Memoirs of Gilbert Wilson - member of the club from 1952 to 2020

'Paignton ARC was founded in 1890 and I have seen a photo of a crew out in the bay dated 1905. The boat was a four and it looked to be clinker built. I was told in the early days they could carry their boats out of the boat house and down a bit of beach, made up of sand and shingle right opposite the club house, there was no slipway back then. In the early 1900's the council decided to improve the harbour area and so they put down a lot of hardcore to build up the level to build a retaining wall and eventually a road right down past the club and the rest of the properties which were mainly old wooden fisherman's huts, they also put the slipway in. The club obviously survived and went from strength to strength.

'When I joined in 1952 it was still very primitive. The 1st floor, which is now the bar area, wasn't there. When you opened the double wooden doors it was like walking into a cave. The walls were sandstone and the floor was hard pressed down sand. The changing room was above where the beer casks are kept and in there was a single toilet. On the opposite side, roughly where the stairs to the bar are we had a sheet of galvanised iron where we used to stand behind and your crew mates would take it in turns to hose you down with cold water. If some rotten sod took your towel you would have to run across to the changing room with your hands on your meat and two veg and hope that nobody was walking past the double doors!

'Eventually we were lucky enough to have four very kind businessmen who came to our rescue. There was Ron Lewis, a builder: Bob Ely, a builder; Mr Wills, a builder; and TS Sharp, a plumber. These four put in the new floor, which is now the bar. They laid concrete on the boathouse floor, they put in windows upstairs and the stairs that lead up to the bar area. Mr Sharp put in a shower in the boathouse. They supplied all the material and their own men, working during the day, free of charge. The biggest cost was the large steel girders holding the floor above up. They were supplied by Ron Lewis, who eventually became our coach.

'In 1950 the club had a very good junior crew who won the WEARA Championship and then went on to the National Championship, held at Southampton, and won that. The crew was, at stroke, Jumbo Yeoman, at 3, Bob Salter, at 2, Harry Downs and in bow, Maurice Tarrant. In 1953 Paignton again won the Junior Championship of WEARA, of which I was a member of the crew. We were sent up to the National Championships, this time on the Thames, but this time we couldn't repeat what the 1950 crew did. We won our heat but were pushed down to third in the final. Whilst we were out on a training row, our coach, Ron Lewis spotted a body stuck face down on a mud bank. We could see that this was no ordinary drowning. This man had his hands tied behind his back and around his legs. We soon left and went back to the club with whom we had borrowed the boat. A member of the club said we should have dragged it to the shore. He said, if we took it to the Middlesex bank we would have been paid seven shillings and six pence but if we had taken him to the Surrey bank we would have only got five shillings!

'It was also in 1953 when, one evening, I was just leaving home to go down to the club when I heard a big rumble followed by the windows shaking. I didnt think much of it at the time because often Navy battleships would be firing their big guns out in the channel for practice. However, when I got down to the harbour the rest of the crew hadnt arrived so I walked out to the end of the harbour and I suddenly realised the water was racing out of the harbour much faster than normal. Within ten minutes the harbour was completely empty, minutes later the harbour was full to a very high tide, then minutes later again the tide rushed out. When the tide was out people walked down the beach and in the harbour, but then had to turn and run when the tide rushed back in. I was told later that it must have been a mini earthquake on the sea bed.

'In 1955 the National Regatta was to be held in Bideford. The Reds had won the Senior Championship of WEARA, so that qualified them to row in the national. Included in the programme, as always, was a senior eights Championship. There had never been any eights on the Torridge ever, so the WEARA committee decided to enter an eight comprised of rowers from all of the WEARA clubs, so long as someone lent a boat. Luckily someone did. So, they started to look for eight senior rowers from the WEARA clubs. Three officials from WEARA started visiting all the clubs from Devon and Cornwall. When they came to Paignton they hired a boat and our club, who had eight senior rowers ourselves, put both senior A men's fours crews out, the officials watched. Eventually they told us to come in. Nothing was said, they just thanked us and went. Some days later I was helping to repair a boat when a man I knew came in and said to me 'Congratulations!'. When I asked 'What for?', he told me I had been picked out of the other eight rowers at the club to row for WEARA at the National Championships. He had read it in the News of the World.

'Racing the eight was just a courtesy thing, nobody expected us to win especially the eights we were racing against, who had been rowing in their eights all season and had each won their respective Championship in their region. But to be fair each eight was made up of rowers from one club, WEARA had the opportunity to pick the best rowers from a number of clubs. The race was extremely exciting for the crowds at Bideford and unbelievably the composite WEARA crew won. Needless to say, Bideford went mad. They had two main trophies kept in the West of England, because the Reds had won the fours as well! I was incredibly proud to have been chosen, that was the highlight of my rowing career, but to this day I still wonder why I was chosen when there were so many better ones than me out there!

'Some years after I left to earn a living in the retail business. Unknown to me, the club went through a bad patch, they had no rowers. So Bob Ely, a stalwart of the club, used to go down to the club most evenings in the summer, taking his long suffering wife, Iris, with him and open wide the doors of the clubhouse so that people walking by could look inside and see those lovely boats. If they looked at all interested, Bob was out of his car in a flash to get them more interested. Eventually he managed to get some crews together and away the club went again. If it hadn't been for Bob who knows what might have happened. Thank you Bob.

'Then Jane Perry got involved, along with others, but as the others dropped away Jane kept going to this day. Like Bob, she isn't really given credit for what she does for the club. Thank you Jane.

'In July 1955, during the Championship of the Bay, between Torquay and Paignton, halfway through the race a large 20 metre cruiser came out of the Torquay harbour and went off at full throttle causing a massive wave which swamped five of the skiffs. The crews had to get out of their boats to avoid any damage because of the weight of the water in the boats. Apart from our safety boats, other private boats came to rescue, pulling the crews out of the water. One skiff broke completely in half. We took the owner to court and he was cleared of any blame because the race wasn't reported to the Torquay Harbour Master in advance and the owner of the cruiser argued that craft that sat so low in the water shouldn't be on the sea. He said he had the sun in his eyes and did not see them.

 'Going back to the West of England winning the Lord Desborough Cup, which was the name of the Senior 8's race we won in 1955. The last time it was won by WEARA was by Dartmouth on the Thames in 1933.'


Memoirs of a 1970’s lady rower, by Sue Cose - Member from 1973 to 2022

Myfamily have a long history with Paignton Rowing Club, my father, Rod, having rowed in the 50’s and my daughter, Jenny, following in the family tradition in 2003 – an interesting point being that we all competed in the same shirt, which is still in existence even now, should any of us decide to make a comeback!  I first joined Paignton Rowing Club, along with Jane Perry, in 1973 - both of us aged 13, and soon formed a crew with Joan Whittle and Marion Daniels.    

In the 1970’s, PARC was fortunate to have successful male crews at every level.  If you take a look at the photos from that time on the ‘History’ page of the website, you will see a whole range of men’s crews looking justly proud of their trawl of silverware - ‘pride’ being demonstrated by their macho ‘flexed bicep’ poses!  Ladies’ rowing, on the other hand, was only just developing as a regatta event in WEARA - in fact there were so few ladies’ crews around that only one category existed – ‘Open’.  

In those days the boats and blades were made of wood, and much heavier than they are now.  Blades had to be daubed with thick ‘rigger grease’ every time you rowed so that they would move freely in the gate, and at the end of each season everything had to be completely sanded down and re-varnished. The men of the Club made it clear to us from day one that we would be entirely responsible for our own boat – carrying it, cleaning it and maintaining it. The first few times we carried it down to the slipway we certainly struggled, but we soon got to grips with it and, as you might imagine, were too stubborn to ask the men for help even if we needed it!

It wasn’t just the equipment that was difficult to cope with – the changing facilities were definitely not designed with women in mind.  The area that now houses the changing rooms and toilets was a single open space used as one big changing area by the men.  Our needs were accommodated by propping up two old garage doors in one corner to form our own ‘room’.  As the only light was at the men’s end we were plunged into darkness, so we solved this by dragging a washed up tree trunk in from the beach and sticking some candles on it – luxury! There was also only one shower, which was down in the boathouse and shared by everyone.  Joan attempted to protect our modesty with frequent demands to “wear your bathers” – not that the request was heeded by some male rowers (you know who you are!), who still made the dash through the boathouse stark naked.

We didn’t have any ergos back then, but we did train hard, both on and off the water – often 4 or 5 nights a week, plus Sunday mornings, and racing on Saturdays.  This tough training regime was instigated by a London rower, Len Herring, who joined Terry Eker’s crew and helped to coach us.  Len also insisted that we did pre-race jogging and warm-up exercises, much to the amusement of the other clubs who sat by and watched us!  However, the number of WEARA Championships that the Club won in the 70’s proved that the effort was worth it - with Jane, Joan, Marion and me winning our own Championship in 1976.

It’s not only the training equipment that has changed though - awareness of nutritional needs has certainly advanced.  I can remember Gilbert’s rowing comrade, Bob Ely, proclaiming pre-race jam sandwiches as a great energy boost, and there was more than one occasion when crews were caught having a crafty fag whilst waiting at the start line! And all that water drinking - what’s that all about? No one carried bottles of water everywhere with them!  It makes me wonder how we ever survived without collapsing from dehydration.  We even rowed our first Boston Marathon (31 miles), with only a litre of squash and a bottle of Pomagne between 5 of us – though I won’t deny that our time might have improved if we’d had more water!  Incidentally, it’s a few years now since the Club competed in the Boston Marathon, and I would thoroughly recommend the experience  to anyone – just when you’ve completed the distance of the Head of the Dart you get out, carry your boat over a lock and then get back in and do another 20 miles – character (and blister) building!  Of course, it’s probably a bit like childbirth, and time has conveniently wiped my memory of how much it hurt!

It is great to see our current crews competing at South Coast Championships and ‘away’ regattas such as Nottingham.  In the 70’s, the club often raced at ARA events: Ross on Wye, Gloucester & Monmouth etc. all of us camping together afterwards in a huge bell tent borrowed from the Sea Scouts, with a barrel of beer and some optics rigged up on the central tent pole.  No one who knows me will be surprised to hear that, although I did take my rowing seriously, I was even keener on the ‘après-row’ at regattas and Paignton did their fair share of that.  The fact that we usually had some trophies to collect at the end of the day encouraged us to stay on at regattas and celebrate with lots of singing and ‘inter-club spirit’. Of course, this was made easier by the lack of ‘drink-drive’ legislation (obviously not a good thing!), but if we weren’t camping, we often hired a coach to places like Bideford so that we could celebrate in style and relative safety – happy days were had by all!

The Club’s social activities stretched beyond regattas, and we also held annual inter-club ‘friendly’ events with Totnes and Dartmouth, as well as the Championship of the Bay with Torquay. The annual ‘Captain’s Pairs’ event was a big favourite, as was ‘Water Frolics’ which usually took place in the summer.  This involved the members dividing up into 3 groups: ladies as ‘hula girls’ in grass skirts; one gang of men as pirates; and another as the Navy!  We would all paddle out of the harbour in makeshift rafts or dinghies – the ladies going first, hotly pursued by the pirates, with the Navy charging behind to fight off the pirates and defend our honour.  We would land on the beach and then pelt each other with water and bags of flour – the resulting doughy mess providing much amusement for the holidaymakers, who were encouraged to chuck money in our buckets to raise funds for the Club.  Of course the downside was that it was difficult to get clean afterwards when you remember that we only had one shower!

To bring us back to actual rowing though! - I think one of my favourite memories of all was the Head of the Torridge in 1976.  The course that year ran from Bideford Quay right out to Appledore and back.  It was a very stormy day and the water at Appledore was so rough that crews were sinking all over the place and the helicopter was called out from Chivenor.  We followed the coxswain’s instructions to drop our hands and keep the rate steady, and we ploughed our way through the waves in true Paignton style. You can imagine our delight at rowing past various men’s crews who had sunk and were clinging on to their boats awaiting rescue, especially as one of those crews was Ray Mallet’s Senior A crew from Exeter – something I like to remind him of on a regular basis!  

It is now 40 years since I joined Paignton ARC and, although I no longer row, I still like to play an active part in supporting the Club.  I think it is important to remember that whilst rowers are the life blood of the club, any successful club requires organisers, administrators and supporters to hold the skeleton together. This will be particularly important in the next couple of years as we try to raise funds to pay for the improvements at the clubhouse.  It has been wonderful to see the club spirit thriving in 2012, culminating in a highly successful South Coast Championships - so roll on next season and let’s see some more!  Oh, and if anyone wants some help with celebrating afterwards, just let me know!