One man went to row …

John Browne came to St Andrews in the autumn of 1962 to study Chemistry. He left with a passion for rowing, a set of invaluable life skills (and a degree). Here is the story of how he developed this passion and these skills as a result of founding the University of St Andrews Boat Club.

John arrived at St Andrews with a “lifelong interest in aviation”. When he failed to get into the University Air Squadron because of poor eyesight he had to look around for another suitable activity.

“I thought golf too gentlemanly and rugby too brutish…”

So he decided to start a rowing club. Easier said than done, however, since he had “no water, nobody to row with, no boat and no oars”.

AU captains 64-65

Undaunted, he set about overcoming these obstacles, one by one.

His search for water included St Andrews Harbour (too restricted in length and affected by the tides), the Tay estuary (too windswept) and Cameron Reservoir (too many objections by the water authority and local fishermen). Then one day he had a eureka moment while cycling past the Eden Estuary at Guardbridge on the way to Leuchars. Seized by enthusiasm, he knocked on the door of the Guardbridge Paper Company and asked if they could let him use part of their waterside scrapyard area rent-free as a base for boats. Much to his surprise, they agreed.

John had overcome the first obstacle. The next challenge was to find a rowing squad.

In the absence of social media, volunteers bombarded all the University halls and the Athletic Union buildings on both sides of the Tay with fliers and posters. (At this point, Dundee University was still part of St Andrews.) This advertising campaign generated 12 new recruits, although half of them melted away when they realised that they were going to be rowing in a waterside scrapyard in less-than-balmy St Andrews weather. But the ones who were left were absolutely committed to the fledgling club.

Now he had a squad to row with. But where could John get a boat and, once he got it, how could he transport it to Eden Estuary?

rowing at guardbridge

The founding members of the Club training in Guardbridge

Lack of boat and lack of cash for transport of boat were solved respectively by Joe Liddell (John’s old schoolmaster in charge of rowing) and Archie Strachan (Director of the Athletic Union). Joe agreed to donate an old disused wooden clinker four and Archie agreed to pay for its transport from Scotswood on the Tyne.

The logistics of transporting the boat could have scuppered the project (there were no boat trailers back then) but fortunately, since this was pre-Beeching, each local railway (including Scotswood and St Andrews) transported both goods and passengers.

“Accordingly we hired a long bogey wagon normally used to carry rails or steel girders and persuaded the school rowers to carry the boat the half mile or so to the goods yard at Scotswood.”

It took around a week for the boat to arrive at the St Andrews station goods yard where it was then loaded by the intrepid squad onto the only University lorry – procured by Archie, of course. From there it made its way safely to the Eden Estuary.

Five sets of wooden toothpick oars, donated by the school and delivered by John’s parents meant that John had overcome all obstacles and now had water, a boat, a team of rowers and oars.

The St Andrews University Boat Club was launched!

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The team could usually be seen rowing along the Eden Estuary on a Wednesday afternoon and on a Saturday, with one eye always on the tides in case they became grounded and stuck on the glutinous sludge pumped out by the paper mill and the now-demolished sugar plant upstream at Cupar.

“Our ergo warmup took the form of a six-mile-round cycle trip to Guardbridge. When the ides and tides were in our favour we could row about 2k upstream and around 1k downstream. The active squad comprised about six people so we had to take it in turns to row the boat. The two not on the boat had to shelter in the Guardbridge bus shelter if it was raining!”

So to what extent did John benefit from this challenge?

“In terms of rowing, very little … but in terms of life skills, enormously.”

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Members of the Senior Men’s 8+ Squad in 2013

John left St Andrews to study for a DPhil at Oxford and from there went on to ICI, where he found the time management and people skills he had developed setting up the club invaluable. After a career “ranging from being a white-coated researcher to a white-haired manager” he founded Catalyst Consultants – a business that focuses on helping the public sector to build bridges with the private sector.

“It is the success of Catalyst Consultants that has enabled me to make a modest donation to fund a new quad for the Club. This boat will be named Catalyst to celebrate all the opportunities that have come my way as a result of the life skills that I acquired in the process of founding the Club.”

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Members of the Boat Club at their annual erg-a-thon in aid of Maggie’s Cancer Centres

“I hope the name encourages those who follow in my puddles to see the benefits of contributing to the future of the St Andrews University Boat Club, either as club member or as donor.”

John Browne

Captain St Andrews University Boat Club 1964-6

Keep this wonderful tradition going and make your donation to the boat club.

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2 thoughts on “One man went to row …

  1. Andrew Hamilton says:

    I seem to remember we had to do much the same when I arrived at St Andrews in 1975. I had rowed at school and wanted to continue but found there was no boat club at St Andrews (I think it had lapsed since John Browne’s time), so myself and a chap called Paul Maw went through the same process of looking for somewhere to row and eventually finding the Eden at Guardbridge and then applied to the AU for a grant and bought a boat from my old school and re-founded the Boat Club. Some fairly dim memories of very early mornings to catch the tide and an awkward section through the three bridges at Guardbridge come to mind, plus I seem to recall our greatest success in the early years was to come second in the annual University Boat Race (i.e. beer drinking competition) in the Union. The Club was then ably and enthusiastically taken on by an Ian (Brown?) with the help of Jacko (Arabic lecturer who frequented the ‘Keys’) as coach and I believe is still going to this day.
    Andrew Hamilton MA 1979

    • Hi Andrew!

      Sorry for the delayed response, but the club would like to thank you for taking the time to write about your time in the club, it sounds like you’ve been particularly influential in our clubs history. If you would like to get in touch to tell us more about the University of St Andrews Boat Club during your time with us, we would really appreciate it! We’re working towards a more complete history of crews and their successes as well as any fond memories you may have, on or off the water.

      If you would like to get in touch, I’m the Alumni and Press Officer for the Boat Club 2016/17 and my email is ch237@st-andrews.ac.uk.

      Alternatively if you would like to stay up to date with the club, here is the link to our website, which is kept updated with news and achievements.

      http://www.ustaboatclub.com/#!contact-us/c147q

      Many thanks,

      Charlotte Horsman.

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