Saturday, 27 September 2008

Tour du Leman 2008: The one that got away

When I first took part in the 160km, non-stop Tour du Léman à l'Aviron around Lake Geneva, I was thrilled to have completed what I felt at the time was a very daunting challenge, and was quite clear that there was no need ever to do it again. 

But some months later, the other woman from that mixed crew and I decided that we SHOULD do it again. And actually, make it harder this time by doing it in an all-women's crew.

Having pulled together a carefully chosen quintet of ladies who can "shut up and row", we set off for what we thought was going to be a tough row. In fact, it turned out not to be about rowing that year, but about the pumps. Of which  we only had one, and it was rather inadequate.

Ladies who row
At this point I should, perhaps, mention that the formation of the crew wasn't quite as easy as I've made it sound. You'd be amazed at how many, hard-training/racing rowers DON'T think that a 16 hour row round a lake is a good idea. But having got stuck at four out of the necessary five, I got chatting to a woman at the City of Sheffield Rowing Club training camp, which I was attending, mostly for social reasons, at the invitation of friends from there. After talking to her for about 5 minutes by the landing stages, I somehow felt that she was a likely candidate. "Hey, I don't suppose you'd like to row round 160km round Lake Geneva at the end of September, would you?", I asked, before we were hurried into our single sculls by the coach, and sent off for the session. 

As I pulled back into the landing stage an hour or so later, she hopped out of her boat, and came over. "Put me down for that race. I've already booked that week off work and was looking for something to do." She's been my best expedition rowing friend ever since.

For Yorkshire, chocolate and the flag
The flag.
All five of us had strong Yorkshire connections: four were past or present members of York City RC, and the fifth was born elsewhere in God's own county. And whilst I never got used to drinking tea THAT strong, it's the kind of place you feel an attachment to, even if you only lived there are a temporary migrant from the South.

For further bonding of our otherwise dispersed team, I made a crew flag that featured the colours of the four rowing clubs that the five of us belonged to at the time. It was to become our rallying cry.

Getting roughed up
Although the weather was idyllic the day before as we were preparing the boat, the forecast was for a windy race day, and as soon as we rowed out of the organising club's harbour, we knew we were in trouble. Still, 22 crews set off on the usual 1km charge across the lake, before turning to head out past the UN building and along the Swiss shore.

It was tough going. Although we'd taped up our riggers, waves kept breaking over the bows, rapidly drenching the woman rowing there, and actually they were breaking high enough that they often just landed straight in the boat. I was soon working our hand pump whilst also trying to steer (which needed to be done actively as the waves were pushing us around).

Our normal stopping schedule would have had the first swap after 30 mins, but we were aware that this was no time to stop and clamber up and down the boat, so the first combo kept going, although with increasingly frequent pauses to bail out. At some point the hose fell off the end of the pump, but the amount of water the pump was shooting out, meant it was easy to aim over the side. That wasn't the problem. The capacity of the pump was, though: and it wasn't enough.

We discovered later that all of us were independently thinking, "If we get through this rough bit, even if the water flattens out, we're all so wet we're going to get hypothermia", and as five basically lightweights, we were all right. However, it was still a big "if"...

At this point, I'll leave us pumping and paddling ineffectually and explain a small aside.

Keen to encourage the participation of more all-women crews, the organisers had managed to secure sponsorship from a local jeweler (this being Switzerland, after all) in the form of five Boucheron watches. Nice. These would go to the winning women's crew.

So, as we were struggling along, quite close to the only other women's crew in the event, one of our crew did raise the point that if neither crew was going to finish, the watches would go to the one that got furthest, and so we should make sure we always paused ahead of them.

Which was a fine plan, but like so many brilliant strategies, it's the implementation where things often go wrong. And the last time we stopped to bail, when we just HAD to, we were behind the others. At this point, the straw that broke the camel's back, or more accurately, the wave that swamped the yolette, came over the side, and it was all over. As pre-planned, we pulled our feet out, the boat rolled over (but stayed floating), and we all ensured we stayed holding on to the boat with one hand until the other hand was holding the ladder of one of the two motor cruisers that were in attendance.

The race organisers always assign one cruiser per crew to act as a safety boat. However, as 11 crews had already swamped or run for he safety of the bank, one who no longer had a crew had chosen, for some reason, to follow the girls in the wet t-shirts. 

This was helpful, though it did lead to some angst as two of us got onto one cruiser, and three onto the other, and I was only 99% certain I'd seen all three of the others get onto the other boat.

The French can be sticklers for accuracy
As we climbed aboard, I saw my drybag, containing clothes, and someone's iPod, blow away across the surface of the lake, floating, because it contained quite a lot of air. "Mes vêtements sèches", I cried, in my best schoolgirl French. The cruiser driver replied "Non, vos vêtements secs", before retrieving the bag with a boat hook. Honestly, what a time for a grammar lesson!

Having been surprised at how warm the lake felt when we were swimming in it, as soon as we got into the cruiser's cabin, we started shivvering like mad – it must have been the adrenaline that kept us going while it had to. We divvied up what dry clothes we had, and supplemented these with some towels lent by the two vast French gents driving the boat.

So, after a mere 1 hr and 20 minutes of "rowing", and a surprisingly long run in a cruiser back across the lake, we found ourselves once again at the Société Nautique de Genève, about 14 hours earlier than we'd intended. We weren't even tired!

We went back to the dormitory, we showed, we got dressed, and it was till only about 11.30am. So we wandered sadly into town, stopping for some photos by the famous Jet d'Eau, but not feeling very jolly. At this point, a thought suddenly struck me, "The flag!", I wailed. We had no idea what would be rescued from the capsized boat, although we had tied all of the important stuff on.

We wandered on, unexpected tourists. And apparently not very good ones either, as we finished up in a run-down red light district. A little later we did get to a rather better park, and played a few moves on a giant chess board, but we weren't really in the mood, and soon headed back to the Club where we were delighted to find that our camera, GPS and most importantly the flag, had been rescued from their little swim. Good for you Pentax and Garmin, is all I'll say: when you say watertight to a depth of 50m, you mean it!

Giant chess is no substitute for a good rowing challenge.
In the end, only five of the 22 starters got round. They were all German. And were equipped with very efficient pumps.

And yes, the other women's crew got the Boucheron watches. Because they were about 25m ahead of us, and went down about 3 minutes later.

So we were a crew with unfinished business. But would we all be able to come back again? In one case, this trip was a crew member's holiday budget for the year, so to allocate all that two years running was a big ask... Find out whether we made it!

[Apologies for the lack of pictures in this report: as you now know, we were a bit busy to stop and take any.]

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