Friendships between individuals are formed through many encounters in life, and grow and foster with shared experiences. Camaraderie among a group is less common, if only because such opportunities are fewer, and it is more difficult to maintain the esprit de corps.
Sport is a great way for people to learn the important skill of teamwork – that you can achieve a greater goal together. Team play transfers well into the real world of getting along with the perspectives of many.
And if you take that to heart, you gain a camaraderie that endures.
Such it is that the crew that rowed for Queen’s University Belfast in the 1994-95 season – nicknamed the Delta Crew – have been meeting up for reunion events every five years.
This band of brothers included: Steve COLL, Darren COMER, Brendan DUFFIN, Gareth INGRAM, Allan LEONARD, Mark McGIMPSEY, Jonny MALLOY, Stephen MEENAN, Paul MURPHY, and Keith WILSON.
As with all university graduates, as our professional lives and family relationships were getting established, this group of mates got together in 2000 and pledged to make the effort to keep in touch. Yes, we know how this well-intentioned promised can come awry by the pressures of life.
But we did keep in touch, and importantly, kept a sufficient level of fitness to meet up and participate in the Galway HORR in 2005. While it was gratifying to actually beat a fellow Queen’s novice crew, the real joy was the fact we made this reunion happen.
Our comradery was true.
Five years on, the Delta Crew met up in Boston and participated in the Head of the River Regatta.
By then, many of us were settling in with careers and family commitments. As we know, maintaining domestic bliss – with the responsibilities of raising children for some of us – will command ever precious time.
Plus the fact that natural aging is a bit cruel to our VO2 max, weight and BMI stats.
Nevertheless, the Delta Crew promptly pledged the next rendezvous – Henley HORR 2015.
We romanced the thought of actually taking a nostalgic row on the course. This idea lasted about a minute, as we acknowledged none of us had managed to get in a boat in five years.
What really mattered was the act of coming together, with our crew now spread out throughout three continents – America, Europe and Australia.
But we middle-aged men were up for some demonstration of virility.
The decision was a group cycle, from Belfast to Henley. Well, subtract the ferry journey and it’s Liverpool to Henley. But still 180 miles over two days.
Some of the lads were already established cyclists, and some of us didn’t even possess a road bike until a few months ago.
Yet like before, it all came together with collaboration. Stephen was the persistent organiser, sorting out the logistics; Paul set out the course, using his professional experience in this field; Brendan prepared the van for nine bikes, and dutifully collected the Northern Ireland contingent; Gareth and the other Henley gong holders secured stewarts’ entrances for the post-cycle reward of viewing the boat races up close.
Better than this, though, was Stephen and Brendan bringing Mark, Jonny and me up to speed in the skill of group cycling – like many sports, there is a marked difference from practising solo. We even managed to participate in a open sportive of a thousand cyclists, around the coastline of the Ards peninsula.
It would be interesting to see how our varied skill set and levels of fitness would reveal itself in our nine-man group ride.
But with fresh legs and high spirits, it was a scene of hugs and happy faces when we joined Keith and Paul in Chester, just outside Liverpool (wise avoiding cycling on the busy A-roads in the city). We were joined by Darren at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the morning of day two, having flown in from Atlanta.
The more experienced applied their cycling proficiency to lead our group, and ensured that we stayed together as a group.
Sometimes that meant a literal push of a hand on your back.
This was a team effort, for fun and a shared experience, not a contest for individual bragging rights.
We shared the duty of driving the van. Others gladly provided company with map reading; the smartphone app, Strava, has a wonderful follow-this-route feature, I discovered.
No adventure is without mishap.
On the first day’s cycle, the day after the hottest day of the year in England, we experienced a few hours of hard rain and plunging temperature. Mark and I got the word to go to a leisure centre, where the rest were trying to warm their soaked and chilled bodies. This is why we prepared with a support van. After some hot coffees and dry kit change, and thankfully a cessation of the monsoon, the cyclists were back on the road.
Stephen had a flat tyre, Mark broke a pedal (quick replacement at bike shop conveniently nearby), and I had fun (not) with my derailleur (thank you Darren for the on-the-spot fix).
More dangerously, Keith had a literal near miss with an errant car, indicating one way but turning the other, which underlined the point of always being vigilant, no matter how experienced you are.
Throughout, all of us looked after each other, with established call outs: “car up!”, “car down!”, “[car] overtaking!”, “pothole!”, and hand signals for upcoming hazards such as parked cars on the road and slowing up ahead.
One of my favourite moments was when Darren got us to do a rolling rotation on a long stretch of flat road, where we rode two abreast, following as closely as you safely can (i.e. very close!), then after a stint at the front, peeling off the sides to let the group progress, taking a reprieve at the back (still following very close!). It was an exhilarating drill.
Opposite of flat was Howe Hill – an ascent of 14 per cent over about a kilometre long. Sharp and short. With full participation – Brendan and I got out of the van parked at the top, free wheeled down and climbed back up. All for KOM’s (King of the Mountain) recordings on our Strava accounts. (As Paul declared, “If it’s not on Strava, it doesn’t count!”)
Outside Henley, we stopped for a kit change. Donning commemorative “Queen’s Belfast ‘95” crew jerseys, the Delta Crew gallantly entered the town, with much admiration from the mass of thousands. Well, perhaps more curiosity of a sight of nine cyclists arriving at the most famous rowing event in the calendar. But we felt valiant nevertheless.
Our coach, Paddy Doherty, was there to greet us at Little Angel pub, where we all had a congratulatory pint. We raised our glasses (outdoors: plastic cups) to mission accomplished.
But we didn’t forget mate Steve, who we brought to the races the next day via a video Facetime call to his home in Sydney.
There was fond reminiscing on a splendid Saturday afternoon spent in the stewards’ enclosure, with obligatory (but responsible) consumption of Pimms and Lemonade (on draft – who would have thought?).
We joined Andy Wells and 50 fellow rowing alumni for an enjoyable dinner. It was special to see other rowing friends reunite. And like family reunions, there were photos of fun times past passed around. It was assuring to see that our esteemed elders had gotten into shenanigans in their boathouse days as we did in ours.
In post-meal conversation, our group was complimented on our coming together. Ach sure, we replied, it’s not a big deal; we had a lot of fun.
No, it was a big deal, was the response. This is not to be belittled.
And over a final pint, we appreciated this sentiment. Because there is an element of magic to comradery. You can’t plan for it; there is no formula. But when a group of friends discover it and want to keep it, then you find ways of keeping it alive.
Long live Delta Crew. Long live Queen’s Rowing.