This rhythm is designed to generate flow, that most enviable of experiences - one familiar to many yet extraordinarily difficult to call up at will. It captures that rare moment in time where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing. It's the experience of pure harmony, or that point at which mind and matter fuse effortlessly and you know that something special has just occurred.
Flow is said to lift experience from the ordinary to the optimal, to a Zen-like state, and it's in precisely those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing. For the oarsman, it's an experience in which the self merges with the act of rowing and becomes indistinguishable from it. Where anxiety, self-doubt, indeed self-consciousness itself has been cut out as if by a clever surgeon - a feeling John Steinbeck described as very near to a kind of unconsciousness - where time changes its manner and where minutes disappear into the cloud of time. A time where everything finally falls into place: a groovy sensation of weightlessness yet total control, being really and truly alive in the present and knowing that nothing else matters, at least not now. Even as crowds roar, cameras flash, helicopters swivel dizzily overhead ... yet none of it matters much. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is being right here right now - a rare glimpse of perfection.
The rhythm of a boat is like the beating of a heart: a platform upon which everything depends and all else becomes aligned. It is the condition on which flow depends - on which it feeds. And in a very real sense, it is the unremitting quest for rhythm and flow that helps explain the controversial choice to replace a brash but experienced American coxswain with one much less experienced, British and female. It explains why the five most experienced rowers questioned matters of selection, insisting that a Canadian oarsman be selected despite him being less competent than the Brit he would unseat.
It explains why Cambridge won the Boat Race, and why it nearly lost.
(The idea of "flow" was popularized by the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.)