The Union Nautique of Liège Celebrates its 140th Anniversary

The entrance of UNL’s club house.

Hélène Rémond writes from France,

As I visited Liège during my recent holidays in Belgium, I took the opportunity to stroll around the Parc de la Boverie where the rowing club Union Nautique de Liège (UNL) is settled at the tip of the island surrounded by the river Meuse and the Derivation canal, a 20-minute walk from the city centre.

The UNL boat house.

The Hennebique Bridge.

While crossing the beautiful setting of the park, the visitor can spot one sculpture of the Liège artist Mady Andrien called Le Rameur (“The Rower”), which was installed in 1998 on the Mativa embankment by the Derivation canal – a canal created in the 19th century as the river was hardly navigable for the large vessels which were used by the industries in the city.

Parc de la Boverie

Mady Andrien’s Le Rameur.

One of the rowing events that the club organizes in May every year is La Boucle de Liège, commonly referred to as “La Boucle”. It is a long-distance race (close to 17km) with handicaps. It’s opened to all categories of rowers (from Wallonia or Flanders but also from abroad), and all types of boats are represented. The 18th edition will take place in 2014. The first three winners are awarded prizes and there is a huge barbecue for the participants at the end of the day.

“La Boucle”

The club also takes part in national competitions, and its members have raced in international regattas, too. In 1952, J. Van Stichel and R.M.A. Georges won the Double Sculls Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. They were symbols of the national union as Van Stichel was Flemish and Georges was a Wallon. Club president Michel Orban says, “Today, Union Nautique is a popular club where young and older rowers from all walks of life practice rowing or sculling. We are offering beginners courses for children aged 11 and older.”

Van Stichel and Georges, winners of the 1952 Double Sculls Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta.

UNL president Michel Orban.

Competitive rowing in Belgium was born in Liège
As the bridge of Arches was reconstructed at the end of the 1850s, the City of Liège inaugurated the new work of art by a celebration including regattas in the presence of King Leopold I. These regattas were organized by the Société Nationale Regatta d’Anvers, which promoted boating as early as 1858, and Sport Nautique de la Seine (in Paris), which was founded in 1855. These organizations were happy to promote rowing – as this kind of sporting event was new in Belgium. As the regatta organized on 29 October, 1860, was very successful, young people decided to found a club to encourage boating and to organize other rowing events.

This is how the first Belgian rowing club was born in 1860: Sport Nautique de la Meuse was founded on 18 November. The only boat the club had at that time was an iron boat, which was under cover in a barn, close to the Saint-Léonard embankment. A few months later, Sport Nautique bought a wooden boat from the Parisian club, the Gig Hébé, which had taken part in the first regatta in Liège.

The Schlemmer Restaurant used to accommodate the members of Sport Nautique de la Meuse. The owner of the restaurant was actually the grandfather of a president-to-be of the UNL, which was created a few years later, in 1873. Today, they are two of the 25 clubs affiliated to the Royal Belgium Rowing Federation representing the French-speaking league and the Flemish Vlaamse Roeiliga.

In 1867, the zoological park Parc de la Boverie agreed to welcome the Sport Nautique boathouse (a wooden shed that did not satisfy the members). Negotiations were underway to get a more convenient place to build a boathouse, but no agreement was reached. In 1873, the administrative committee asked the City for some financial help to organize regattas but the request was turned down. Sport Nautique had no teams to compete anyway and this is when Union Nautique de Liège was launched.

Venetian gondola at the 1905 World Fair.

The year 1894 saw the first match between the two clubs, a 3,000-metre distance race. 1905 was a golden year when the World Fair was held in the city. There were many events celebrating everything nautical at the Fair, including boat racing, and with splendid fireworks. The Parc de la Boverie was accessible thanks to the Hennebique Bridge. This also meant that new members found their way to UNL. The club welcomed women in 1928.

Painting of a UNL crew by Belgian painter Paul Daxhelet (1905-1993) (the link is in French).

Etching by Paul Daxhelet.

More information in French at

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