19 February 2018
Tim Koch goes to the land of the Pha-rows.
In an article titled “Rowing By Fives – Oar Powered Ships in Ancient Egypt” posted on row2k.com, coxswain and historian Rob Colburn wrote:
The Nile has been a good place to row for six thousand years. The current flows northwards and the wind blows southwards… (A) trading voyage to the Nile delta involved rowing downriver with the current, then hoisting the sail and sailing back.
In 1970, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism may or may not have been aware of the River Nile’s historic suitability for rowing, but they desperately needed something to improve Egypt’s image as a safe tourist destination, foreign visitors having been scared away by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. In 1967, Egypt had been defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War. Since then, there had been small-scale fighting (largely centred on the Suez Canal) in the so-called ‘War of Attrition’. The conflict escalated during 1969 but an uneasy ceasefire was declared in August 1970. Writing in The Times, Philip Howard noted:
The Egyptians recognise that their political state and rumours of war discourage tourism. But they are torn between the need to attract tourists with hard currency and the strong need to maintain the bitter fantasy of war with Israel. Accordingly, Mr Adel Taher, Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, who rowed at number seven for Egypt in his salad days, has instituted the Nile International Rowing Festival for university crews to show the world how peaceful Egypt is…
The first ‘Nile Boat Race’ was in December 1970. The Ministry of Tourism not only paid the travel expenses of the invited oarsmen and coaches, they also covered the costs of a group of rowing journalists in getting to, and reporting on, the new event. Among them was Jim Railton of The Times. HTBS reproduced his dispatch from Luxor in his obituary, posted last August. In summary, Jim’s report began:
The Nile Boat Race, which Cambridge won by a length from Oxford (at Luxor on 16 December), was the highlight of the first Nile Festival, which may become an annual event and the beginning of a tradition.
The second race takes place (on 18 December) in Cairo…. Mr Adel Taher, the Under-Secretary of State for Tourism, hinted strongly that the event was essentially a festival and secondly a race…
(At Luxor) over 10,000 spectators lined the banks of the Nile. The crews received a mounted police escort…
If the splendour and colour of the occasion could be transferred to the Putney – Mortlake Course, no one would dare suggest that the Oxford – Cambridge race was a dying affair.
In a report on the 1973 race at Luxor, Philip Howard was also taken with the ancient city, sited 300 miles south of Cairo and famous for its temples and tombs:
Luxor, eternal capital of the Middle and New Kingdoms, is without argument the most beautiful boat race course in the world. As dawn drenches the natural pyramid at the head of the Valley of the Kings pink… boats (crawl) up the river like eight-legged scarabs, beneath one of the most rugged and majestic skylines in the world.
The organisers clearly did their best to evoke the ancient past, though I suspect much of the ceremony and the racing owed its origins, not to the activities of the Court of Tutankhamen and the like, but to the imagination of the Ministry of Tourism. However, in 1974 for example, the New York Times did not question the press releases:
The regatta was officially opened… in the court of Luxor’s Amenhotep III Temple. To the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida, the competing crews paraded into the court holding their oars like marshal staffs. Egyptian school children in native dress chanted welcomes in both Egyptian and English and strew rose petals in the paths of the entering oarsmen. The ceremony re‐enacted the Pharaonic parades of 4,000 years ago when ancient rowing teams raced on the same stretch of the Nile where today’s racing took place. The ancient crews raced for the honor of leading the funeral processions of the deceased kings.
I would add the tag ‘citation needed’.
I asked Boris Rankov, Professor of History and multiple Boat Race winner, for his view:
I’m no Egyptian expert (but)…. I am not aware of any evidence for racing, although there were certainly processions of paddled and oared vessels at Alexandria and on the Nile both in the Pharaonic and the Hellenistic periods. Having said that, given that there were certainly lots of human-powered boats around on the Nile for several millennia, it’s hard to imagine that there would not have been at least some informal or ad hoc racing, so the Egyptian Tourist Board was perhaps only bending the known facts slightly.
Returning to 1970 and the first Nile Boat Race, four crews representing Oxford, Cambridge, the Egyptian National Police and Egyptian Universities went off in a much delayed and rather shambolic start in which drifting stake boats were eventually abandoned in favour of a (very) free start. The result was Cambridge first, followed by Oxford, then the Police and finally the Universities, but the best local crew was not disgraced; the Police finished close to the Dark Blues, who were a length down on their old rivals.
Sports photographer, Gerry Cranham, was commissioned by Sports Illustrated magazine to cover the event. The story of that assignment is here, and 50 of Gerry’s Egyptian pictures can be viewed on the website of the photo agency, Offside Sports Photography (put ‘Nile rowing’ in the search box at the top right). One of the pictured local boats that was lent to the visitors has clogs not shoes, a large external rudder on the stern, and (possibly) ‘fixed pin’ gates.
Perhaps it would disappoint the Egyptian Police crew and their supporters to note that the two Oxbridge teams were not the units that rowed against each other on the Thames Tideway in the previous March. In 1970, the ’Oxford’ Nile boat included one Blue whose last University Boat Race was in 1965, one in 1966, two in 1967, two in 1968, and two in 1970. The cox had not (yet) received his colours. ‘Cambridge’ had one Blue from 1967, two from 1969, two from 1970, and four ‘non-Blues’. It seems likely that the fitness of both crews would have been variable, and their time training together limited.
The British crews may have often been thrown together, taking whoever was available for a bit of fun over the Christmas period. In 1973, Philip Howard reported on a (perhaps typical) jolly escapade of a group that was not saving themselves for the races:
It is illegal to climb the Great Pyramid of Cheops these days… Nevertheless, James Harvey-Bathurst of the Cambridge boat crew led a party of his colleagues in dandy light blue blazers in a successful assault on the summit… The ascent had to be made at midnight because of the new law, and the guardians of the pyramids had to be persuaded by a flourish of tatty Egyptian bank notes to uncock their rifles and turn blind eyes.
By the time of the second Nile Boat Race in December 1971, Yale and Harvard had joined in the fun (though the Crimson’s coach, Harry Parker, once admitted, ‘It’s difficult to take the racing too seriously. We have to use borrowed boats and, because it is during the winter, there is no extensive preparation’). The Huskies of Washington State were late to the party, first making the long journey in 1977. The Egyptian’s budget did not seem to stretch across the Atlantic, and they only paid fares from Europe, so Americans had to fund the first part of their trip themselves. By 1974, other countries began to send crews. At various times there were entries from West Germany, Belgium, France, Canada and Ireland. The Times speculated in 1974 that ‘Russian and East German crews are likely to compete this year for the first time’. However, I have found no record of this happening.
By 1974, The New York Times was able to report:
Whatever the outcome of the races, the Regatta on the Nile has become the premier international sporting event in Egypt. The Egyptians have arranged a week’s itinerary that may serve a double purpose of showing their rowing guests the sights of Egypt and at the same time even the competitive edge that lies with the visitors by exhausting them with receptions before the racing begins.
Egypt’s rowing programme developed through the 1970s and home crews had their moments. In Cairo in 1971, the Cairo Police Rowing Club came in third but were ahead of Yale and Cambridge. At Luxor in 1972, the Police took the lead in the six‐boat race but relinquished it during the final strokes to Harvard, losing by a second. However, they beat Oxford by six seconds, Yale by 11, and Cambridge by 14. In Cairo in 1974, the local police (semi-finalists in Henley’s Thames Cup that year) beat Harvard – though The New York Times was not magnanimous about this:
Lest the rowing world read more significance into (the result) than is justified, it must be pointed out that the limitations of borrowed equipment and a frenetic schedule played a significant part in all the invited crews’ performances here.
In the late 1970s, small boats were added to the programme (including women’s pairs) and, in 1979, the team trophy for the total points went to Egypt for the first time (though there were few foreign entries for the small boat events). In 1981, the Arab Contractors crew beat the University of Washington into second place in the coxed fours.
The sports journalist, Robert Messenger, accompanied the Washington Huskies on their second trip to Egypt in 1978. Messenger writes about this in his blog, ‘Oztypwriter’:
Washington’s rowing program budget was apparently large enough for the US representatives to ship to Egypt a carbon fibre shell and oars…
Instruction from the Egyptian Tourism Ministry was, ‘Once at Orly (Airport, Paris), we will look after everything else.’ If this had turned out to be even half true, the trip would have held little of the fascination it did. We were embarking on a 10-day reign of utter confusion. But it was a confusion of fun…
The highlight was the opening ceremony at Luxor Temple, followed by a parade through the town’s chanting crowds to the start line. One eights race was held in Luxor, two days before Christmas, and a second program started in Cairo on Boxing Day. Washington, winning in Luxor, had never rowed so fast. There was a 35-metres a minute flow in the Nile, and it took the Huskies just a tick over six minutes to cover the two miles.
The (crew from Trinity College, Dublin) paddled home 22 seconds in arrears. They had excuses. ‘The boat they lent us came out of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities,’ complained the stroke, Gerry Macken. ’It was last used in the year 3000 BC.’ Macken decided to fix the well-seized seat slides by stealing into the Washington camp late one night, grabbing a few fistfuls of peanut butter and lubricating the rails…
(Borrowing old, twisted wooden boats was a constant source of frustration for those crews who could not afford to bring their own).
In Cairo, we did stay in a grand hotel, Shepheard’s, and on Christmas Day, with nothing else happening, we drank the place dry of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.
On a narrow stretch of the Nile, Domnhall McAuley, a sculler from Queen’s University, Belfast, narrowly lost to Abdel Aziz Mohammad – and a dead, bloated donkey, which floated, feet up, across the finish line a length ahead of Domnhall. But McAuley got no medal. Indeed, I was the only medal-winner: a silver, for turning up to cover the festival…..!
Messenger tells how he was ‘mugged’ after the flight back to Dublin:
Mr Macken, the mischievous stroke, informed me that his crew had commandeered my Olivetti (typewriter) from the airport carousel, and unless I handed over my silver medal for safe keeping in Trinity College’s archives (‘We have to have something to show for this trip,’ he explained, quite reasonably), I shouldn’t expect to ever see it again. The medal remains at Trinity College to this day…
As a reminder of how things were in the pre-Internet age, Messenger recounts that each day that he was in Egypt, he had dutifully typed a story, taken it to his hotel’s reception, and gave instructions that it be wired to his editor. When he got home, he found that none of his dispatches had got out of Egypt (they could be behind the hotel’s reception desk to this day).
Chris Dodd, in Egypt reporting on the races for The Guardian, remembers another time when alcohol flowed faster than the Nile:
Jim (Railton of The Times) and I held a grudge against the New York Times correspondent, whom we had met at Heathrow during a five-hour delay before take-off… One evening, Jim invited the Oxford crew in his best Egyptian voice to come to our five-star hotel to be interviewed for a prestigious TV programme. They duly appeared in best bibs and tuckers carrying a couple of oars as requested, and we all sat around the lobby waiting for the TV crew. When it never appeared, Jim invited all to the bar and ordered cocktails. It was a very good and long evening – all charged to the room of the New York Times.
While the course at Luxor was clearly rather special, the final race was always held in the centre of Cairo, a course that also had its attractions. Judging by pictures, the Nile as it runs through Cairo looks like the Thames as it bisects central London. The wide and choppy waters are not particularly suitable for up to six abreast racing but, luckily, the west channel running alongside the fashionable Gezira Island provides a sheltered and straight 2,000-metre course, with only one bridge to negotiate. The final race in Cairo always had Egyptian ministers and ambassadors from the competing countries’ crews among the spectators – underlining the diplomatic as well as the sporting significance of the regatta.
There is YouTube film of the 1975 race along Gezira’s west channel involving the universities of Oxford (who won), Harvard, Cologne, Paris, Cairo, and the Cairo Police:
It seems that every Festival brought different (but not insurmountable) problems.
In 1972, the whole Yale eight was crippled by ‘stomach upsets’. The Times noted that they ‘disembarked hastily’ after coming in fifth (perhaps wishing that they rowed for Brown).
The 1973 event was cancelled due to the Arab-Israeli War of that year (also known as the ‘Yom Kippur’ or ‘Ramadan’ or ‘October’ War, depending on your allegiance).
To dramatise the 1975 reopening of the Suez Canal, the first race was of that year’s Festival was held in Ismailia, ‘The City of Beauty and Enchantment’, situated on the west bank of the Canal. However, the course proved unrowable, two crews sank in the rough water and the race result was declared void.
In 1977, the Egyptian Rowing Federation attempted to establish the Nile festival as a more international event and invited only national teams, rather than collegiate eights, to participate. However, of the five original nations invited, only Britain and France sent national squad crews. The United States sent the University of Washington. After accepting, West Germany and Yugoslavia failed to show, and Belgium’s Gent Rowing Club was a last‐minute substitute. Egypt itself had no national team. However, this attempt at greater credibility was lessened even more when the crews appeared on the start at Luxor. The New York Times wrote:
According to international rules, the starting commands for crew races are given in French. Unfortunately, the Egyptian crew did not seem to understand French, and each time the umpire attempted to give instructions the Egyptians broke from the stake boats.
In order not to be left behind, the other crews followed suit. With the swift current in the Nile adding to the starters’ problems, each false start consumed 15 minutes for realigning the crews.
After trying for an hour to start the race, the umpire just screamed, and all the crews went off. The French immediately took the lead… Then the crews began converging. Disregarding the frantic warning of the umpire, the crews avoided colliding purely by luck.
The best part of the race was saved for last. Though the Egyptian crew did not know when to start, it turned out it was the only crew that knew where to stop…
Thus what was supposed to be a 2,000‐meter race became at least 2,500 meters for the French, British and Americans who did not stop rowing until they all realised the Egyptians, who finished fourth, had ceased…
All this confusion caused delirium among the crowds lining the shore. Thousands of Egyptians chanted in Arabic for what appeared to be the victorious Egyptian crew… Ultimately France was declared the winner…
The start was no better the next year, 1978. The New York Times reported from Luxor:
Apparently benefiting from last year’s experience, the Huskies were ready for the unorthodox racing start. Before the starters’ commands were uttered, the Egyptian crew was away from the stake boats. Washington left a half stroke after Egypt, while the Vancouver Rowing Club crew, making the first Canadian appearance on the Nile, dutifully waited for the word ‘go’.
Later, at the final race in Cairo, the hapless Vancouver crew were rammed by a fishing boat on the way to the start.
The excellent history section of the University of Washington Huskies’ website remembers the problems of their 1983 trip:
The typical Egypt adventure would await: their oars were lost somewhere between London and Egypt and the boat they borrowed in Luxor had to be wired together with barbed wire (that longtime UW coach, Dick Erickson,) clipped from a fence. ‘I had quite a discussion with a couple of guys carrying AK-47s…’ said Erickson of his fence clipping escapade.
Rowing now with borrowed Egyptian oars and a boat wired together, they lost to the West Germans and the Egyptians at Luxor, prompting Erickson, upon arrival in Cairo, to go search the airport. Tucked into a corner was the box of Washington oars, and following some simple ‘negotiations’, Erickson had the oars packed in a truck. But that would not end the adventure.
That evening, while practising on the Nile, a motor launch ran over the back of the Huskies shell, cleanly separating two feet of the stern – tiller and all. The crew made it back to shore before sinking, Erickson spending Christmas Day repairing his craft. The crew would subsequently win a few days later against the same teams they had faced in Luxor, prompting an upbeat Erickson to say about this young team, ‘I got a chance to learn a lot about them’.
Erickson also made the understatement that, ‘The Festival is far and away one of the most unusual athletic contests I’ve ever attended.’
The last major reference to American and European participation in the Nile Festival of Rowing that I have found concerns the 1983 event. The Camp David Accords of 1978 which led to the 1979 Egypt – Israel Peace Treaty may have resulted in foreign tourists returning to an apparently now peaceful country, negating the original reason for the Egyptian government’s funding of the event. For all its organisational problems and frustrations, the Nile Festival of Rowing is probably fondly remembered by those who took part or who supported it. In 1977, The New York Times may have summed up their general feeling:
In staging this regatta, the Egyptians may well have set a new standard for international races. World‐class rowing increasingly has a funereal sobriety that was totally absent today. All the crews came off the water smiling, an atmosphere that only the Egyptians have achieved in international rowing.