‘It was great fun and you ached, as my mom would say, from arse to elbow’
Inspired by watching the Boat Race on TV as a young boy, Stuart Cannonier finally tried rowing when he moved to Devon. He talks about his passion for the sport, his Caribbean heritage and future ambitions on the water
I have been interested in sport for as long as I can remember and been lucky as a child and as a young adult to have been encouraged to participate by my mom in as much as I could.
I was a gymnast, played football, tennis, I boxed, did athletics, but rowing was as far of my spectrum as an inner-city kid as you can imagine.
I remember as a boy watching the Boat Race on television and seeing the Oxford and Cambridge crews race on the Thames, and I loved the history and the excitement of seeing if either of the boats might sink!
I was aware as a kid that no one participating in the races looked like me. My parents come from the Caribbean a small but beautiful island called St Kitts.
The Boat Race looked tough even to me back then, but I was intrigued and fancied having a go, little did I know that many years later I was to race on the Thames.
As I grew older, I realised that rowing was for a different group and certainly not something I thought I would ever have a chance to try.
I did not have an opportunity to try rowing until I moved from Birmingham to Cornwall to do my general nurse training in 1987.
A friend of mine talked about Cornish gigs and her dad, who was a boatbuilder. I went along with her to the boat yard and had a go at rowing with some of her friends and I loved it. It was great fun and you ached, as my mom would say, from arse to elbow. But a good ache.
Being out on the sea and the team spirit and the sights and smells of the sea was fantastic, but being a rower requires dedication, training, and commitment and at the time I could not commit as I wanted my qualification and there were other distractions.
I found rowing again in 2003, when I moved from Bristol to the Devon town of Dawlish in 2003.
“One of my best memories was that my mom came down from Birmingham to watch me race with my crew”
A friend of mine who was also a nurse lived in Teignmouth and had joined a rowing club called the River Teign Rowing Club (RTRC) and I met some of his friends and we formed a team called the Oarsome Foursome and it was great to be back in a boat.
We rowed Seine boats, which are a fixed-seat four-rower vessel with a cox, they are not very dynamic through the water, but fantastic fun to be in, with great crew banter.
I rowed in several boats but the two I remember were called Freya and Mr Christian, fantastic boats with many happy memories.
The RTRC had regular rowing races/regattas and I loved taking part in them, if not always the quality of the finishing places myself and the crew finished in.
One of my best memories was that my mom came down from Birmingham to watch me race with my crew – it’s a memory that I am very fond of now she is no longer here. She thought we should cover up and eat more of her fried chicken for power and sustenance!
Stu pictured with his mom, Mary
Whilst there I did my cox’s course and spent two years on the rowing club committee. We had over 600 members including some rowing and others not rowing.
It was a very welcoming club and I still have friends there.
“The race was amazing, full of colourful costumes and for the first time in my rowing experience, there were people of mixed ethnic diversity”
Devon is not a place of great ethnic diversity, but it did not matter. It was just a group of people who liked tough exercise and being graced by beautiful surroundings, while spending time on the water.
Some of the great sights I saw whilst in the boats were seals, dolphins, and a myriad of different birds.
As a member of the RTRC, I was lucky enough to row the Thames as part of the Great London River Race in 2010. Our crew was mixed – just a bunch of friends called Gulls & Buoys.
The race was 21.5 miles and we started at Tower Bridge and went under all the great bridges of London, cheered on by bystanders on the riverbank and from the bridges. There were all sorts of rowing boats on the Thames, and it was a fantastic advert for diversity of crafts as well as people and crews. At the end of the race in Richmond, a cannon was fired, and it meant you had completed the race
The race was amazing, full of colourful costumes and for the first time in my rowing experience, there were people of mixed ethnic diversity. I think rowing is a sport for all and, if the appeal could be widened, it would benefit from a greater pool of diversity, talent, and opportunity.
Celebrating his 50th birthday at the 2014 Great River Race
I was lucky enough to row the Great London River Race, three times in 2010, in 2014 – as the only male in a female crew on my 50th birthday – and again in 2016 with a bunch of guys.
In 2016, we did the race in sub three hours and finished ahead of many larger boats with greater numbers in their crew.
I still have rowing ambitions. I would like to row the Great River Race again – perhaps on my 60th birthday!