Saturday, 30 September 2006

Tour du Leman 2006: It can't be done

This 160km, non-stop race round Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) was the first big expedition rowing challenge I actually rowed (rather than coxed) in. 

Completing it changed my whole mindset, gave me a belief in what I could do on the water, and taught me the No.1 rule of long distance rowing, as far as I'm concerned.

Event: Tour du Léman à l'Aviron
Where: Geneva, Switzerland
Distance: 160km non-stop
Time: 16h 23 mins
Boat type: Touring coxed quads (known as "yolettes")
Number of crews in the event: 19
Event Organiser: Société Nautique de Genève

Why we finished up doing it
A club mate at York City RC came across a poster for this event whilst visiting a gig club whilst on holiday in Cornwall. It obviously had to be done.

Why it happens 
The event started in 1972 when the Société Nautique de Genève (SNG) celebrated it's centenary, and each part of this multi-watersport club was charged with coming up with a way of marking the occasion. The "rowing circle" suggested the audacious plan of rowing the whole way round Lac Léman, the lake on whose western end Geneva sits.

Before the race
We were the first crew to arrive in Geneva, and were impressed that, as promised, someone from the club picked us up at the airport. The race fee also promised free accommodation in "dormitories", which turned out to be in the local nuclear bunker. We should have realised: Switzerland provides a bed in a nuclear bunker for every one of its citizens, and in times when there's no immediate threat that the superpowers might press the button, these are made available as accommodation for community events.

See, it was turning out to be an unexpectedly socio-cultural tour already!

Being a mixed crew, we politely split up into girls' and boys' rooms for the night, and went to bed. We heard various other crews turn up during the night. In the morning, our socio-culural education was further extended, when we realised that continentals just aren't aware of British niceties of male/female separation, and that all the rooms had become mixed. Well, no problem. 

On the other hand, we did find the tendency of German rowing gentlemen to wander around in the type of undergarment sometimes referred to as "budgie smugglers", rather more than we wanted first thing in the morning.

But on to the rowing...
We prepared the boat the day before the race by taping up the riggers in case of big waves, and stowing vast amounts of bottled water, jam sandwiches, and other snacks aboard. And then enjoyed the pre-race cocktail party, complete with canapes provided by the in-house restaurant, who were clearly experienced at quite how many nibbles 95 long-distance rowers could pack away.
Crews sprint off the start, en masse.

The race starts when a gun is fired, and the assembled mass of crews, sprint for about 600m past the famous Jet d'Eau, across the lake before turning through 90 degrees to head out along the Swiss (north) side of the lake. Within a few kilometers, we were past the iconic UN building and the field spread out. Some of the lakeside towns looked charming; many featured little chateaux typical of the region. At Lausanne, where the IOC is based, we said "Wow!" at the sight of  huge Olympic rings on show at the lakeside. 

Somewhere between Nyon ("Nylon without the "L") and Lausanne we finally got the hang of sculling yolettes, which involved rating at 24 and just tapping it along. If you rate lower than that, as we had for the first several hours, it's like picking up a floating sack of potatoes every stroke.  You have been warned. 

To ensure that all crews really do follow the perimeter of the lake, the organisers issue a number of waypoints round which all crews must pass. We had a borrowed an old hand-held GPS, and programmed the various waypoints into it. Bearing in mind that this was 2006, and the iPhone was yet to be released, we found this rather tremendous, and enjoyed the count downs to each point.

Practising swapping before the race.
We didn't get much better at it.

Swapping strategy
Most crews swap the cox every 30 minutes, so that each crew member rows for 2 hours, and then coxes for half an hour. The swapping procedure is rarely elegant. And most of the jam sandwiches met a sticky end under my foot during one of the changeovers.

And back to the rowing again
The day was hot, and we made sure we were drinking plenty, but even so, by the time we go to near the top of the lake, we realised we had over-catered rather in the drinks cabinet, and poured litres and litres of the bottled water we'd bought, over the side. Given we were due to pass Evian in due course, this felt somewhat like the a watery equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle.

Around 5pm - we'd done a good day's rowing, and rounded the top of the lake. Except we still had to row all the way back down the lake, albeit along the shorter, French side, to our bunker beds in Geneva. Hmm. As dusk fell, we turned on our navigation lights, which allowed us to see what we thought were the crews in front and behind. But frankly there were several little twinkly lights in the distance, and it was impossible to tell what was going on. To paraphrase The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Lac Leman - it's big. Really big.

As we headed away from Evian, things were getting pretty grim, and here I learned one of the key things you MUST know when you're doing expedition rowing (or expedition anything else, pretty much). When you feel so tired that you can't imagine anything can possibly make you feel less tired, including eating, which would require more energy than you can muster anyway, eat. You WILL feel better. Yes, it sounds obvious, But you'd be surprised how long it can take the bring to figure that one out, if it doesn't already know, and is having to come up with it for the first time when it's tired and hungry.

And then the batteries in the GPS ran out. And in their case, not even the offer of jelly babies was going to persuade them to make any more contribution to the trip. And the problem with this part of the lake is that there are all sorts of bays you DON'T need to go into, and one you do, and we frankly had no idea which was which, which got rather stressful. So we finished up "missing a mark" although only after a rather confused, shouted conversation in French with the safety cruiser that was shadowing us, in which they thought we were saying that we wanted to "abandon", when all we really wanted to know was where we were. Maybe "Nous sommes perdus" has connotations of "All is lost" - we never got to the bottom of that one!

On-board entertainment
Strangely, the black comedy of this situation rallied our spirits and soon someone reminded us all how, when we had announced what we were doing at the club, and answered questions like "How many days will that take you?", one of the elder statesmen had pronounced firmly "It can't be done." Actually, we were all fond of the gent in question - whose name was Colin Jones, and having reached the stage where you have either to laugh or cry, we chose the former, and launched into rousing choruses of "Colin Jones, Colin Jones, Colin Jones" to the tune of "'Ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ere we go." Really, it helped at the time, and you'll just have to believe me.

Despite our best efforts, attempts to play "Today I went rowing and I saw..." didn't last for more than a few letters as the boys hadn't grasped that you're meant to "see" things in alphabetical order, so we were mightily relieved when FINALLY we rounded the last corner and saw the lights of Geneva spread out ahead of us.

It gets better and better
After crossing the finish line, and paddling round the club landing stage, we were immensely relieved to find kind helpers to help us drag the boat out of the water (still with too many drinks on board), and we were served with a 3-course meal - SNG are just the best event organisers in the world. Two of us fell asleep after the soup, with our heads on the table, and were mercifully whisked up the hill to the dormitories, whilst the other three made the most of the situation and ate our mains and puddings as well as their own. No point in letting a good lasagne go to waste.

Rule No.2 of long distance rowing (Rule No.1 is EAT):
wear gloves (this was the AFTER photo).
If you're impressed so far with the airport pick ups, the idiosyncratic accommodation, the cocktail party, and boat-carrying help and pasta when you really need it - get this - there was also a Sunday lunch provided the next day after the prize giving. Honestly, if SNG made lager, it would be brilliant.

A couple of FAQ
Q: You were on the water for over 16 hours. Er, how did you go to the toilet?
A: We all agreed never to talk about that again. So we're certainly not telling you.

Q: Will you do it again?
A: At the time, the other woman in the crew and I agreed that we were terribly proud to have done it, and there was no need to do it again. Do you think we stuck to that, though? Find out here!

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