Friday, 20 December 2013

Elfsteden (11 Towns) Rowing Marathon: Give us a HUG!

Which would you rather do on the last weekend before Christmas? Go shopping, or go rowing with a bunch of people you hardly know, in a foreign country, over the longest night of the year?

Obviously, it was a no-brainer, and so it was that I spent a freezing weekend having a tremendous time, rowing past the occasional windmill.

And as so often, but still unexpectedly happens with events like this, it was a cultural eye-opener too.

Event: Elfsteden "Serious Request" Rowing Marathon
Where: Leeuwarden, The Netherlands
Distance: 185km, 4-crew relay
Time: 15 hrs ish
Boat type: Touring coxed quads and doubles
Number of crews in the event: 12, I think
Event Organiser: ElfstedenRoeimarathon

The Elf WHAT?
"Elfstedentocht" means 11 towns tour. The 11 towns in question are all in North-West Holland, in a region known as West Frisia, which has a lot of canals. Which, like much of the Netherlands, very flat and right next to the North Sea.So any strong winds that might be happening in the North Sea because it's, say, the middle of winter, can come whistling across the area. I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

So it's a rowing event, right?
Yes, and no. Originally, it was a speed skating event. A Dutch competitor in the version we rowed explained that it started with the local farmers (a widespread occupation in the area) skating (because everyone could) from town to town along the many canals, to check out whether the girls in the next town were prettier than the ones in your own town, not being able to make up their minds, moving on to the next town, and so on, till they finished up back home, where they decided there wasn't so much wrong with the local lasses after all. This is probably fiction, but it's a nice thought.

What with modern weather an all that, the skating event hardly ever happens any more because it's very rare that the ice ever gets thick enough. But apparently when it even looks like it might take place, the whole of Holland grinds to a halt with the excitement.

Waiting for the start.
However, since this is a rare event, at some point someone realised that it was also a great course for a rowing event, which takes place on the Friday and Saturday after Ascension Day in May every year (and one of the many cultural things we learned on this trip was that, despite their reputation for being, er, liberal about some things, your average Dutch person knows exactly when Ascension Day is and finds it quite reasonable to organise events in relation to it, whilst obviously the average Brit wouldn't even have heard of it).

The race involves up to about 100 crews, all in touring coxed doubles, which are highly popular in the Netherlands - again, they're practically unheard of here. The format is that each team comprises up to four "crews", and they swap in and out at regular intervals round the route. We did a slightly shortened version of the usual 210km course – because it was too windy to row across a lake called the Slotermeer – and coxed quads were allowed as a slightly less challenging alternative to the coxed doubles..

Why were we doing it in the bleak midwinter?
I hope my Dutch rowing buddies will forgive me if I've got any of this wrong – sometimes the language barrier was a bit impenetrable: the normal Elfstedentoch starts and finishes in a town called Leeuwarden (pronounced Loo-wah-den). OK, park that thought.

Each year, the weekend before Christmas, the Dutch equivalent of Radio 1, does a big charity event which includes DJs being shut up in glass rooms and stared at for 48 hours, amongst other activities. This spectacle is based in a different town every year, and this year the honour fell to Leeuwarden.

So, somewhere along the line, some bright spark said "Since we're all doing this in Leeuwarden, why don't we get those crazy rowers to do a special charity edition of that rowing event they always do here n the summer, when it's warm, and the nights aren't very long?"

The lights on the rowing boat were extremely cunning:
sterotypically, designed by the German. They were
UNDER the tape that went over the riggers, so we
didn't lose our night-sights, but could be
 seen by the land team.
Now, the Dutch are pretty keen on long-distance rowing – to the extent that they actually have a league for which individuals have rowed the most miles in long-distance races each year. Which is why there were two Dutch crews of five doing  the Tour du Léman à l'Aviron round Lake Geneva earlier in the year, where our crew were the sole British representatives. And because of the Dutch crews' excellent English, we'd got chatting, and swapped some email addresses, and so when even they couldn't quite find enough local clubmates who thought that rowing through sleet in the dark was a good idea, they got in touch, and thus it was that Team HUG for Life (Holland, UK and Germany - there was a random German too) was formed.

And despite the fact that there 17 of the rowers and all 6 or so of the land team were Dutch, they did the whole thing in English just to accommodate the two of us (me and my husband) and Stefan the German. I mean, can you imagine a bunch of Brits swapping to another language for a complicated, everyone's-tired event? Even in the best-case scenario, we'd all still be standing at the start asking whether someone had seen any pens, gardeners or aunts.

Attention, Go!
Dramatic steering at the start to avoid another crew
that suddenly set of ahead of us.
No. The start format was truly unique and set the tone for the wackiness of the whole thing. All of the boats were lined up along the river bank in Leeuwarden. However, the start point was in the town square (where the incarcerated DJs were) about 150m away. 

At the "go", a card was handed to the Land Team Manager, who then had to sprint to the river to hand the card to the cox, and then the crew could depart. This was a useful way of separating out the crews so that there wasn't a total pile-up at the first bridge. 

The card – "stempelkaart" in Dutch – had to be stamped at various points along the route in the manner of an orienteering event. Despite spending most of the time in a plastic canister, it had practically disintegrated by the end.

Why does Holland have so many windmills?
We rowed the first section, which soon took us out of town and through some fields. In the rain.

There were some little windmills that looked like they were sort of Wendy-windmills, although they also appeared to be functioning. And at this point (whilst still rowing along), I had a lightbulb moment. Now, this may be obvious to you, but pause for a second to ask yourself "Why does Holland have so many windmills?". The answer "Because it's very windy", merely explains why having many windmills is a sensible idea there. But what are they FOR? 

In Britain,  windmills were traditionally used for grinding wheat. And so no one would build a Wendy-windmill, unless it was some kind of Petit Trianon-style indulgence for rural rich kids.

Which these weren't – Dutch windmills aren't used for milling flour, they're used for pumping water. In which case, a small one can be appropriate. 

All change!
After about an hour, we reached our first changeover point, where the next crew from our team, and our land supporters (wearing high-viz vests that, in a nice touch, sported the same HUG for life we had on our rowing tops, although these were almost all buried under layers of fleeces and waterproofs).

Equipped with boat hooks, they hauled us quickly to the bank, hands reached out to pull us out of the boat, and we then helped our replacements in. Feet were not to be adjusted.

Then we piled into the two minibuses and camper van that were our support fleet, and headed off to the next swap point. Once we were there, it was time to strip everything off and put on dry kit (I had packed 5 complete sets of kit in separate bags within my kit bag, which proved a useful, and widely-used approach). It was SOOO cold, that it was essential to remove any damp item. And all items were damp (though I kept the same pair of waterproof socks on the whole way).

The camper van was a brilliant changing room, and the engines were kept running on all 3 vehicles the whole time, so that the heaters could stay on. Although we were within sight of civilisation the whole way, for the rowers, it was an exercise in good personal management or you could very easily have got hypothermic.

Dutch bridges aren't like British ones
In the UK, and in much of the rest of Europe, most waterways are navigable. In the Netherlands, there are so many canals, required to drain water out of the "polder" land that has been reclaimed fro the sea, that lots of them are just there, and they're not designed to take boats. They're narrow, and the road or foot bridges over them are mostly flat - they're cheaper to build that way, and easier to walk or drive over. 

To take a rowing boat through the lowest and narrowest bridges (which was probably 90% of them), we had to lie back and put our blades parallel with the boat. We rapidly learned that this was called "liggen and slippen", which doesn't translate well (because we just don't "slippen" in the UK) so the Dutch phrase was used.

With the water levels in the canals particularly high because of recent (and present) rain, the bridges were even lower than usual – at the most northerly point, in a town called Dokkum, which had three massive windmills, the bridges carry four lanes of traffic, so once we'd done liggen and slippen, the boat was almost coming to a halt before we'd got out the other side. Fortunately, the bridges were also so low, that we could easily reach up and pull ourselves along on its girders.

At one point we'd slightly misjudged the steering through a particularly narrow bridge, and one of my blades had got broken. After a hasty phone call to our land team, it was decided they couldn't quickly get a spare to us, and as we were quickly going to freeze if we didn't keep moving, we put the blade inside the boat, and set off. It was an interesting exercise in core stability to scull 10km with one blade!

A real team effort
After the race finished back in Leeuwarden, our crew rowed the boat back to Wetterwille Rowing Club where the trailers were parked, and where traditional Dutch pea and ham soup was being served. It was around 3.30am at this point.

The end.
The club bar was lovely, warm, and a live race tracker was being projected on the wall. Pity the poor crews in doubles still out on the course! I think we were 4th in the end (a 2nd broken blade allowed we'd been holding off to get past us), and the race was won by members of the Dutch national squad, in a coxed double. They admitted it was harder than their usual training! Although they also rated a lot higher than the rest of us.

Strangely, this wasn't a major rowing endurance challenge – after all, we only rowed 4 x 10k pieces over a 15 hour period (and coxed 1). Frankly, the greatest achievement was managing the logistics of the whole thing, and the heroes of the trip were the land team, who flawlessly found each changeover point, some of which were seriously in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch dark, at the right time, and even managed to find cafes where they bought bags of chips from time to time.

And that's why it would be extremely difficult to do this event as a brand new entry form another country: you really do need local knowledge, so your best bet is to chat up any long-distance Dutch rowers you come across.

Some cultural things we learned
For a European country that's only on the other side of the North Sea from the UK, we were struck by some quite deep-seated cultural differences, as well as some fun and superficial ones:
  1. Around town, people only ride "sit up and beg" bikes. 
  2. They don't wear cycle helmets.
  3. Handlebars are often decorated with plastic flowers.
  4. One team member explained that we parked before the race in a car park that was a bit of a walk form the town center because it was free "and we're Dutch people so we don't like to pay". I'd heard this from a friend beforehand, but it was interesting to get it from the horse's mouth!
  5. Even people with well-paid jobs often don't own a car.
  6. It is quite normal to mention bodily functions using language that would make even open-minded Brits raise their eyebrows.
  7. Most rowing clubs have a mangle in the boathouse to wring out the boat-wiping towels.
A final note on the charity fund-raising
The event raised money for the Dutch Red Cross for a special campaign to do with stopping children dying of diarrhea in third world countries. I won't mention the campaign's slogan – see cultural point 6, above. However, apparently well over 50,000 Euros were raised – I THINK just from the rowing bit (all crews combined), which is amazing. It seems Dutch people are very happy to pay after all when it's for a good cause.

The video below was made by the Dutch squad team. Near the beginning there's a great bit of the land team managers all sprinting to the boats with the stempelkaarts. Around 2.40, one of the rowers appears to throw his water bottle ashore with some vehemence: this contained their stempelkaart, which is why the land team chap runs after it, (gets it stamped), and throws it back.


1 comment:

  1. Great post! You are a good cultural observer. Thanks for bringing back good (c)old memories.