An Introduction to Swans: Edinburgh 2009

In September 2009, I joined the Edinburgh University Boat Club Senior Women’s team with the impression that I was joining the ranks of some of Scotland’s (and England’s and Wales’) finest and most civilised rowers. From the moment they spotted me at the University Sport’s Club Fair, I heard tales of their “dedicated practices”, “dignified social events,” even of their award-worthy charitable work. It was everything you’d expect for a rowing club that had been around for hundreds of years. And for all intents and purposes, the EUBC met those expectations. Sure the “dedicated practices” meant for the first time I actually had to wake up at  3AM to catch a bus for a 4AM practice. And yes, some may say that painting yourself orange, making cardboard fins, and asking the littlest people around you to be your son “nemo” doesn’t seem altogether “dignified”, but EUBC had a distinct joie de vivre, and I loved every moment of it.

That is, until I learned about the Swans.

At my first practice, the esteemed Vice President Izzy took me aside to go over the particulars of coxing in Scotland.

“Firstly” she told me , “I know that your probably used to wide American rivers. Here in Scotland you’re really going to learn how to properly steer. We row in canals that a quarter the size of your rivers so make sure you don’t knock into any oncoming boats”

Fine, I could handle that.

“Oh and Aheli, if you see a swan, just hit it. Don’t be nice”

And with that she casually turned away to get ready for practice. I stood there, for several moments, pondering what exactly I had just heard. Surely, the very calm and level-headed VP had not just told me to hit a swan. I mean, they are gorgeous creatures featured prominently in many classical paintings. Sure they were abnormally large for a flying animal, but still I had my ethics. I couldn’t hit a poor innocent creature. I mean swans are so…[THUD] [SQUAWK] BLOODY H*LL, stupid creature, where did it think it was going? Well, I guess I can hit a swan. and I did. many, many times.

Izzy wasn’t joking, the Edinburgh canals are tiny. In fact, they are no larger than the country roads that you drive on when you’re going deep into the middle of nowhere. They can barely hold a single boat (with four protruding oars), and yet, we shared the same 1K patch of water with numerous other individual skullers, the St. Andrew’s Boat Club, and a very angry and dim-witted family of Swans. Now, I maintain that these swans were particularly stupid, perhaps as a result of their daily encounters and subsequent spankings by passing oars. Every day was the same routine. The swans would sit, paddling, in the middle of the busiest section of the canal. (Someone say it is akin to someone sitting in the middle of rush hour traffic) As the boats would propel forward, a swam would, inevitably, glide directly into their path, wait until the tip of the boat was gently ramming their tush, before the swam would squawk angrily and fly away. The problem was instead of moving the side and waiting for the boat to pass, these swans would fly a few feet forward (presumably to avoid being hit) and then settle nicely into the water, only to repeat the same nudge, squawk, and fly routine. And this repeats over and over again for the entire 1K stretch with hundreds of different rowers. And it is because of this sadistic swans, that I very quickly got over my ethical objections to swan cruelty and learned to embrace my new motto “move it or lose it.”

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