Racing in the Land of the Red Dragon
12 September 2018
By Victor Schweikert & Göran R Buckhorn
Here HTBS continues Victor Schweikert’s story from yesterday how he and the Australian eight of 1958 competed in the Grand at Henley and then went to Wales to race at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games on Lake Padarn in Llanberis.
The sixth edition of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, were held from 18 to 26 July 1958. The games were the largest sporting event held in Wales up to that date and introduced the Queen’s Baton Relay. Thirty-five nations sent a total of 1,122 athletes and 228 officials to the games. There were eight nations taking part in the rowing regatta on Lake Padarn: Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.
When the games opened in Cardiff by the Duke of Edinburgh, all the rowers were already in Llanberis. ‘But we had our own opening ceremony with a march with flag bearers. I believe it was our rowing team manager Eric Holford who officiated as our flag bearer, so we rowers could look on. It might not have been as grand as the one in Cardiff but impressive anyway,’ Victor writes. ‘We were put up at the University of Bangor, a bus ride from the lake. I shared a room with our 3 man, Ralfe Currall.’
The following video, in two parts, is a patriotic, propaganda film about the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. In the first reel, rowing starts at 5:55 and ends at 6:25. There is also rowing – featuring Canada, Australia and England practicing – from 13:18 to 13:45.
Reel 2 (No rowing!)
Hylton Cleaver writes in Rowing (Vol. 3, August 1958, No. 66) about the oarsmen’s accommodations, ‘They used the apartments normally occupied by women undergraduettes in term, which seemed extremely comfortable; the most illuminating discovery was that the men ate during their stay seven times as much as the women; and that Canada ate ten times as much meat!’
The rowing camp, which was on the banks of Lake Padarn nearby Llanberis, had been set up by the British Army. ‘Tents for the boats and jetties to boat from, plus a starters jetty with facilities for a held start. They also supplied small speed boats for the coaches. And there were marker buoys down the course set up at each 500 metres. It was a lovely part of the world, as long as there wasn’t a wind. There were old slate mines on the hillside of the lake. It was a pretty good setup,’ Victor remembers.
As noted before, the Australians were not happy with the boat that they borrowed for the Grand. It was old and very heavy. At Henley that year was also a crew from Harvard, competing for the Thames Cup. The American crew went all the way to the final, where they beat Thames Rowing Club. Victor writes, ‘We got to know the Harvard crew well and they lent us their boat for Wales and the Commonwealth Games. It was a modern, American-built, light boat, much lighter than the one we raced at Henley. The Harvard crew were lightweights, so it was a bit light for us. But we didn’t knock it back. The boat was called the George von L Meyer III ‘38.’
The Harvard boat got its name from George von Lengerke Meyer III, who was born in Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1916. George proved to be top student in all the schools he attended and earned diplomas and academic medals besides being a good athlete; he won school letters in (American) football and baseball. When George studied at Harvard, class ’38, he rowed and was the captain of the eight his senior year. He became a Navy midshipman in 1941 and was commissioned in March 1941 to USS Barton, which had been launched in January 1941. On 1 October, George was promoted to Lieutenant. In the third Battle of Savo Island in the southwest South Pacific Ocean on 13 November 1941, the Barton was badly hit by two torpedoes and broke in two. It was first in January 1944, George’s family was notified that he had been killed in action.
In the beginning of Hylton Cleaver’s article about the games published in the August issue of Rowing, he praises the ‘Welshmen on the spot’. He writes: ‘Everyone who watched the practice and the racing came away impressed by the friendship and generosity of the people of North Wales, especially the inhabitants and hoteliers of Llanberis. They may have been unsophisticated in international rowing, but they have everything else it takes to make a party a success.’ But he has two points of criticism: Lake Padarn was too far away from the main events in Cardiff (‘eight or nine hours of tedious railway travelling’) and the lack of publicity for the rowing events on Padarn, ‘no great crowds could be expected, and, sure enough, none came,’ Cleaver writes.
He goes on praising the English crews, who took the victories in the coxless fours, coxed fours and double sculls. Cleaver paid special tribute to ‘the youngsters from Marlow’ in the double sculls, G. W. Baker and M. A. Spracklen – the latter would later meet fame as a coach of Oxford for the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, national coach for Britain, United States and Canada, and coach a youngster from Marlow Rowing Club, Steve Redgrave. Baker and Spracklen had reached the final of the Double Sculls Challenge Cup at Henley but were easily beaten by A. Bekutov and Y. Tukalov of Trud RC. Worth mentioning here is also the Australian duo in the double sculls at the games, Stuart MacKenzie and Mervyn Wood. When Wood became Olympic champion in the single sculls in Henley in 1948, his partner at the 1958 games, MacKenzie, was only 12 years old. Now, the Australian double, MacKenzie, age 22, and Wood, age 41, took a silver medal. MacKenzie had to jump in when Murray Riley became ill. Wood and Riley raced in the double sculls at Henley, but were beaten by Baker and Spracklen. MacKenzie also won a gold in the single sculls on Lake Padarn.
However, there seems to have been complaints about racing in the bad weather that occurred on the day of the finals on Padarn. ‘People who should know better have been prone to say that England won only because the phenomenal weather conditions on the day suited us, and nobody else,’ Cleaver writes. He continues, ‘This is balerdash. Oarsmen of Olympic standard are expected to be trained to face any conditions; to assume that they win only if they are given the sort of weather they like is a sorry comment on the training.’ Cleaver then goes on to say,
Finals day began with a roaring tail-wind, and a Lake which had been calm and sheltered throughout practice was lashed by careering white horses. So what? Why should rough water be just what the Englishmen had ordered? They were all lightweights and none of them had anything like the Olympic experience of Australia and Canada. […] The blunt truth is that the two English fours and the English double scullers won because they were better watermen in such testing times, and watermanship is the golden edge of rowing.
Sending Cleaver’s article to Victor, he comes back with some comments. Victor writes, ‘I disagree with Hylton Cleaver in the paragraph starting with the word “balderdash”. To say oarsmen should be able to handle like conditions is in my opinion balderdash. I don’t know of any crews I’ve rowed in where the coach looks for “careering white horses”. Usually a crew out training will look for a bay or inlet where the water is calm. It was our opinion that the racing that day should have been cancelled, but the organisers couldn’t because the Duke was there.’
The Duke of Edinburgh attended the regatta during the last day. He was taken to the Judges Box out on the lake, but was later brought back due to the strong winds. From the grandstand, he could later see the Judge Box sinking in the rough waters. ‘The box was tilting perilously as the band played “Land of Hope and Glory”, and one lone Sapper was still on deck standing to attention to the end, but leaning over to keep in line with the angle of the box as it listed farther and farther towards the water,’ Cleaver writes.
There were also problems with the telephone system and radio equipment. Cutting some cables led to the collapse of the broadcasting system and the electrical timing circuit. Out on the water sat John Snagge, well-known BBC commentator of the annual Boat Race, totally cut off from the world around the launch he was sitting in, unable to give information on the races. ‘He could now only take the time by stopwatch, and in silence,’ Cleaver writes.
While Victor might not agree with what Cleaver writes about the weather conditions on the day of the finals, he does have the same opinions about the Welsh natives. ‘I do agree with Hylton Cleaver regarding the calibre of the locals, both those from Llanberis and the Army. They couldn’t do enough for us. Our accommodation at Bangor University was spot on, we didn’t want for anything. We had been used to the food at the boarding house in Henley. I know our manager had a few words with the boarding house owner over the menu. But at Bangor, what a difference, they did themselves proud,’ Victor writes.
How did it then go for the Australian eight and the other crews at the games? Here are the results from the finals:
Gold: Australia – S. A. MacKenzie, Silver: New Zealand, Bronze: England
Gold: England – M. A. Spracklen (S) and G. W. Baker (B), Silver: Australia, Bronze: New Zealand, 4th Place: Canada
Gold: New Zealand – R. H. Parker (S) and R. A. Douglas (B), Silver: England, Bronze: Australia, 4th Place: Wales
Gold: England – R. D. E. Pope (S), K. J. Shakell (3), D. R. Young (2), C. T. Redman (B), M. Q. Evans (res.), Silver: Canada, Bronze: Wales, 4th Place: Australia
Gold: England – C. F. Porter (S), J. P. C. Vigurs (3), S. C. Grosse (2), J. M. Beresford (B), R. C. Gabriel (Cox), F. D. M. Badcock (res.), Silver: Canada, Bronze: Australia, 4th Place: New Zealand
Gold: Canada – L. K. Loomer (S), D. W. Pretty (7), G. A. Mervyn (6), I. W. d’Hondt (5), W. N. McK. McKerlich (4), A. A. MacKinnon (3), D. J. Arnold (2), R. A. Wilson (B), S. Biln (Cox), D. L. Helliwell (res.), L. W. Stapleton (res.), Silver: Australia, Bronze: England, 4th Place: Scotland
It was the Duke of Edinburgh who presented the medals and closed the rowing part of the games. Then the oarsmen were bussed to the athletes’ village in Cardiff.
‘In Cardiff we were able to watch some of the athletic finals,’ Victor writes.
‘We were also present at the closing ceremony of the games, which was conducted again by the Duke of Edinburgh,’ Victor writes.
At the closing of the games, 26 July, the Queen announced in a recorded speech that her 9-year-old son, Charles, was created the Prince of Wales that day.
After the ending of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, the Australian crews were bussed to a boarding house in London to prepare to race at the News of the World Open Sprint Championships Regatta on Lake Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. The course was half a mile. The regatta was very well attended. Victor and his crew mates won the eights.
Unfortunately, there is no film showing the regatta in Hyde Park, but below is a short video from another regatta on Lake Serpentine. This three-day regatta was held around 8 August 1963, as the commentator is making a funny remark on the ‘Great Train Robbery’, which happened the very same day.
After the ending of the News of the World Regatta in Hyde Park, the Australian team returned to Henley to pack up Harvard’s boat at Leander for it to be shipped to the USA.
However, the adventure was not over for Victor, Bruce Evans, Ralfe Currall and Kevin Evans. ‘We moved to a hotel where the five of us pooled our money and arranged to tour Europe in a hire car. We were booked to sail home on the SS Southern Cross, a Shaw Saville line ship, but we felt we had time to tour Europe before the ship sailed from Southampton,’ Victor writes. ‘We travelled through France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. We got around but did it on the cheap. We used to sleep where we stopped, or in bus shelters and sometimes, if we were lucky, at a youth hostel.’
Victor and the eight crew still meet now and then reminiscing about their rowing adventures in Britain in 1958. ‘Seven of us in the crew are still alive and kicking. Bow Bruce Evans and Stroke Kevin Evans have passed away, along with Coach Eric Longley. We’ve had a few reunions, which were memorable,’ Victor writes. He rounds off with a question that many old oarsmen ask themselves: ‘When you see the remaining crew members, it makes you wonder, where did those young, fit men go?’