Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Friday, May 11, 2012

Swing Together

Dickie & Bert
On 2 May, Tim Koch gave the readers of HTBS the weights of some of the famous British Olympic oarsmen. Of course, an oarsman’s weight can vary depending on if he is in a ‘racing trim’ or not. Some athletes, or their coaches, are keeping diaries or logs how their training is going, more for their own sake than for sport historians who later would like to do research. A good example of a ‘log keeper’, was Dickie Burnell, who soon will be featured in a BBC film, Bert and Dickie, about how he and Bert Bushnell only spent a few weeks together before it was time for them to race at the 1948 Olympic regatta in Henley-on-Thames. As we all know, they became Olympic champions.

I am not sure, but I am guessing that the filmmakers have very carefully read Burnell’s brilliant book Swing Together: Thoughts on Rowing, which was published in 1952. In this book is a chapter called “Olympic Log Book, 1947-8” where he scribbled down some notes about his training in the boat. It is indeed an interesting read. Burnell’s first partner in the double scull was Dick Winstone, and Burnell’s first entry reads:

‘27.ix.47 Tried out the Leander double sculler with Winstone at Henley. Paddled to Hambleden lock and back. Quite promising.’

The second entry reads:

‘4.x.47. Bow (Winstone) 12 st. 9 ½ lb. Stroke (Burnell) 14 st. 6 ½ lb. Henley. Paddled to lock and up to Fawley in one piece. back to [Temple] Island, and paddled hard over regatta course. Quite comfortable, but ragged when tired.’

Later that month they get the good news that they will receive a new boat:

‘21.x.47. Heard to-day from Gully [Nickalls] that we can have a new boat built by Sims. This is excellent news as the Leander boat, a converted pair, is much too heavy.’

Burnell is frequently coming back to their weights in his log:

‘27.i.48. Bow, 13 st. 5 ½ lb. Stoke, 14 st. 5 lb. Kingston. Paddled new boat to Hampton Court and back. beginning to get the feel of it, but we were very unsteady in a strong and difficult wind.’

’13.iv.48. Bow, 13 st. 6 lb. Stroke, 14 st. 12 lb. Jack Beresford came out with us Paddled up to Ditton and back. Nice water and going quite well. Jack said he thought us promising, but a bit short forward.’

And so it goes on. There are several entries where one word indicates that their practise probably should have gone better: ‘not bad to-day, but…..’ In the beginning of June, Burnell’s log tells that they went out sculling on their own, or had no outing at all. For the Marlow Regatta, which was going to be the double’s first test, the entry on 19 June, ’48, reveals it all: ‘This was a disaster.’ Nothing seemed to have worked. Winstone and Burnell were just not to be, they sculled too differently. They were beaten at Henley by a Belgian double in the semi-final. After Henley, Burnell was put in the double with Bert Bushnell:

‘6.vii.48. Bow (Bushnell), 11 st. 5 lb., Stroke (Burnell), 14 st. 3 ½ lb. […].’

This combination seems to work much better. The last entry with the oarsmen’s weights given is on 26 July ’48: ‘Bow, 11 st. 6 lb. Stroke, 14 st. 3 lb.’ The very last entry is on 31 July ’48, three days before the beginning of the Olympic regatta.

They were a good match, Burnell wrote: ‘Bushnell […] liked a fairly lively rate of striking, but alone lacked the power to maintain it. I also liked it, and had the necessary power, but needed encouragement to keep it up. Bushnell’s liveliness, by taking much of the weight off me, particular at the start, enabled me to get going fast and settle into a comfortable gait, whilst my weight helped us to keep it going. But a great deal of credit must go to Bushnell. It was a remarkable performance for one whose whole time had been spent as a single sculler, to fit in so quickly with the vagaries of a stroke behind whom he had never sculled before.’

Dickie Burnell’s Swing Together: Thoughts on Rowing is a remarkable book!


  1. Have just seen the Premiere of this bbc film at the Kenton Theatre in Henley. Very good indeed. Follow its progress with:

  2. Thank you, Karen, I have added this link to HTBS's "Good Rowing Links" on the right.