‘Czar’

“Emma girl, in’t it time you got in a gig?” Digby shouted across to me one day in the pub. A couple of the old pilots gasped, but they knew he was right. Who else would be left, if the girls didn’t learn? “I know what you think,” he nodded to the old beards. “But I’m telling you, she’s tougher than any boy you’ll find round here.”

I was fifteen. I brought my cousin Ivy. She brought the woman who runs the stables, who brought Meg from the fruit and veg shop. Pretty soon there were six of us, and we beat that sea up all winter.

“Oh Jesus Mary -” Digby would say from the cox’s seat, “it’s like watching a centipede playing the trumpet. Christ on a chuffing bike Jenna, this isn’t the Olympic javelin final.”

Every stroke was a painful, twisting, heaving effort. No movement was comfortable.

“Get that blessed spoon wet Soph. Don’t just tickle the water!”

We left every session close to tears, with the sting of sea water lingering on our blistered hands.

Perhaps all his exclamations did eventually summon some kind of divine force, because one morning, four months in, when we were weak-armed and rowing home into a stiff wind, we took one stroke perfectly in time. And another. And another. Nobody said a word, but we all felt it. Beneath us, a rushing sound, as if a great hand was lifting our weight.

Digby began tapping the hull excitedly with his outstretched palms. “This is it girls,” he called with a new, hoarse softness. “Feel her lift!” None of us knew quite what was happening, but the sensation was extraordinary. Once we had experienced it, we were a little closer to understanding what togetherness was, and even our rockiest stroke had a newfound intention: to lift the boat like that again, as one.

The next session, we gathered round the training gig, and waited for the call to roll her out. Where was Digby?

“Over here,” he shouted from the next boathouse, the one where the wooden boats were kept.

“We’re going out in the Czar?” I asked.

“Why not? You’re ready,” Digby replied.

We set out in her with caution, sending our frothy puddles shorewards over the sand, exchanging shallow turquoise and deep teal for choppy indigo sea. With every lean, we felt the strain of a thousand oarsmen before us, dressed in these striped cotton vests, their buttocks pinched against the wooden planks. The gig began to lift.

In the rush of air that sounded beneath, I heard how she had ridden these waters before, like a phantom narwhal in the dead of night. How her rowers jostled to pilot the Endeavour, the SS Isabo, the Punta, how they climbed aboard these half-grounded beasts for a fistful of cash. How those that were left gathered up cargo from the wreck, fished out the coconuts that knocked against her hull, raced home beside the other gigs named Longkeel, Golden Eagle, Swift…

“Eyes in the boat Emma,” Digby called. “Listen to her sing.”

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