Reg Little meets The Oxford Times’ rowing correspondent who is bowing out after 38 years

The conversation moves rapidly from catching a crab to pulling bodies out of the river. Most of Mike Rosewell’s stories seem to involve the Thames which he stares out to as he drains his glass of red, sitting in a quiet corner of The Trout at Godstow.

“My family have been watermen on the river Thames since 1671, originally at Marlow and since 1862 at Walton-on-Thames,” he tells me.

But here in Oxford — and indeed for anyone with as much as a passing interest in the Boat Race — it is for rowing that Mike is best known.

For the past 38 years he has covered rowing for The Oxford Times, making him our longest serving sports correspondent. But at the age of 77 Mike has decided the time has come to stand down.

Over many of those years he also worked as correspondent for The Times, the national newspaper, and for many Mike has become almost as much a part of the Boat Race scene as the dunked winning cox.

For not only has he provided expert coverage of the race, over 12 years he managed to fill the twin roles of Boat Race rowing correspondent and official time keeper.

Mike, who was himself a student at the London School of Economics, has never tired of watching the oarsmen of England’s two great universities battling it out on the London Tideway every spring, as they have done since 1836 (world war being the only justification for postponing the event).

How could he? Dan Topolski, the charismatic Oxford coach over 15 years, whose career Mike had followed closely, perhaps best summed up the attraction. “It is one of the world’s great endurance tests, and it takes its participants to the brink of total collapse and sometimes beyond.

“Old oarsmen once believed it could knock five years off a man’s life just to have taken part. It demands courage, strength, skill, superb fitness and dedication,” Topolski wrote. “The race demands a near fanatical will power and contempt for opposition. But perhaps above all it demands team spirit and a selflessness that recognises no barriers. The Boat Race is a pure throwback to the old barenuckle days of sport.”

Mention of the legendary Topolski’s name produces a grin on the veteran writer’s face. “You know I once beat him. I was coaching Christ Church and Dan was coaching New College.”

And as a talented coach himself, Mike has always been able to identify with the demands of the race, while his life on the river has always enabled him to appreciate how testing the Thames can be.

“I was close to the action in my early years, seeing my grandfather and father called up at night during flooding to rescue people in bungalows above Walton Bridge.

“I think I was seven or eight when I first saw a body being pulled out of the rivers. If anyone drowned in the river I would be in my grandfather’s boat. It was part of the waterman’s job.”

He chuckles as he remembers being told that if the body was taken to the Middlesex side the payment would be 7s 6d, while delivery of a body to the Surrey side was just “five bob.”

A member of his family provided Walton Rowing Club with its first headquarters, below Walton Bridge, building the club a timber boathouse in the late 1920s on the Middlesex bank.

His own enthusiasm for competitive rowing was first sparked when he went to the Olympics in 1948.

He still recalls going to Henley with his father to see the great British rower Bertram “Bert’’ Bushnell, who won gold alongside Dickie Burnell in the double sculls.

As a journalist he would go on to cover rowing at five Olympic Games including Atlanta, Sydney and of course London.

Mike was educated at Woking Grammar School and despite lacking in height, he would row at the Henley Regatta for Walton Rowing Club .

He began working as a rowing writer on the Surrey Herald in 1963, also contributing to the Rowing Magazine and London’s Evening Mail. Mike arrived at Oxford in 1976 to take up a post at the North Oxford independent school, St Edward’s School, becoming head of economics.

He arrived at Teddies having been offered and refused a teaching job at Eton. With three young children, he had been put off by the requirement “to move in”.

As rowing coach, Mike quickly established himself on the Oxfordshire schools sports scene. Fittingly, the man who will be succeeding him as our rowing correspondent is John Wiggins, a hugely successful oarsman who like Mike before him is head of rowing at St Edwards. In 1976, Mr Wiggins had been the youngest winner in a Boat Race at 18 years, eight months as well as having been the youngest winner at Henley Royal Regatta. Mike inevitably had known him from his rowing days as a school boy at Wallingford School.

While The Oxford Times would benefit from Mike’s writing skills, a number of Oxford colleges including Wadham and Trinity, were greatly assisted by his coaching skills. He also coached Oxford Women’s Boat Race crew from 1979 to 1987.

His involvement with the women’s crew in the harsh winter of 1986/7 meant his involvement was minimal in the infamous Oxford Mutiny, which shook the rowing establishment to its foundations.

The rebellion by a group of American rowing stars against Topolski’s coaching methods and their bid to take control of the boat ended up being the subject of books and a feature film.

Mike reckons the women’s boat was the best place to be in those dark days. “I kept out of it. But it was my mates who were coaching the men.”

Asked about the Varsity race that most sticks in his mind, he invariably returns to 2003 — a classic, which for him was the one that got away.

Oxford won the 149th Boat Race by one foot, the smallest margin of victory in the history of the race. The race also featured two sets of brothers, both on opposing sides, for the first time.

But Mike was neither in a launch or on the banks of the Thames that day: he was in London’s St Thomas’ Hospital, having undergone an operation on his elbow.

On a freezing cold morning, a few days before the race, he had been making his weigh to the London Eye where the official weigh-in was being held with the crews being introduced to the press, when he tripped on a paving stone.

“Everyone connected with the race was very kind, I was given a magnum of champagne by the sponsors and a card by the Cambridge crew,” something he always points to as evidence — for all his Oxford connections — of his impartiality.

It was also evidence of the respect felt towards him by coaches, students and the rowing establishment — as well as affection that was certainly shared by readers of The Oxford Times.