As you settle into your armchair this afternoon to watch Oxford battle it out with Cambridge in the universities' famous boat race, spare a thought for a would-be rower who, after a brief spell on the water, has reluctantly resigned herself to a lifetime boating in Lister Park.

That person is me, and I will be watching today's Putney to Mortlake contest with more than the usual passing interest.

I will be observing not the race itself, but the technique, the actions of each rower, to check they are doing it properly.

I don't see myself as an expert, but after taking to the waters of the River Aire for a rowing lesson, I know a lot more about the sport than I used to. And it's not as easy as five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave makes it look - no way.

"When you first do it, you'll think how on earth do people do it?' It's like skiing or driving a car," explains Richard Phillips, president of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, where I'd been invited to take up the oars under the watchful eye of rowing development manager and expert coach Julia Markham.

"You get to move your back, head, ankles, arms and legs, in co-ordination." He pauses. "You might want to rewrite that bit when you have a go."

On a chilly, still morning, I'd gone to the 140-year-old club's quaint Victorian clubhouse beside the Aire near Hirst Weir, Shipley.

With walls a dark tongue-and-groove, framed photographs, oars and a wooden boat hanging from the ceiling, there was a comforting Three Men in a Boat' feel to the place.

I was warmly welcomed by Barbara Edwards, the club's amiable secretary, and was amazed to find she's never rowed. "I've been in a boat once," she laughs, producing a photograph of a gaily-decorated boathouse, taken during the club's annual regatta. "That's the one and only time I got in a boat - I've got a bad back."

She "married into the club," meeting her husband Terry at a disco held in the clubhouse.

Terry started rowing while at school in London, rowed with the University of Bradford, and then joined Bradford Amateur Rowing Club.

The club has an interesting history. In the 1800s, Titus Salt created recreational facilities for workers at Salts Mill. These included a boathouse and landing stage above the weir at the bottom of Victoria Road.

In its heyday, it was a popular holiday and weekend haunt, with rowing boats for hire and, at one time, a small steamer.

A group of businessmen wanted to do more than row in a park lake boat, so, in 1967, they formed the club and bought two racing fours. They looked for another site, and eventually, in 1893, built a club house on a small plot of land further downstream, where the water level was being raised for use in Hirst Mill.

Before my lesson, Richard - who won his first rowing trophy aged 11 - explained the different configurations of rowers: eight, four, a pair, or single. In a sculling' boat, each rower has two oars, one on each side of the boat. In a sweep' boat, each rower has one oar.

I was then given a tour of the boathouse, where I marvelled at the streamlined racing boats, some no wider than a piece of A4 paper. The boats' names all include the word Aire - SaltAire, Airey Fairy, Aire Born, Fresh Aire, SolitAire.

Then it was my turn. Julia, who is the club's rowing development manager, and Terry, carried Fresh Aire', a small yellow training boat to the water's edge, and after laying it on the river, I climbed tentatively in.

You don't need any equipment to join the club - everything is provided. You simply need a pair of light tracksuit bottoms, a T-shirt and warm top, and a pair of lightweight trainers.

Julia, who has competed at national level, told me to put my feet under two straps and hold the oars with my thumb over each end. She showed me how to move my body forward, letting the seat roll along as my arms stretched towards the front, then pulled back.

I felt I was getting the hang of it. But as soon as the boat - which Terry was holding with a length of rope - moved further out into the slow current, it was a different story.

Thankfully, I was wearing an inflatable jacket, because the craft swayed from side to side. It was only very slight rocking, but to me, sitting on a high seat, not far below the edge of the boat, it felt like the high seas.

I admit to displaying a few wimpy tendencies, most of which involved panicking and asking if I could get out. This, I am ashamed to say, I did, but after some gentle encouragement from Julia and Terry, I climbed back in and managed to relax a little.

Once the boat had moved out and was facing the shore, it was easier. I even began to enjoy myself as I realised I was getting the hang of the oars.

Twice a year, the club holds a regatta, attracting crews from across the country. In this perfect setting, it was not hard to imagine the atmosphere. "It really is fantastic," says Barbara.

It was also not difficult to picture how wonderful it must be, rowing on a summer's evening. "You see kingfishers, herons, lots of birdlife, it really is beautiful," says long-serving member Barry Wood, who first came to the club in 1957 with a group of friends. "I don't know why I wanted to have a go, but I'm still coming along."

Members also travel to take part in races in other parts of the country. "Last weekend we were in London for the Head of the River Race on the Thames," says Barbara. The club's top crews also compete at events such as the Henley Royal Regatta and National Rowing Championships.

After 15 minutes on the water, I still felt a bit wobbly, and was very glad of the rope, which Terry still held firm.

I don't think I'll ever be Steve Redgrave, or James Cracknell - both who have done so much in raising the profile of the sport - but I can understand why people return for more. It was a challenge, moreso than any other sport I've tried from scratch. What most surprised me were the people - very down-to-earth. "We want to dispel the myth that rowing is an upper-class sport," says Richard. "There are people here from all walks of life."

Before I left, I met Hugh Scott who is responsible for the club's 50-strong junior arm. He started rowing with Bradford Grammar School, aged 13, taking part in his first race two years later. "It is a fantastic mix of skills, fitness, and fresh air."

He also points out that the sport presents an alternative for those who don't have a natural aptitude for ball games or mainstream sports.

Hugh visits schools, giving children the chance to dry row'. The visit may be followed by a trip to the club, where some join.

"They love it," he says. "Rowing has so much to offer."

  • For more information on Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, visit, call (01274) 531859, or e-mail Membership is open to both sexes from the age of 11 upwards. Younger children may join, provided they are always under the direct supervision of a parent. There is no upper age limit. The club has a strong group of veteran rowers, many who took up the sport late in life. Prospective rowers attend taster courses. Bradford Grammar School, Woodhouse Grove School and the University of Bradford also row from the same site.