Saturday, 29 September 2012

Tour du Leman 2012: The year with the nutter in the single

The 40th edition of the 160km Tour du Léman à l'Aviron was memorable for two reasons. First, although it is usually a race for touring coxed quads (which allows each competitor to alternate rowing and coxing), a German gent was given special permission to complete it in a touring single to celebrate his 25th participation in the event.

Second, the weather was dire. Really dire. So dire that I spent quite a lot of the race convinced I was going to get hypothemia until I did what I should have done hours earlier, and was happy as Larry after that. Although Larry wasn't taking part.

The calm before the storm
The day before the race was idyllic: the lake was calm, skies were blue, and the biggest danger was getting sunburnt.

But the event's pet forecaster was gloomy and predicted that "la Bise" (the French like to give their winds names, although doing so doesn't seem to encourage the meteorological phenomena to be more friendly than if they were just referred to as "a nasty cold, north-easterly") would arrive early afternoon and tear down the lake. As a result, the race start was brought forward an hour (which was a good idea full stop and we hope that it will always go off at 8am in future – otherwise we're just wasting good daylight rowing time), and we were told that instead of going right round the outside of the lake as usual, we'd go out the northern, Swiss shore, and turn either at Lausanne or Montreux, depending on how the meteo developed, and come back the same way. None of us had ever started a race whose length wasn't known in advance, but we saw the point.

Three of the 79 women who, at that time, had rowed
an ocean: all taking part in the 40th Tour du Léman
The traditional cocktail party the night before the race was a little less lavish than usual, as the event was no longer being sponsored by a Swiss bank, but it was still a great opportunity to get to know competitors from other countries, and the organisers made a point of calling me, one of my crew mates, and a French woman up to the front, as three competitors who were ocean rowers. 

I explained that rowing the Tour du Léman was the start of my fascination with increasingly long-distance rowing, and the organisers should feel very responsible!

Pitter patter
It was still dark when everyone started boating on race day, but by 8am the day had dawned grey and gloomy. As we gathered on the start line, it started to rain. Oh good.

Rain at the start.
The bad weather made for poor visibility of other crews, and this was a particular problem for us as our GPS, which was not in its first youth, had shown itself to be temperamental the day before, and fairly soon stopped working. Lac Leman is a big place, and you certainly can't see the next way point from, so being able to follow others would have been useful.

However, with the rain continuing to fall persistently (at least it was pretty calm at this point), I rapidly found out that my rowing waterproof wasn't, and I was soon getting colder and colder. Usually, after the first few hours, coxing was a welcome rest, but this time I dreaded it because even with a foil blanket over your knees, and the thick coxing coat on, your temperature just plummeted over your half hour stint.

About turn!
As we neared Lausanne, we realised that none of the leading crews had yet passed us coming back the other way, and so the organisers must have elected to take us on to Montreux, which was a good two hours further on. Feeling increasingly chilled to the bone, and having a constant debate with myself about what the correct balance was between "shut up and row" and not causing a medical emergency by not speaking up soon enough, the prospect of a further four hours rowing was not an attractive one.

Not long after, though, we saw the first boat pass us coming back, and by the time the second was passed, we had our wits about us enough to ask where they had turned. The answer was Rivaz, a point about half way between Lausanne and Montreux: good news! And it actually stopped raining.

As we got there, and enjoyed an impressively cheery wave from the group of timekeepers, some breaths of a bitterly cold wind blew in from the north east - the direction of La Bise! If this was going to be the temperature on the way back, drastic action was needed. So I apologised to the crew that I would have to get my dry bag out of my deck hatch (a somewhat time consuming operation) so I could get my fleece out. Putting this on under my useless waterproof was a turning point – at the turning point.

Soon I was back to a normal temperature, even though I was still wet, and whilst the whole experience was far from idyllic, I actually started quite enjoying it.

La Bise failed to materialise in its full menacing form, and our progress was aided by a screaming tailwind that was at least a normal temperature.

The water was pretty rough, because of the wind, so we were forced to feather our blades. We were all individually (though no one mentioned it at the time, of course), concerned that this could give us blisters, especially as our rowing gloves were all soaking wet, but to our surprise, our paws were fine. We speculated later that the fact that our hands were still fairly cold may have helped ward off the blisters.

Craning our necks
Darkness fell, and everything was wet, but after my Atlantic experience at the beginning of the year, I was reveling in the fact that at least it was good fresh water (Evian is one of the towns on the shore of Lac Léman, after all) rather than revolting, lethal-to-drink sea water. And also that after only a few more hours of battling these conditions I would be back in a nice warm building, having a shower and eating a hot meal. It really was a new perspective on this event for me.

It might not have been much fun, but we did make it.
We had a somewhat hairy moment about two hours before the end when the crewmate who was coxing called out "Helena, is there something moored in the water ahead of us?", and as I was at bow, I turned round to see a giant floating crane looming in the blackness only about 20m ahead. You'd think that the sensible Swiss would require things like this to be lit, but then maybe the people in charge of health and safety don't expect rowers to be out after dark. 

Somewhere around here, we noticed that a men's crew from St Petersburg who had been behind us, pulled into a bay, and stopped moving. We found out later that they had retired from the race at this point, and so it was with little fanfare that we finally crossed the line, although we were greatly relieved to get back safely.

Oh, and just for the record, we beat the nutter in the single by 3 minutes. He is the definition of tough!

What happened to YOU?!
The next day, we found out how lucky we'd been. I've mentioned before that many of the same people come to this event year after year, and that it was most enjoyable getting to know long-distance rowers from other countries. One of our particular "Geneva buddies" was a German from Hamburg, who had a strong crew that was well ahead of us. 

But when we returned to the club the next morning in daylight to clear up, we were horrified to see his boat with mangled riggers on one side, and considerable damage to the sachsboard of the boat too. It turned out that when they were just finishing the race, the wind coming down the lake was much stronger than it was by the time we got there. The final 1000m of the race involved turning across the lake to get back to the club. Being sensible Germans, they stopped and bailed every drop of water out of their boat before turning broadside to the waves, and also deliberately rowed with the boat down on bowside as the waves were coming from strokeside. However, a particularly huge wave swamped them, and they had to be rescued into their safety boat (the one allocated to them was more helpful than ours, fortunately).

Having recovered the people, the cruiser then managed to crash sideways into the swamped rowing boat in attempting to get it back, and that was when the damage occurred. Very nasty. And expensive. And not our buddy's fault.

I realise that this tale isn't really selling the event when read in isolation (you'll find accounts of other years at the Tour du Léman in the Categories menu on the right). And admittedly, one of my crewmates hasn't rowed since. Another declined an invitation to return in 2013, explaining that she "didn't feel the lake love", but three of us did, and had a splendid time. More about that soon! 
"Winners are grinners": we won the Women's Category.
Oh, I nearly forgot: Sealskinz Waterproof Socks. Brilliant.

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