immutable as Newton’s Laws. I have read more than 100 books and manuals purporting to describe proper rowing technique, and not even the very best ones from my lifetime, including my own, are any better than the best from the 19th Century.

But teaching technique is not what makes Steve Fairbairn so special. It’s his attitude! In an era of strict orthodoxy in rowing, he preached open-mindedness. In that way he very much resembles Joe Burk of the 1930s, Karl Adam of the 1950s and ‘60s, Rusty Robertson of the 1970s and ‘80s, Harry Mahon of the 1970s until the end of the century, Mike Spracklen of the 1980s all the way to today.

None of these rowers and coaches invented anything new. In fact, most of them looked back, looked forward, looked sideways, finding inspiration wherever they looked, and in the process they freed themselves of the strait-jacket of the conventional thinking of their era. The spiritual father of all these men was Steve Fairbairn, and the all of them read On Rowing!

But wait! There’s more!

Steve is SO self-assured, SO opinionated, SO sarcastic! Once a man, looking at one of his crews, exclaimed to Steve, “If that is rowing, then I don’t know anything about rowing.” Without missing a beat, Steve replied, “I never said you did.”

I love this guy!