Mark Jabalé: My Conversion to Rowing

At the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta, forty years after becoming World Champions in the coxless four lightweight – from left: Colin Barratt, Stuart Wilson, Ian Wilson, (Coach) Farther Mark and Nick Howe.

24 May 2022

By Mark Jabalé, Emeritus Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Menevia

Mark Jabalé, Master, and then Headmaster of Belmont Abbey School, who later became Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Menevia in Wales, tells the story about how he became a rowing convert by necessity, rather than by choice. But then he became an addict of the sport. He is now one of the older Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta.

Father Mark Jabalé, in 2017.

“Mark, will you look after the rowing for me for a year, please?” were the words addressed to me by a member of my community in July 1963. Father Aelred Cousins, master in charge of rowing at Belmont Abbey School, and a fellow monk and Housemaster, was being given a year’s sabbatical by the Abbot, to go out to Uganda to help in a Benedictine school. At the time, I was Housemaster and Games Master, and as such in charge of all sports. My own sporting credentials had been to play rugby and swim for University of London, ski in the team at my university in Switzerland. But of rowing I knew absolutely nothing. So, I said to Aelred: “Sorry, but I have no idea how to coach rowing”; to which he replied: “That really doesn’t matter Mark, just keep them fit, I shall be back in a year”.

So, obedient and helpful monk that I was, I accepted the task, and proceeded to keep the small rowing contingent, mainly those who had rejected, or been rejected by the cricket fraternity in a good state of physical fitness. And, under normal circumstances that would have been that. The following year, I would simply have faded into the background; there would have ended a short career as a rowing coach. But, of course, things don’t always work out the way they were intended. The following summer, as we were coming to the end of that first year, came the news that Father Aelred had asked the Abbot for an extension, sine die, to his sabbatical, which was granted. Eventually, he was out there for thirty years.

Belmont Abbey

Of course, that left me as Games Master with the crucial decision of either discontinuing the sport of rowing at Belmont, as there was no one qualified or interested; or, alternatively, trying to take it on myself. The other summer sport at Belmont was cricket. I had never been either gifted or indeed interested in cricket, so I rashly decided to give rowing a go. Consequently, before I set off on my summer holiday, I purchased four books on coaching rowing and the technique of rowing. So, lying on the beach, I was introduced to this entirely new world for me. 

The more senior members of the rowing club knew more about rowing than I did when I started, but I had one small advantage over them. I knew more about fitness and how to achieve it, having taken courses on sports fitness and injuries while doing my post-graduate teaching course. However, the full learning process of what it is that makes a rowing boat go fast; what, in the action of the rowing stroke, makes the boat glide or stops its smooth progress took many years of trial and error. So, I must apologise to my victims for my early failings. After a couple of years with the more senior crew, and limited success, I decided to start at the bottom and coached complete beginners; these were the new boy intakes at fourteen. Little by little success came, so did wins of “pots” at regattas, which is what young competitors really love, pewter pint tankards for the winners of an event. Eventually, in the mid-seventies, the school was beginning to get known for its good performance at local regattas and I decided to extend the scope of our efforts to national, and eventually international regattas, with increasing success. And 1977 and 1978 were the first years in which I coached boys who were selected to row for Great Britain at junior level at the World Rowing Championships. Many more followed.

Father Mark’s four winning the gold medal in the lightweight class at the 1979 World Championships in Bled.

By that time my involvement in rowing had also expanded in a different direction. The school used to row from Hereford Rowing Club, not having a boathouse of its own. So, of course, I made friends with some members of the club, and as a result was persuaded to join their committee. There, I was elected to run the annual Hereford City Regatta; then one of the most important and biggest provincial regattas. By this time, I had also become Headmaster of the school. The request that I take on the running of the Regatta justified the saying that if you want a job done, ask a busy man. My instructions from the members of the committee were that the deficit on the running of the event was to be as small as possible. I did not understand why the Regatta should not make a profit, to boost the club’s funds. I suggested that we introduce sponsorship of the various events and run a Summer Fete alongside it. But I was told: “Forget the frills and run the regatta at as small a loss as possible”, to which my answer was: “I’ll run it my way, or not at all!”. So, I did.

That first year, in 1975, the profit was just over one thousand pounds. This has the same purchasing power, nowadays in 2022 as roughly £7500 which of course delighted the committee. But it only created difficulties for me because they then expected me not only to continue in the job but also to produce at least the same surplus every year. It also brought other requests for help. Because of my connection with Hereford Regatta and with the school, I was asked to be a member of the Committee for Youth Rowing, and in 1977 to come onto the British National Rowing Championships Committee as its Chairman. This also meant that I was on the Executive Committee of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA; nowadays called British Rowing). Of course, all this expanded my working day at certain times of the year; but when you are young and full of energy, you don’t ask questions and you get on with it. However, all of it was taking me in the direction of the administration of rowing, and my real love was for coaching; but I was to get plenty of it.

The GB four on the medal podium having just received their gold medals.

In 1978, I had been Headmaster for 12 years, and the Abbot offered me a sabbatical two terms. I gratefully accepted. In December, I moved to London, where I lived at Ealing Abbey until August. Naturally, my walks took me to the Thames, and to the Embankment at Putney where, between Christmas and the New Year, Oxford and Cambridge used to have their early training and selection in preparation for the Boat Race. Dan Topolski, the Oxford Chief Coach at that time, asked me if I would consider joining the team of coaches.

In those days the two University crews used to be coached in fortnightly stints by five different coaches from the beginning of January up to the day of the Boat Race. Dan asked me to be the first of them. I did not have to be asked twice. And so, for five years, until 1983 when I retired as Headmaster and was sent to Peru, I coached the Oxford Boat Race Crew for a fortnight. During my sabbatical year, of course, this was not difficult to achieve; but when I returned to my Headmaster’s job, it became a little more intricate to manage. For that fortnight then, what I would do was after breakfast open and deal with my correspondence, dictating to my secretary; and then have whatever interviews with staff or others as necessary.

Then, I would get into my car and drive from Hereford to the Radley College boathouse, near Abingdon from where the Oxford crew used to boat. I would take the outing, have a post-mortem with them, and then drive back to school to sign my letters, have interviews with the pupils, as necessary and then get on with other work through the evening.

It was that January 1979, while I was helping Dan with the Oxford Blue Boat that Ron Needs, at the time the Chief Coach for the GB Senior Lightweights, asked me if I was willing to take on the “back-up four” for the eight he was coaching for the World Rowing Championships. He said to me: “Mark, you would have to train them up and see if perhaps they can get selection for the Worlds; and then, if I need one of them for the eight, I will have someone fully fit and ready”. This was a daily task of two outings a day, often at five or six in the morning and evening. We went to International Regattas (Vichy, Ratzeburg, Manheim, Nottingham, Henley) every other weekend. What else was I going to do during my Sabbatical? So, I said yes.

That was my life from March till August, apart from two weeks, when for Easter, at the invitation from the parents of one of my pupils at school, I was given a trip to Freeport in the Bahamas. I only mention this because of who I met when in Freeport. One day, I was invited to lunch by Sir Jack Hayward, once owner of Wolverhampton Football Club and sponsor of Rachel Heyhoe Flint, the cricketer. Jack had come to a Mass that I said in the church of Our Lady Star of the Sea. I went to lunch, and we talked, and got on well. Before we parted, he said to me: “Father, if ever there is anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate, ask”!

Well, that summer my four had great success at the international regattas we attended, winning three golds and one silver, so hopes were high for our selection to the World Championships. However, I was to have a huge shock when, less than a month before the Championships, at a meeting of the Executive Committee, I was told: “Sorry, your four can’t go Mark, there just isn’t enough money”. I could not accept that. I remembered Jack Hayward’s kind offer and said, “And, if I can find the money, can we go?” The answer was yes. I asked if I could make a phone call, as I knew Jack was in London. I put the matter to him, and his immediate answer was “How much do you need?” I told him that it would cost seven thousand pounds. He said to me: “Surely, that’s not enough, Father, I’ll have my secretary send a cheque for you this afternoon”.

That very afternoon, a cheque for twelve thousand pounds was sent. That was how my lightweight four got selected to row in the 1979 World Championships in Bled, then Yugoslavia. A race that they won!

The GB crew, with Nick Howe (str), Colin Barratt (3), Stuart Wilson (2) and Ian Wilson (bow), is in the top lane in this video from the 1979 Worlds:

The following year, I invited Jack with my crew to Henley Royal Regatta, and we presented him with the team Gold medal we had won.

It was later, just before Christmas 1985, when retired from the Headmastership, and sent by my Abbot to Peru to build a monastery, that I received a letter from Peter Coni, the Chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, telling me that I had been elected a Steward.

So, from “Mark, will you look after the rowing for me for a year” to the most unexpected follow-up and denouement, rowing has been an interesting aside to my monastic and teaching careers.

The fours’ row past at the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta: Nick Howe (str), Colin Barratt (3), Stuart Wilson (2) and Ian Wilson (bow). Photo: Nottinghamshire Country Rowing Association.

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