Oxford Academicals is a young club with an unusual remit. Started to give experienced oarsmen a way of rowing in the summer when most of the college clubs are absent, it quickly grew into a club for the great many people from the University of Oxford who wished to row, but did not fit easily into the college club system.
The Academicals story begins on the towpath of the Thames in Oxford in February of 2004, with the two founding members: Yann Astier, a postdoctoral student at Hertford College, and Andy Hadcroft, then the University Safety Officer for Sport and well-known figure in college rowing. Yann approached Andy to suggest that they set up a rowing section of the University Club, the social club for graduates, staff, and alumni of the University. This was ostensibly a vehicle for finding like-minded individuals from around the University interested in rowing over the summer, socially as well as in gentle competition but unable to find other clubs in the city suited to their level of interest and commitment.
Andy agreed to act as Secretary to Yann’s President, and drafted in Joss Knight, an ex-crewman, to act as Treasurer. These three original officers of the club set about acquiring equipment, racking space, and putting out the word. Andy and Joss, former members of Brasenose College, negotiated the use of Brasenose’s boathouse for racking and occasional use of their boats. Andy, with his strong connections in the rowing world, obtained a four and a quad from his old London club, Sons of the Thames.
The response to early publicity was overwhelming, with women being the majority of those interested. Very quickly a women’s squad formed and started irregular outings. On June 6th 2004, the club held its first Annual General Meeting and became official. With a grant from the University Club, the Club purchased two eights, a lightweight Aylings for the girls and an old wooden Sims for the boys. They were also lucky to obtain sets of macon oars and cleavers for free from City of Oxford RC. With no more space to rack boats inside the boathouse, they were forced to rack some boats outside; this caused tension that eventually led to the end of the racking arrangement at Brasenose.
With such a huge response the newly instated committee decided to take a step into the unknown and try teaching beginners. Two open days were organised to give people a chance to try out a paddle and see if they enjoyed it. Again, these were incredibly popular and the membership swelled. The task of training these newbies as well as maintaining other squad rowing was only just manageable. Nevertheless, Academicals entered two men’s fours, a men’s eight, a women’s senior eight and a novice eight into the City of Oxford Royal Regatta in August 2004, and achieved second place in the Victor Ludorum, with victory in three events.
As the summer came to an end, the Club started to wind down but there was significant continued activity from the women’s squad through the autumn and into December. Then disaster – just before the New Year, Brasenose ended their racking arrangement, and Academicals started looking for a new home. This was the crunch time – should the club revert to its original remit of summer-time recreational rowing for experienced oarsmen, or should it continue in its efforts to support a range of abilities and an expanding membership? Fortunately for today’s beneficiaries, the Club chose to soldier on through the tough period, re-home, and make plans to manage novice and senior rowing. In the New Year, Academicals moved to the Isis Boathouse, recently purchased by rowing enthusiasts Jonathan and Jane Price, and open for racking business, where it remains to this day.
Since those early days the Club has continued to expand. As before, it is women who have shown the most interest, and they still constitute two thirds of club membership. Management of novices has become more organised, with all beginners passing through a four week course before joining squad rowing. The squads continue to expand in size and experience, and boat purchases have been made to support this. Club membership fees have increased considerably from the original fees of £20 a year to cover racking costs and to enable purchases of better quality equipment, but the subscription remains lower than those for other city boat clubs. The quality of rowing and the ambitions of the Club continue to improve with many regatta successes. In 2006, Academicals won seven of ten events entered at City of Oxford Regatta. Since then boats have competed at both Women’s and Men’s Head of the River, and at the Henley regattas. In 2010 members won events at Maidenhead, Cambridge and City of Oxford regattas – all things undreamed of by the founding members.