The Red Lake or the Lake of the Gods

Last weekend, Great Britain won seven gold medals and topped the medal table at the Lucerne Regatta.

16 July 2022

By Robert Treharne Jones, text & photos

Robert Treharne Jones goes to Lucerne.

“You can’t call yourself a proper rowing journalist unless you go to Lucerne” was how one of our fellow hacks described the situation many years ago. And that is why I returned to Lucerne for the umpteenth time last weekend, a mere 41 years after I first set foot on the banks of the Rotsee.

It was the late Bill Clarke, formerly chairman of Nottinghamshire International Regatta, who arranged that first visit on the pretext that Mike McGarva and I, the enthusiastic youngsters on his executive committee, needed to learn how to run an international event, of which Lucerne, was, at that time, the shining example.

Last weekend Great Britain won seven gold medals and topped the medal table, but of course things were a little different in those days, at least from a GB perspective. It was rare for any of our crews to reach the A finals, so we could often watch the final of the men’s eights travelling in the opposite direction, as we sped back by train alongside the lake for our flight home.

It was in 1903 that Lucerne Regatta was first founded and staged on Lake Lucerne (or Vierwaldstättersee as it is known locally), the much larger body of water which provides the city backdrop for several million visitors each year. But it took another thirty years for the organisers to realise that the gods had created another lake, at the back of the city, which was just over 2000m long, and slightly more than six lanes wide, which is why the lake is known, to this day, as ‘The Lake of the Gods’ (other definitions are available).

The ‘Red Lake” – an Alpine idyll.

The Rotsee (‘red lake’) is so called because of the reddish algae which inhabit the otherwise clear blue water of this glacial lake, but the casual visitor would be hard-pressed to find them. Instead, the overwhelming sensation is that of an Alpine idyll – shady pine forests, and meadows with a plethora of wild flowers, shelter the lake on all sides. Meanwhile groups of cattle graze on the slopes, the bells round their necks providing inspiration for Swiss supporters, who are able to buy cheaper alternatives with which to cheer on the home crews.

The press facilities in the early years were rudimentary by present day standards and consisted of trestle tables on the lakeside, but at least they were under cover, which proved useful to fend off the sudden Alpine storms which are a consistent, yet unpredictable, feature of the Lucerne weather. Our desk would be covered in piles of paper, as the hard copy of each result was duly delivered as soon as possible after each race, in a vain attempt to beat the record established by the Nottingham press office World Championships of 1986 (Proprietor: Chris Dodd, Esq). When we needed to file copy, we would queue for the use of one of the two phone boxes in the centre building, and when computers came along, we would attach our Tandys (with their massive 20K of RAM) to the phone handset using an acoustic coupler (aka ‘ear muffs’).

The centre building which had two phone boxes.
Tandy laptop with its massive 20K of RAM.

The nature of journalism has changed in other ways over the years, and arguably not for the better. Long gone are the column inches of descriptive text, to be replaced by the imagery, the sound bite, the video and the hashtag.

At least today’s photographers have easier access to the crews than those of yesteryear, when each start pontoon consisted of an oil drum and a plank, which could just about support the weight of the stakeboat boy or girl. I once managed to persuade a local boatman to paddle me out so that I could photograph the GB sculler, Chris Baillieu, off the blocks but the mission proved fruitless. Not only did the whole contraption sink under my weight, but the starter ordered me off immediately, and Baillieu didn’t even show for that race.

A ‘snapper’ waiting for the perfect shot.

Facilities then evolved to include a work platform where we all climbed aboard and persuaded the skipper to line up with whichever was the preferred lane of the majority. Nowadays the whole start system is one long pontoon, and each snapper can choose their lane, and come and go at will.

The traditional press heavies, in every sense of the word, were men like Richard Burnell (Sunday Times), Geoffrey Page (Sunday Telegraph) and Desmond Hill (Daily Telegraph), who would gather on the balcony of Room 124 of the Hotel des Alpes and review the day’s activity. Into their midst stepped Jim Railton of The Times who, while perhaps not so adept a trencherman, could certainly outdrink the assembled company. As a result, it was often necessary for the rest of us to file copy under Jim’s name after we had put our own pieces to bed. All have now entered the Great Enclosure in the Sky, leaving us to take over that room, with its spectacular view of the Kapellbrucke, and celebrate those days with a memorial gin party of our own.

The Geoffrey Page Memorial Gin Party has been a regular occasion in Lucerne for more than twenty years. Here is a picture from 2014.
Press in a pre-paperless era – (L to R) Dan Topolski, Geoffrey Page (partially hidden), Hugh Matheson, Mike Haggerty and Chris Dodd.

The organising committee in Lucerne was so keen to nurture the press that they laid on a special Saturday night party, which gave The Times correspondent further opportunity to express himself. This bash was so entertaining that many of the luminaries of FISA High Command (now ‘World Rowing’) chose to attend rather than the official reception, with its long speeches in Schweizer Deutsch. It was only when FISA numbers dwindled beyond a critical level that the OC decided to amalgamate the parties, and invite the press, with predictable consequences. After a few glorious years of top class hospitality, the press invites ceased, never to return.  

But at least Bullshit Corner remains, the promontory just below the boating pontoons, where coaches can observe their charges, and their race, and pontificate about the world in general. And probably that will never change.

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