How a legal eagle became the College boatman

Trinity Hall is a great place for rowers says Rowing Coach and Boathouse Manager Paul Townshend, who spent more than a decade as a solicitor before taking up coaching. Here he speaks to us about his ethos, what the best things are about being at Trinity Hall, and how the enthusiasm of current students and alumni make his job a joy.

I am also extremely proud to be part of a club that has such a long and illustrious history – every day it seems like I learn something new about THBC. For example, did you know that Trinity Hall is the most successful Cambridge college at Henley Royal Regatta or that it holds the record for the longest consecutive defence of the men’s Headship in the history of the bumps since the 1880s?

The fact that we have such a supportive College as well as amazingly generous alumni means that at Trinity Hall we can offer excellent facilities where students can learn, and hopefully want to progress, in a sport most people have not tried before they arrive in Cambridge. This support from College and the alumni are factors that, I believe, set us apart from many other Colleges and allows us to provide opportunities to our students to give them the very best experience possible.

What’s your rowing / training background?

I rowed and fell in love with the sport while at school – I attended the same school as Tom James MBE (Trinity Hall, CUBC & double Olympic Champion). It’s hard to believe now but somehow I managed to win medals at the National Schools Regatta back in the ‘dark ages’ when boats and oars were made of wood, ergs didn’t exist (thank goodness) and coxes used megaphones rather than electronics and microphones.

I came back to the sport as a coach after practising as a solicitor for over a decade. My coaching journey has taken me from Auckland in New Zealand, back to my old school in Chester and now to Cambridge. Along the way, I have had the pleasure in coaching numerous GB Internationals as well as rowers who have rowed in the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race.

However, it’s not always about ‘winning’ – I am a great believer in the ’journey’ being a very important element of coaching and teaching people a new skill. At Trinity Hall we have a wide range of experience and motivations ranging from complete novices to seasoned rowers attempting to row in the Boat Races and being able to support and contribute towards people maximising their potential (whatever that may be) is what makes my job as satisfying as it is.

Biggest part of the boating year?

The highlight of the year has to be the ‘Bumps’. Prior to arriving in Cambridge I had no experience of the Bumps and in my 30+ years in the sport I can honestly say I had never seen anything like it. Now I’m addicted!

My first year was most definitely an eye-opener. Nothing can quite prepare a coach/boatman for pushing out, the volume of the starting cannon and the sheer adrenaline rush of following alongside a Bumps race but what an experience….a mix of dodgems, tag with snakes and ladders…on water! If anyone has yet to experience the Bumps I would thoroughly recommend popping down to the Cam and witnessing it for yourself.

How has covid impacted this year?

Like so many areas of everyone’s life, the pandemic has affected life at THBC in many ways. For much of the past 12 months rowing on the water has not been possible, land training has had to be adapted and our Henley training camps have been cancelled.

Not to mention that the 2020 May Bumps were cancelled and Michaelmas Term 2020 was heavily affected with only four weeks of rowing being possible.

While the pandemic has forced us to change many of the ways that we operate, it has also afforded us opportunities to think about how we do things and make adjustments to how we teach and offer rowing to our students.

The boathouse has had a very thorough risk mitigation plan in place since summer 2020 and I am happy to say that thanks to our cleaning protocols, hand sanitising stations throughout the building, mask wearing and socially distanced training our rowers managed to enjoy their rowing in a very safe environment with the added benefit that the boats have never been so clean!

In the various lockdowns, inevitably much of the training has moved onto Zoom. Together with the help of the Captains and Committee we have created regular challenges and meetups to help maintain connection between all members of the club hopefully helping to minimise any feelings of isolation among our students.

I also have regular 1:1 meetings online with the students and design individualised training plans to help the rowers train in the environment they have with the equipment they have available. The key message has been to do a little often as progress is all about consistency of effort in my experience.

The pandemic has been a very testing time for so many people and on so many fronts but looking to the future I firmly endorse the sentiment behind the following quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt….”A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”.

What difference does philanthropy make?

The constant enthusiasm, engagement and support from our alumni is absolutely central at THBC. It enables us to do what we do.

Help from our alumni can take many forms be it financial, helping with coaching, in an advisory capacity or simply as a supporter on the bank or at a training camp.

Rowing is an expensive sport and we now have a regular cycle of equipment replenishment in place. The support from our alumni helps facilitate this cycle whether it be boats, oars, state of the art electronics for coxes, gold standard land training equipment or any other piece of equipment needed to keep THBC at the forefront of college rowing in Cambridge.

Ever since arriving at Trinity Hall I have been keen to extend an open invitation to our alumni to come back and visit the boathouse. I am happy to say that a good number have taken me up on this invitation. It is incredibly heart-warming to see people’s faces when they walk back through the doors, to see the excitement across their faces, to hear their stories of their time here and to hopefully find a photo of themselves on the walls. It is a pleasure to meet our alumni and our shared love of rowing means that we are never short of things to talk about.

I find it inspiring to see and hear what THBC has meant to so many people over the years and as we look forward I am extremely keen that current and future generations enjoy their rowing, achieve what they want to achieve in rowing as well as learn the valuable life lessons that I believe rowing can teach a person.

It is staggering to see how many people still think about, and still want to help THBC so many years after completing their studies at Cambridge. I am often reminded of a mantra followed by the NZ All Blacks – “Be a Good Ancestor – plant trees you’ll never see”. To me, this sums up the support that we receive from our alumni and I am proud to say that this is something that sets THBC apart from the rest.

What’s the future of the boathouse and club?

THBC has an amazing history. I firmly believe that we are all part of something that is much bigger than us as individuals and that we are temporary custodians of this wonderful institution.

Looking to the future and as THBC nears its 200-year anniversary in 2027 it’s a very exciting place to be. There are plans to extend the boathouse and continue to develop the facilities we have in order that we can continue to offer our students one of the finest, if not the finest, training environments of any Cambridge college.

With the continued support of our alumni we are able to regularly update our fleet of boats and provide enough seats for anyone at College who would like to row. I am pleased to report that had in the region of 80 novice rowers sign up to learn to row in the Michaelmas Term which, when added to four senior eights that were in regular training, took the numbers rowing at THBC well in excess of 100.

We also have two of our freshers trialling for the University boats in 2021 so we are all keeping our fingers crossed that the annual races against Oxford are able to take place.

Being a member of THBC can lead to lifelong friendships. It is a very special place and a wonderful place to work. As we approach 2027 and the Club’s 200th Anniversary, the future looks bright and I am sure that the club will continue to go from strength to strength.

If anyone would like to get in touch I can be contacted by email or phone.

More information is available on the Trinity Hall Boat Club website.

Read Paul’s top wellbeing tips.

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