Brisbane’s Rowing Community Makes a Comeback

The Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School rowing shed immediately after the peak of the flood.

6 March 2022

By William O’Chee

Here is William O’Chee’s third report about the flooding in eastern Australia. William and other volunteers took up the recovery work at the Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School rowing shed.

There is a rhythm to sweeping mud out after a flood. A right way and a wrong way: a long smooth shove as you walk quickly forward, not short little brushes like you are sweeping up dust. This is a task to be performed many hundreds of times today. A back-breaking, relentless chore, but one which will slowly reclaim one tiny portion of Brisbane’s flooded city.

A long, smooth shove as you walk quickly forward is the best method to sweep away mud.

A week after the Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School rowing shed went underwater, I am with a small army of indomitable volunteers who will get it operating by Monday. You have to be staunch-minded, because otherwise the task would be insurmountable.

Ruined boats, which could not be removed in time, litter the forecourt.

In every one of Brisbane’s rowing clubs, the floodwaters worked their wicked ways, to a lesser or greater extent. The water here went right up to the ceiling of the ground floor, as the marks on the walls attest. Anything left inside was enveloped in thick, putrid mud. Fortunately, most of the boats had been loaded onto trailers for a schools regatta. The regatta was cancelled, and the boats were towed to higher ground. Most of the remaining boats were hurriedly de-rigged and loaded up, but a few which could not make it onto trailers before the flood arrived were destroyed. On the forecourt, what items that remained in the shed are scattered about in what resembles a garbage tip. Ergometers, workbenches, tools, oars and trestles are waiting to be sorted into what can be saved, and what must be thrown away.

Volunteers hard at work removing mud from the boatman’s workshop. Marks on the pillar and walls show the floodwaters made it all the way to the ceiling.

Before that can happen, we must tackle the mud. An excavator was brought in immediately after the flood to remove much of the mud on the forecourt, and to tow out the unfortunate boats that had been left behind (see video below). However, there are many hours of manual labour with shovels, brooms and scrapers to remove what remains.

Mud, several feet deep, had to be removed manually from this passageway.
An excavator tows a ruined rowing shell from the inside of the shed.

An added complication is that a sewerage treatment plant upstream flooded, releasing many thousands of tonnes of effluent directly into the river. As the waters receded, the effluent and mud mingled and became one. Volunteers must wear masks and safety gloves along with waterproof boots as they tackle this detritus, because the risk of disease is very real.

Long-time Brisbane cox, Dickie Somerville, takes a break to wash out his eyes after getting mud in them.

Over and over, we dig the mud and load it into wheelbarrows for a short trip to return it to the river. Here, some workers use high pressure hoses to wash down the walls; there, others use brooms to push the mud over concrete floors towards the doors. Even Jacinda Euler, the Principal of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, comes down to literally lend a hand, taking a turn on the shovel before going off to fetch food for the volunteers.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School principal, Jacinda Euler, lends a hand shovelling sewerage filled mud off the road and footpath.

On the forecourt, a high-pressure hose is used to remove the mud from oars, metal shelving and other items that are deemed capable of being saved. What can be cleaned and salvaged is then taken up onto the road where it is out of the way, before the next item is dragged out for attention.

There is an urgency to all of this activity, as the river is still rising and falling as the tides meet water still draining from the catchment up stream. With each day the high tides are a fraction lower than the day before, but enough to have caused some areas to flood repeatedly over the past week.

The high tide inundated the forecourt again, forcing a temporary break for lunch.
Brisbane Girls Grammar School rowing captain Jade Somerville tries to wash a chair as water laps around her ankles.

With grim determination we shove and shovel mud, while watching the river creep ever closer to our toils. A half an hour before the high tide, the river swept across the forecourt and threatened to once again invade the shed. St Florian must have been looking down on us, for the waters peaked centimetres from the doors of the shed as we grabbed some food and look on in trepidation.

Helen Armstrong and Emma Paull celebrate as the tide peaks centimetres from the doors of the shed.

As soon as the tide abates, it is back to work. This was the highest tide for the coming week, so we throw ourselves into the fray with relish, knowing that our efforts will not be in vain. Finally, the interior walls and floors are cleaned and sprayed with disinfectant.  

There is still work to be done sorting and cleaning the equipment taken from the shed. The ergometers will probably be irreparable, but some things will survive. Heritage items from both schools were removed the day before the flood, and are safe, so their history has been preserved.  

Surely, if history and courage abide, all else can be overcome.

Muddied, but unbeaten. The volunteer army returns the shed to operation.

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