Backsplash: Well Rowed

A sign of something good at the entrance to the Rowing Gallery of the River and Rowing Museum where “Backsplash: The Rowing History Conference” was recently held.

13 November 2017

Tim Koch reports on his second favourite event held at Henley.

In rowing and sculling, a good catch will raise a backsplash. Thus, the 2017 Rowing History Conference, held at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum (RRM) on 4 November, was presumably titled “Backsplash” because it raised a room full of ‘good catches’, an eclectic and fascinating mix of best-selling writer, Daniel James Brown; international coach, Mike Spracklen; Triple Olympic Gold Medalist, Andy Triggs Hodge; rowing historian, Peter Mallory; Leander President, Jeremy Randall; rowing PhD student, Lisa Taylor; author, Alison Gill; and international rowing administrator, Colleen Orsmond. The MC for the occasion was ‘the voice of rowing’, commentator, Robert Treharne Jones.

Previously called the Rowing History Forum and previewed by HTBS last month, this year’s biannual gathering was a particularly polished and professional event and much credit for this must go to the RRM’s new Head of Development, Reama Shearman and her team, and also to the sponsorship of RadelyPublishing.com. Peter Mallory and Howard Jacobs played an important part in securing the attendance of ‘Boys in the Boat’ author, Daniel James Brown, and the whole event was organised using the knowledge, contacts and experience of the museum’s ‘Rowing Historian Emeritus’, Chris Dodd.

Delegates settle for the start of the 2017 Rowing History Conference, appropriately surrounded by the treasures of the RRM’s Rowing Gallery.

I am not going to attempt to summarise over six hours of talks by nine people, but I hope to give some idea of the atmosphere of the occasion and repeat a few of the things that particularly interested me. The RRM is going to put an edited video of the day on YouTube within the next few weeks and HTBS will link to this as soon as it is ‘live’.

A modern aerial picture of the Welsh Harp Reservoir (aka Brent Reservoir) near Wembley in North London, the scene of Britain’s first regatta organised by FISA (the international governing body of rowing). Picture: webbaviation.co.uk

Lisa Taylor, former rower for Cambridge women’s reserves, Blondie, and PhD researcher on ‘Women’s Role in British Competitive Rowing during the Second Half of the Twentieth Century’, spoke on the 1960 Women’s European Rowing Championships held on North London’s ‘Welsh Harp Reservoir’, giving it a broader social and sporting context, particularly relating to the early history of women’s international rowing. Lisa reminded us that Britain did not have an international standard 2000-metre rowing course until the early 1970s and so, before then, had never been able to host a European Rowing Championships, a great blow to the pride of the country that first codified the sport of rowing. However, 1960 was an Olympic year so there was no European Rowing Championship for men, and, until 1985, women’s international rowing was over 1,000 metres. Britain could (just) fit a 1,000-metre course onto the Welsh Harp Reservoir, already an established regatta venue.

Lisa spoke of the idea, still prevalent in the 1950s, that female rowers would ‘make spectacles of themselves’, would ‘distract male rowers’, and may ‘overexert themselves’ during racing. At one time, women had to compete in – and then leave – FISA regattas before the men arrived. While the audience laughed and gasped at attitudes and practices which now belong to the past, Lisa was speaking in a month in which the news has had many reports of the ways in which women are still belittled today.

South Africa’s Colleen Orsmond (stroke) and Rika Geyser (bow) at the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne in 2002.

Colleen Orsmond spoke on ‘a life shaped by rowing’ – the life in question being hers. She came late to the sport, starting in 1980 in her second year at university in her native South Africa. She learned to row on a dam 700 metres in diameter, resulting in a lot of time spent going around in circles. There was no South African women’s rowing structure in place until 1993 but, after an enforced long apprenticeship, between 1995 and 2003 Colleen went to 11 World Rowing Championships, seven World Cups and the Olympics of 1996 (ranked 11th in W2-) and 2000 (ranked 5th in W2-). Retiring just at the time when South African boats started to make ‘A’ Finals, she became part of a project to teach black children to row. Following this, Colleen worked in events management at FISA in Switzerland before securing a dream job in Brazil in 2013 with Rio’s Olympic organising committee. Working as the Rowing Competition Manager, the role was to make sure that the venue met FISA’s requirements. Post Rio, Colleen has returned to Switzerland as FISA’s Sports Director. She concluded that she ‘likes rowing folk’ and that she is lucky to be in a sport that has indeed shaped her life.

Daniel James Brown (left) and Peter Mallory (right).

The keynote speaker, Daniel James Brown, the author of the bestselling book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) was introduced by Peter Mallory. Peter revealed how sceptical he was when he was first presented with a draft of a book concerning rowing written by a non-rowing author – and how he was soon won over by the quality of both the writing and the research in The Boys in the Boat.

Daniel started by confessing to the Rowing History Conference that he was neither a rower nor an historian. His journey chronicling the Epic Quest began when he was already an established writer and met a man already familiar with his work, Joe Rantz, the terminally ill father of his neighbour, Judy. Daniel learned not only about Joe’s early life and struggles in the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, but also that he won a Gold Medal in the Eights at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the dying man ‘tearing up’ when talking of his crew of 70 years past. Daniel said that he normally gives long consideration to taking on a new writing project, but in this case, he almost immediately asked Joe if he could write a book about his life. The answer was ‘No – but you can write about the boat’. By ‘boat’, Joe meant not the Pocock-made cedar Eight, but the nine men, ‘the living, breathing thing that a crew is’. Thus, Daniel said that he produced something much more than a book about the minority interest that is rowing, in his words he wrote ‘an epic, sweeping story of the human heart’.

Joe Rantz in 1936.

In his meticulous research, non-rower Daniel discovered ‘some remarkable things about rowing’. These included the great physical challenges that it presents, the mental toughness required in a sport that gives few pecuniary advantages, the beauty and athleticism of a good crew, the drama of a boat race, and what a surprisingly popular sport ‘crew’ was among the general public in the inter and post-war period.

It is always good to hear an author read his or her own work, and Daniel’s two readings, one about the 1936 Olympic selection and one about the Berlin final, did not disappoint. Later, I was particularly interested to hear that both sides of the ‘political chasm’ that currently exists in the United States have claimed the book as supporting their philosophy. Daniel is, I suspect, rather embarrassed at the views of some of the people who applaud his work, but he attributes this to its wide appeal and because The Boys embodies certain traits and characteristics that many different people identify with (I should point out that he is in exceptionally good company as both 1984 and Animal Farm are lauded by some people whose political views George Orwell would have found abhorrent).

Daniel at the RRM with a victor’s wreath such as was given to the ‘The Boys’ when the “Husky Clipper” pulled into the dock after their glorious final in Berlin. This particular example was given to the only other non-German crew to win at the 1936 Olympic Regatta, Britain’s Beresford and Southwood, Gold Medalists in the double sculls.

Daniel concluded with what the story of The Boys in the Boat means to him. He thinks that this piece of social history is almost a perfect metaphor for what The Boys’ generation went through and what they achieved. They had the humility to survive the Great Depression. They fought and won the 1939 – 1945 War. They built the post-War prosperity. Daniel holds that when The Boys in the Boat won the 1936 Olympic Eights against many odds, the watching Hitler did not realise that he was seeing the portent of his own doom.

Mike Spracklen is interviewed by Alison Gill.

Post-lunch, Ali Gill interviewed Mike Spracklen about his 40-year international coaching career, one that has included 14 World and Olympic wins and numerous clashes with the rowing establishments of several nations. Ali was well qualified for the job as the two-time Olympian is currently working on an authorised biography of Mike (previously, in 1991, she published The Yanks at Oxford, her version of the events of the so-called 1987 Boat Race Mutiny).

Mike told how his introduction into coaching actually started at the international level when, in 1974, lightweight rowing was introduced into the World Championships. Initially sculling alongside his early proteges, he formed his own personal coaching style and used and developed it throughout his career with the young Redgrave and the British, Canadian, American and Russian squads. It involved finding a balance between the factors that affect the speed of the boat, which is the power of the stroke, the length of the stroke and the number of strokes per minute. As the latter is easy to increase – but often to the detriment of the others – Mike holds that it is necessary to train at a low rate to develop longer and more powerful strokes.

A giant among giants: Mike with his Canadian Eight after they won at the 2007 World Championships. Picture: Kevin Light Photography.

Mike dismissed claims that he trained his athletes ‘too hard’. However, he certainly expected commitment and, as an example of his own dedication, he claimed to have missed only one training session since 1975. His answer to the ‘overtraining’ critics was that no-one was forced to train with him. He chose his top rowers without a trial and allowed anyone to join his squad without testing as he believed that trials can exclude good rowers.

Although he had the so-called ‘Spracklen Method’, Mike admitted that, however you row, eventually another crew will come along with a different method – and beat you. As the interview progressed, it became apparent that he is a modest man who gives considered and thoughtful answers, but who, in his 80th year, is keen to set the record of his remarkable career straight – and is not about to offer any apologies. Later in the Conference, Andy Triggs Hodge played some of the songs that had inspired him. Had Mike also decided to use music in his contribution, I think that his selection could well have included “My Way” and “Non, je ne regrette rien”.

Detail from ‘The Thames from the Terrace of Somerset House, looking toward St. Paul’s’ by Canaletto (1750). Picture: Google Art Project.

Peter Mallory is both an art and a rowing historian, so his presentations are often a feast for the eyes as well as the intellect. His talk was inspired by an 1829 edition of Bell’s Life magazine (the best chronicler of aquatic events of its time) which pronounced that, on 17 August of that year:

The (Thames) presented a scene of animation scarcely, if ever, equalled, in consequence of numerous (rowing) matches which were announced for that day.

Before he examined the six regattas that were held on 17 August 1829, Peter used contemporary art (often juxtaposed with modern photographs of the same scene) to ‘conjure up what the Thames in London was actually like 188 years ago’. This he did wonderfully, using nearly 40 images including paintings, engravings, cartoons, maps and photos.

Wapping Old Stairs, 1812. One of Thomas Rowlandson’s “Miseries of London” series. This misery is ‘being assailed by watermen’. The Old Stairs at Wapping were one of the many stone steps going down to the river from which a waterman could be found for transport across or along the Thames.

The above caption reads:

Entering upon any of the bridges of London, or any of the passages leading to the Thames, being assailed by a groupe of watermen, holding up their hands and bawling out. Oars Sculls. Sculls. Oars Oars.

Peter noted that three of the six regattas held on the Thames on 17 August 1829 – St John and St George’s Regatta (Wapping), St Olave’s Regatta (London Bridge) and the Ninth Annual Lambeth Regatta – were sponsored by the inhabitants of a particular neighbourhood (parish) to benefit local watermen, who were falling on hard times due to the building of new bridges and the arrival of steam launches (though there was also the less altruistic motivation of bringing in trade for local pubs and businesses). As to the three other boat races of that August day, ‘As we proceed further upstream….. the regattas were no longer about supporting the neighbourhood watermen…. but about providing challenging contests upon which gentlemen could wager’. There were, ‘The Red House Sovereigns’, ‘A Match Between Four Landsmen of Battersea’ and ‘Wandsworth Regatta’. All gave a purse of gold coins to the winner. Again, Peter used many different images to conjure up a vivid picture of all those events in progress.

Wapping Old Stairs, 2017. One suspects that here, Peter Mallory wishes that he could be ‘assailed by a groupe of waterman’ today.

Peter presented a wonderful visual presentation that a word summary such as this can do little justice to – however, he has promised to produce a version for publication on HTBS.

2015: Leander Club President Jeremy ‘Rass’ Randall provides the fizz for celebrating another Henley win for Leander (though it was a composite crew in this case).

Jeremy Randall spoke on “Leander Club, the last forty years”, a subject that he is well qualified to talk about as he has been one of the main players in the changes at the ‘Pink Palace’ over the last four decades, a time that has seen the world’s most successful rowing club structurally and competitively rise again after a long downturn in its fortunes.

Beginning with the roots of amateur rowing in Britain, Jeremy said that although competitive rowing had its origins in racing between professional watermen, it was disproportionately a sport for the wealthy well into the 20th century. In Victorian times, Leander Club crews, in particular, were largely from the best in the land, that is from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, there were indications that all was not well when Britain’s best began to lose to foreign crews. Through the 20th century, the standard of university rowing fell in comparison to the international scene and former Oxbridge oarsmen representing both Britain and Leander found success both internationally and at Henley harder and harder to come by. Change started in 1965 when the Leander Cadet scheme was set up. Cadets (including one JD Randall) were recent school leavers nominated by their coaches and, in the following years, the scheme resulted in increased success for the club. Jeremy remembers the scheme as hard work in a strange climate. The Cadets could go into the boathouse – but not necessarily into the clubhouse. They were only (and perhaps reluctantly) made members of Leander Club after they had rowed at Henley.

Leander in 1898 – change came slowly over the next 70 years.

Jeremy also recalled the generations of neglect of the clubhouse (‘chamber pots under the beds’) that became less and less acceptable by the 1970s. Eventually, 1983 saw the ‘Pink Palace Revolution’ in which Jeremy and other younger men replaced the old guard on the committee, paving the way for the thriving, prosperous and successful Leander of today.

Andy Triggs Hodge strokes the British Four to victory at the London 2012 Olympics, winning the second of his three Olympic Gold Medals.

Potentially, Andy Triggs Hodge could have made a three-part presentation; his early life, his sporting career and his thoughts on the set-up of the modern British international rowing scene, a subject on which he has expressed interesting opinions in the past. Unfortunately perhaps, he only hinted at the latter in his concluding remarks, and perhaps spent too much time on both his formative years and on two pieces of music that inspired him while on the ergo (the predominantly grey-haired audience did not seem to relate to the hard rock, Nirvana-influenced, post-grunge sound of Foo Fighters). However, the all-too-brief description of the highlights of his competitive career was well delivered and had the room gripped. It was a good end to the 2017 Rowing History Conference.

The Conference venue, Henley’s River and Rowing Museum.

Post-conference, those who attended received an e-mail from David Worthington, the RRM Chairman, encouraging supporters to become a Friend of Rowing. Part of David’s e-mail reads:

One of the strong themes of the conference was how preserving and understanding the history of the sport can underpin education and promote diversification – our core missions at the River & Rowing Museum. 

We do this by holding events like the Rowing History Conference, working to maintain the story of rowing in the gallery, by encouraging young people to understand rowing and to want to take part and by putting rowing content online… 

By the way, we have a Boat Race exhibition coming up in April and a rowing lecture in the Spring; we will be in touch with more detail in due course.

For those not on David’s e-mail list, Hear The Boat Sing will, naturally, be keeping its readers informed of developments from the River and Rowing Museum, the epicentre of rowing heritage.

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