Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tour du Leman 2013: Like how you DREAM sculling to be

The problem with my fifth experience of the 160km Tour du Léman a l'Aviron, round Lake Geneva, was that everything was so perfect, there's a serious risk that all future participations can only be a disappointment: the weather was idyllic; our safety boat driver kept us entertained in ways no safety boat had ever tried before; and we even found a solution to one of our major food issues.

Mind you, we did struggle a bit with a wonky rudder, and a trapped nerve in my neck meant that I found out my left arm didn't work properly during the race when the rate went above 24, but it would be boring if it were simple...

Food for thought... and for fuel
Although not all of my crew-mates are always in agreement with me on this, I rather enjoy the fact that the 40CHF entry fee includes free accommodation for three nights in a nuclear bunker "dormitory" just up the hill in Cologny, from the organising club, the Société Nautique de Genève. 

However, one challenge with this arrangement is that it's self-catering. The German contingents, who generally arrive in their club's minibus (and there's another distinction  – most British rowing clubs don't even have a club minibus), unpack impressive spreads from their cool-boxes including interesting-looking breads (I imagine they've carefully tested quite how high-fibre a meal is advisable before sitting in a rowing boat for 15 hours) washed down with crates of beer and cartons of orange-juice.

For our first few occasions at this event, we tried eating out, but this proved to be expensive, and also it took too long by the time we'd walked into town (lacking a club minibus) and back. And then there was the question of how to get a decent breakfast early in the morning on race day before the bakery round the corner opened.

Rowing is a fuel-demanding activity.
This year, we got it right. Helped by the fact that one crew member had accrued a lot of air miles from business travel and so could fly British Airways, with its generous luggage allowance, as opposed to that available on the budget airline the rest of us used, a crew saucepan and kettle were packed, and we each brought our own plate, mug and cutlery. The dinner solution involved a packet of pasta (gluten-free for one crew member) and each girl bringing a Dolmio tub sauce of her choice. Meanwhile we were thrilled to find that you can now get "porridge pots" that already contain dried golden syrup (no, I have no idea how your dry golden syrup either), and come in gluten-free as well as gluten-full varieties for Little Miss Difficult Guts, which miraculously comes to life with boiling water. 

Weather warning
The default start time for this event is 9am, but we'd always felt that this was a bit of a waste of good daylight rowing time (given that event the fastest crews take around 12 hours and so you are bound to finish in the dark), so we were delighted when it was announced the day before that the start would be brought forward to 8am. The reason why, was less good news, though.

The organisers always work closely with a local weather forecaster, whose gloomy prediction was that there would be a nasty storm at the top of the lake around 5pm. Which is roughly when the slower crews like us (we were the only women's crew this year) would be getting there. We felt that their official advice on how to deal with this situation – "row as fast as you can to get past there as soon as possible and then stick close to the shore if the storm does break" – wasn't particularly cunning, but it wasn't like we could actually think of a better one ourselves.

Jockeying for position at the first turn.
(This photo is too small to show the big grin on my face!)
Who coxes when?
The start of the race was the usual frenzied 1km sprint across the lake before turning through 90 degrees round a buoy to head out along the northern, Swiss shore of Lac Léman. As usual, we started off with me in the coxing seat because, although everyone takes equal turns coxing and sculling in this event, I'm a cox who sculls, whilst the others are rowers who cox, and so this was not only our fastest combination, but I was the one who positively enjoyed steering through the melee.

We were quite pleased to reach that point in 5th place overall, although inevitably various men's crews then powered past us as we settled into a sustainable rating.

Our flag this year read "SSHHH" which are the first letters of our names. Rather appropriate, we thought, for an event where the primary selection criterion is the ability to "shut up and row" which, I learned from the website of a French women's ocean rowing crew called, very neatly, "Rames Dames", translates exactly as "tais-toi et rame".

Despite being reinforced with a coat-hanger, the flag had a tendency to swing round to bowside which, as it happened the boat did too. We never quite worked out why, and it stopped doing it after a few hours, but it did make navigation a little difficult, especially if the cox was busy getting a sandwich out, retaping her hands, or carrying out other personal activities of the type that these blogs don't go into, remember?

Hey Monsieur Music Man

As I mentioned in my account of the 2009 race every crew has a motor cruiser assigned to it as its safety boat, although their attentiveness and patience with shouted exchanges in schoolgirl French has varied over the years. And whilst our 2009 safety crew were lovely, this year's boat took their duties to a whole new level. Talking to them afterwards, it turned out the boat was skippered by the Head of Safety for the whole event, and this was the last year he was in charge, so he seemed to want to go out on a high, which he certainly achieved. 

The first hint that this wasn't just another cruiser patiently following us at a polite distance came at some point in the early afternoon when we were plodding away, putting in the strokes, Suddenly, Rule Britannia came blasting out across the lake! We all burst out laughing, and the jolly feeling was a real help.

Perfect sculling conditions.
Later, towards the top of the lake, we were enjoying sculling along (at square blade, of course) on the most perfect flat water in "baby bear's porridge (pot)" sunshine (not too hot, not too cold, but just right), and I had just commented to the girl in front that "this is how you DREAM sculling to be like" when a small motorboat headed out from the shore at high speed, throwing up a huge wash, and on a path that was clearly going  to intercept us. Immediately, Superstar Safety Boat hunted him down and successfully headed him off. Such attentiveness to our sculling pleasure!

As darkness fell, he found yet more ways to help the long kilometers just fly by, but more of that shortly.

Tightly round the island at Villeneuve.
Round the bend
The race organisers provide GPS co-ordinates of the various markers that all crews have to pass round during the race. This ensures, amongst other things, that we all really do go ROUND the lake, and don't just nip up the middle and go straight back. The event is the Tour du Léman, after all. 

But given that this is Switzerland, the homeland of accuracy, we've always been slightly bemused that the GPS co-ordinates given for the one waypoint which is actually a small island (and therefore is fixed from year to year, unlike the buoys which can move) are always marked as "approx" and, from past experience were more like "inacc" or even just plain "wrong". So, this year, making use of the marvels of modern technology, I'd take the actual position of the little wooded island at Villeneuve from Google Earth, and was delighted to find that it was spot on.

Having passed Villeneuve at 5.45pm, there was no sign at all of the forecast storm, but as we reached the next point, Le Bouveret, where we saw one crew "abandoning" (we'd noticed that they were a mature crew who appeared to be being coxed by a teenage girl who we think was the daughter of one of the rowers – and we later learned that she was shivering with a temperature by this point, so they sensibly pulled out), drops of rain started to fall.

The best conditions ever.
Was our blissful row up to this point about to descend to the horrors we'd experienced in 2012?

To our immense relief, no. Those few drops were all we got, and the rest of the evening remained pleasant. Whoever was coxing did put on the communal coxing coat whilst they weren't rowing, but the rest of us finished the race in shorts and t-shirts. Just wonderful.

On and on and on
In due course we passed Evian, where the brightly lit casino gives you something to look at for 10 minutes or so, after which darkness fell completely. However, as we passed each little town, we were amazed that people appeared on jetties shouting positive (albeit slightly unidentified) things, which we found most energising. We couldn't work out at the time quite how all these lovely people knew we would be passing, especially as the field was quite spread out by now, though we later learned that the amazing organisers had contacted various watersports clubs round the lake about the event, and as every boat was carrying a tracker, they were watching to see when each crew would pass.

Anyway, we were loving the attention and having a great time, when Super Safety Boat added the icing to the cake by getting his speakers out again and playing us some bursts of the Spice Girls, Abba, and anything else to do with powerful women and water that he could find clips of on YouTube.

Later, having exhausted his store of musical puns, he played some more extended chunks of booming rock, which was great for us, but we always wondered if the organising club received complaints later from residents of quiet lakeside villas who had their repose disturbed so uncharacteristically at 11pm.

We gave top marks to the timing team at Sciez who whooped and hollered as we swung round that buoy (although the timing teams at other points had been on particularly good form this year too).

Helpful young men.
Help when you need it most
And whilst we're on the subject of the many lovely volunteers at this event, an absolutely top team is the bunch of club juniors, mostly boys, who are tasked with helping competing crew get their boats onto the water before the race and, more critically, off the water after. 

Managed by the wonderful, tri-lingual Norina, a bunch of young men is just what you need after 15 hours rowing!

However, one of these young lads finished up doing rather more than he'd signed up for: a local crew arrived for the race with the news that a crew member had been taken ill overnight and was unable to row. I'm not sure how much "volunteering" was involved, or whether he was simply handed a pair of shorts and told to get on with it, but one of the boat boys was rapidly "recruited" to take his place, and successfully rowed the lake. An impressive feat psychologically as well as physically. Respect, young sir.

"Wow, look at that amazing, magical fairy standing on
your hand! It's a special one that can only be
seen by people who have rowed round Lac Léman!"
As always, the organisers do a great job of making an occasion out of each crew's successful completion of the tour: each one is presented with a bottle of champagne and there's an official photograph, no matter how late is is. The photo on the left was snapped by the official photographer, with the wonderful Stéphane, Chairman of the Organising Committee, poised to present us with our champagne. I can't remember what we were actually discussing, and it was probably our stroke girl's impressive lack of blisters, but it's a shot which just demanded a caption competition...

Detail, detail, detail
In case you haven't noticed, I love this event for the size of its challenge but also for the lovely people who organise it and help out in so many different ways, from collecting us at the airport armed with a sign on a blade, to the weather forecast, the timers, the safety team, the boat boys, the chef who produces lasagne late into the night for the crews as they get in (and a totally separate dish for Miss Gluten-Intolerant) and above all to whoever laid the trophies out for the prize giving with a nautical theme. 

Every competitor gets a trophy,

1 comment:

  1. ThanX! Brings back great memories. Hope to make it this year again.