Saturday, 26 September 2009

Tour du Leman 2009: Never again?

The story so far: in 2006, I amazed myself by completing the Tour du Léman à l'Aviron in a mixed crew. In 2008, I set out to do the race "the hard way" without those big-engined blokes in an all-women's crew. Unfortunately, the weather got the better of us and we "swamped" after an hour and 20 minutes of battling through breaking waves.

Disliking unfinished business, the five of us returned to Geneva the next year, more practised, equipped with an electric pump, and with an updated flag.

Pump action
Getting an adequate pump was top of our "what to do differently next year" after our unplanned swim in Lake geneva in 2008. Not having a clue about what we needed or where to get it, I remembered that the German crew which had been prepping their boat next to ours in 2008 had been installing a rather impressive electrical pump system. Fortunately, I had taken some photos of us by our boat at this point, which had the Germans in the background, and with teutonic efficiency, the name of their club was on the side of their boat. Thanks to the wonder of the internet and my dodgy schoolgirl German, within 24 hours, I was in email contact with one of that crew, who spoke impeccable English, and explained the details of their pumping system.

Unfortunately, as this relied on using a small motor-cycle battery for power, we were stumped because you simply can't take those on planes. Further research then revealed that all water pumps assume that you are in a boat that has a motor to power it. And even the 2 tall girls in our crew didn't have the relevant voltage output. In the end, I found that there is just one type of pump which runs on D batteries – and swiftly bought one.

No, not again?
The weather was distinctly murky when we set off, and as we headed out along the Swiss shore, the water was worryingly choppy. We'd built up the bows of the boat as much as possible with plastic sheeting, bits of wood and a lot of gaffer tape, as well as taping over our riggers with a marvelous product I'd discovered whilst a friend was moving house – it's like sticky tape, but about 2ft wide, and is used for putting over stair carpet so removal men don't mess it up whilst carrying stuff up and down stairs in dirty shoes. 

After a couple of worrying hours, hoping the waves didn't get any worse, we were hugely relieved when the water flattened out so that we could revert to rowing square blade, which almost totally eliminates issues with blisters or painful wrists. And some time mid afternoon the sun also appeared for a while, which was particularly welcome, as it shone from behind us, for easing my increasingly painful back.

Why, thank you, sirs!
Before the race, we'd been contacted by a men's crew from Swansea University Boat Club who were competing in it for the first time, seeking tips. Like many university rowers, they were not scullers, and so had elected to do he trace as a coxed four instead of as a coxed quad. Which was a level of added challenge that even multi-veterans of the event wouldn't contemplate.

Paddling square blade in perfect conditions.
The had had some red all-in-ones with large black spots on made specially for the event. We never found out why they wanted to look like ladybirds, but it was a fun look nevertheless, and why not.

Despite being big strong boys, at least partly because they were rowing sweep,  
we found that we were a similar speed to them, and with almost all crews using the "swap the cox every 30 mins" strategy, we often found ourselves pausing near them for the undignified scramble up and down the boat. At one swap, somewhere near Montreux, we were so close that they called across "Ladies, we don't want to give you big heads, but we think your sculling is beautiful!". Big smiles all round i our crew! And here is a simple but important thing about compliments: when you're under physical pressure, they're incredibly powerful. Honestly, that nice little comment kept us buoyed up for ages. Thanks, guys!

Talking to these men after the event, it turned out that they'd been using quite a complex strategy which meant that they not only swapped the cox every half hour, but also changed the whole crew round so that each man swapped sides (another issue with doing long-distance events sweep not sculling) and the "burden" of stroking was shared equally. You can see the logic in it, but it did make the changes time-consuming, particularly as one ember of their crew was about 6'7" whilst the others were normal-sized, and so there must have been quite a lot of adjusting feet each time everyone moved round.

We took a totally different approach. We arranged the crew in height order, with the tallest in the stern and the shortest (that's me) in the bows. Although "middle 3" rowed in 2 different positions, depending on who was coxing, they were therefore sharing a seat with someone who was reasonably close to them in leg length, and so we didn't have to adjust stretchers at all. Of course, this did mean that the tallest girl stroked 80% of the race, but she's a country vet, hard as nails, and actually thrived in leading us all on from  the front. The Welsh guys were totally in awe of this concept.

We were being followed
As always, the race organisers at Société Nautique de Genève allocate a motor boat to follow each rowing crew in this event, to provide safety cover. The cruisers are all privately owned, and belong to the cruiser section of this multi-watersport club, but we had always thought that traipsing up to the top of the lake and back for 16 hours was pretty darn kind of them. But we later came to understand that they actually quite enjoyed it.

We particularly liked our support crew this year. At the start of the race, when all the rowing boats are quite close together, all the cruisers stood off, traveling up the middle of the lake, so they didn't wash us down. But a few hours in, when there was more space, they gently approached us at one of our swap pauses, and shouted out "Hello ladies, we are here for you!"

As darkness fell, they continued to keep nicely out of the way, but when we stopped to swap, and they saw the lights on our boat stop moving, they did approach a couple of times,  turn their powerful searchlight on us, and ask "Are you OK?", to which we replied with cheerful waves. The only slight snag with this was that, on swapping into the coxing seat after 2 hours rowing, the cox often needed to relive herself (using a receptacle of which no more will be said), and whilst dropping one's shorts in front of one's friend was a necessary evil, it didn't mean one was entirely comfortable having one's are bottom illuminated. However, they fairly quickly understood the situation, and stopped using the searchlight.

After the race, we sent them a card to thank them for being a great support boat, and some months later they sent the above photo, with several others which finally revealed that following rowers round the lake was actually a jolly good excuse for a cruise. (Note that the French word for "safety" is "securité", hence the caption. It wasn't that we were at risk of being kidnapped...)

Through the marks and round the bend
One of the rules of the race states that all crews have to get past a specific point at the top of the lake in 9 hours, or they will be asked to retire. As we'd only just got to that point within the cutoff in our mixed crew in 2006, we were quite concerned that we might not make it in our women's crew, and be forced to stop, even if we were going well. We talked to the organisers about this, and one of them (probably speaking off the record), winked at us and said "Don't worry, for you we will stop the clock." You can see why I think this is just the nicest event ever.

Heading away from Le Bouveret, the 9 hour cutoff point.
As it turned out, we needn't have worried. We had with us a list of the times we'd taken to each way point round the course in our mixed crew, and to our surprise, soon found that we were actually beating these each time. We concluded that although the blokes had provided good power, they were also heavy when coxing and at least some of them had caused excessive faffing at change points.

Another problem we'd had that year was that our GPS had stopped working and without it we were unable to find the waypoint at Sciez in the dark. Equipped with a new GPS this year, w wondered why we'd ever had a problem, and rounded this point exactly in parallel with the Welsh ladybird men. I'm sure the timekeepers there must have thought some French equivalent of "I dunno, you stand here for hours and suddenly 2 crews turn up at once".

Never again
The final 3 hours 15 minutes from Sciez to the finish were hard. My back was a wall of pain, and ensuring that you avoid unlit yachts in the dark when coxing is quite stressful. Eventually, though, we reached the stretch of dual carriageway that runs past the club, and which has very obvious street lights along it. I'd remember this but taking ages in 2006, but this time it whizzed past (it's actually only about 3km), and after a little bit of shouting on the finish line "Somme nous finis?", "Yes, you have finished!" we were finally the first British women's crew to row round Lake Geneva.

Stéphane, the lovely chief race organiser, was at the landing stage to pull us into the landing stage, at which point I said, somewhat in the manner of Steve Redgrave's "If you ever see me in a boat again you have my permission to shoot me" utterance after winning 2- at the 1996 Olympics (and we all know what happened after that), "Don't ever accept an entry from me for this race again, that was SO painful." Of course, he just smiled, and said "You will be back." 

And, of course, he was right.

The 2008 flag had to be updated for 2009 because one
 crew member had changed clubs,
hence the addition of the Rob Roy dark red fringe.

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