Thriller in Manila

Manila BC on the Pasig River maybe doesn’t have a marvellous water view, but the river offers many kilometres of rowable water.

Christopher Dodd writes:

I have known Manila Boat Club (MBC) for yonks because Thomi Keller, the legendary president of FISA between 1958 and 1989 was once its captain, and because Alan May wrote a history of it that came my way. But I had never been within a million miles of it until I was on a cruise ship that moored in Manila for a day in January 2015. I took the opportunity of an adventurous taxi ride to the hidden spot where MBC is to be found in the shade of a pumping station on the Pasig River.


MBC3Manila Boat Club claims to be the oldest club of any sort in the capital of the Philippines. It was founded in 1895 on Manila Bay and is now in its fourth premises, a mile or two from the bay beside the grey-brown waters of the Pasig. The boathouse opened in 1932, a shadowy sanctuary from the industry round it, with a cool balcony overlooking a lawn and slipway, nestling between much larger buildings off Havana Street.

Manila BC’s rigger store.

It’s a homely place. Hens occupy the yard. The club pooch guards the boatshed door, and the resident cat curls up under the wall with its proud old English Gothic typeface announcing the name to passing vessels. There’s an oil depot stretching away on the opposite bank, but the Pasig provides several kilometres of rowable water amidst floating vegetation and the occasional wake of a ferryboat. Currently half of the 50 members take to the water regularly under the direction of Ben Rodoy, the club’s coach, manager, fixer and chief bottle washer, and my host for my regrettably fleeting visit.

Ben Rodoy, Manila BC’s coach, manager, fixer, and much more….

MBC manages three regattas per annum, which is a good effort considering that it is the only club in the 700 islands that make up the Philippines. The up side of being the only is that it provides a direct line to qualifying for the national team – when, that is, there is a call for a national team. The club has an assortment of boats including a considerable number donated by Swiss clubs, including Grasshopper of Zürich, Keller’s old club.

A wooden shell from Thomi Keller’s old rowing club in Zürich.

Keller arrived in Manila in 1951 with his wife Dorry and his sculling boat, Pourquoi Pas. As a recent graduate in chemical engineering from the Polytechnic in Zürich, he was sent there to run an eastern outpost of his family company, Eduard Keller. He spent three years in Manila and succeeded the Englishman Ian Purslow as captain of the club. Years later, Purslow, then president of Bristol Ariel RC, was invited to lunch by the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA; now British Rowing) on the occasion of a presentation to Keller in his rôle as president of FISA. Keller remembered Purslow after 30 years and introduced him to several ARA officials who were very standoffish, ‘a fact about which he was very much aware and wryly commented to me about,’ Purslow told me.

One thing that the future FISA president discovered in Manila was a taste for hot food, so much so that he learned to cook curry and was given a silver pepper mill by his wife that always travelled in his pocket.

Steps leading up to the club’s balcony.

Today, the club provides cross training in that it possesses three squash courts, one of which converts to indoor volleyball. There is a pleasant bar with snooker table and an array of trophies and images concerning the club’s history. My visit failed in one important respect – it wasn’t on the last Wednesday of a month. When in Manila, ensure that your stay covers such a date. Find an enterprising taxi driver and head for the MBC bar, where I am led to believe that you will find good booze, good food, good cheer and a friendly welcome. And make sure that the driver is willing to wait, because you will never find a cab or your way back to civilization.

One comment

  1. There must be many of us whose holidays are enlivened by the sight of a rowing club and the possibility of an outing. Last November I passed Svrisigar Rowing and boating club in Assam, India. The rest of our group preferred temples but Internet research shows that it survives and I shall return to the area.
    More successful was a visit to Yangon (Rangoon) in 2009 when my wife and I traveled alone. Our driver was easily persuaded to do a u-turn and we sought out the club manager, who ran a Chinese restaurant on the premises. Yangon University used to have a flourishing club there but had been moved 60 Kms out of town to prevent the students protesting – they had no transport.
    The club had declined but boasted a lot of old equipment and the best motto I have seen “Row till you are Dead”.
    There was a serviceable sculler but our guide banned me as the club is on the opposite side of the lake to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. An American swimmer had been arrested just months earlier and the guide was not prepared to take the risk.
    The only active club nearby was part of the Myanmar Navy so not accessible. We returned for a dinner a few days later and were amused by the bronze statue to the president of the club which was kept supplied with burning cigarettes in his memory

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