Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Sulkava Rowing Race: 15 have fun in Finland

A 60km rowing race, in a historic style of wooden boat, through beautiful countryside, in the height of summer. On reflection, our hastily-thought-up team name, "What's Not to Like?", said it all.

And to make it totally irresistible, the boats are coxed 14s (and no, the 1 is NOT a typo – I don't mean coxed 4), with bowside and strokeside sitting NEXT to each other. I mean, really, what's not to like?!

Although actually, there WAS something that was definitely not to like about some of the boats...

Event: The Sulkava Rowing Race
Where: Sulkava, Finland, about 300km NE of Helsinki
Distance: 60km
Time: 5 hours, 9 seconds (oh, how annoyed we were!)
Boat type: Churchboats
Number of crews in the event: 50 in our race; 316 overall
Event Organiser:

You know the concept of the hub airport? Which people fly to in smallish planes from small places, then get into a massive Boeing 747 at the hub, fly fast and cheaply over a long distance to another hub? 

Well, churchboats are like Finnish predecessors of the jumbo jets. To get to church each Sunday in the rural areas that make up practically all of Finland, the residents of isolated farms (not sure that there was another kind) hopped into their dinghies and rowed to wherever the nearest churchboat was based, where they transferred to that, and then rowed fast and efficiently across the big lake to somewhere that was large enough to boast a church. And to make the journey back even quicker, the various chuchboats had a race across the first bit of lake.

There are some wonderful videos from 1938 at the bottom of this blog going into this tradition in more detail if you're interested.

But back to the modern event.

Seating arrangements 
The "bow side and stroke side next to each other" thing sounded fine, till we tried it in practice, when we discovered that the people in the stroke and bow pairs, where the boat is narrowest, couldn't avoid clashing elbows.

However, we did learn about a new piece of rowing "equipment" which none of us had ever used before – a special sleeve, that was on sale, for putting over your blade handle if you wanted to make it fatter to fit the size of your hands better. Our bowside stroke (on the right in this picture) snapped one of these up and found it was great. Our other stroke went for the more budget option of putting a sock over his handle, which was apparently just as effective, though somewhat less hard-wearing 

I mentioned earlier that some of these boats had a definitely not likeable feature, and that was the seats. Our boat had perfectly normal sliding seats on wheels, but some of the boats didn't embrace the transportational qualities of the wheel even though the technique involved some sliding which was done on a low-friction plastic surface that I suspect didn't feel very low-friction after the first five minutes.

We never identified what sort of shorts were worn for rowing on these, though imagined that by the end of the row, "tattered" would be the most likely adjective to describe them.

Blades and pins
The boats all had sturdy iron fixed pins, curved towards the stern so that the blade didn't pop off in the event of a crab or clash. The blades had a plastic block bolted to the front of the shaft that was hooked over the pins, which mean you weren't actually levering the blade on the pin at all. But it seemed to work, although some of the crew found it hard to stop trying to feather, especially when we hit wash.

The final new equipment feature we learned about was that the stroke blades were almost always a different colour from the rest, usually red. This was to mark them out from the others because they were shorter, which they had to be because the boats are narrower boat at that point.

Our boat came with what I can only describe as "traditionally-shaped blades" (macons they were not). Some of the other boats, particularly those from clubs, as opposed to being rental craft like ours, had wooden cleavers, although these were all just a rectangular flat bit stuck at an angle on the end of the shaft than anything more shaped. They worked, though!

The course
The water we were rowing on was quite unlike anything I've come across before. Technically, it was a lake, but not in the usual sense of a big patch of open water. Rather the whole area, for hundreds of square kilometers, is a jumble of fairly flat, tree-covered land, and freshwater lakes, that sometimes feel more like rivers in their width. If "archipellagic" is an adjective, then this s exactly the kind of area it describes.

Many Finns have wooden summer cottages in this part of the country, and come here for much of July to chill out in the tranquil scenery, fish or swim from the docks at the lake shore and, for a few days, wave at the passing churchboat rowers.

The race took us round the "island" (again, we're not talking a clearly-defined shape here) of Partalansaari, starting at the green point and finishing at the red, and the very clear corners we turned were encouraging, real indicators of progress.

There were quite a few small rocks emerging from the water along the bottom of the island, which our coxes negotiated skillfully, steering with an interesting design of tiller that curved round them so they could sit centrally in the stern.

The race
Bi-stroke rowing: unlikely ever to be an Olympic sport.
The Sulkava Rowing Race is actually a series of races and un-timed tours that take place over four days. We had opted to do the 60km race, but there was also a 70km tour where crews stopped half way and camped overnight, and various 20km races which could also be done in smaller boats including the "bi-stroke" where one person sculls while the other steers a bit and adds a little (which frankly can't help much) propulsive support with a canoe paddle.

The start of the race was the most fantastic melée that I've ever had the good fortune to cox in. With "only" 50 crews in our division, it wasn't quite as seething as the 150-boat start we'd watched the day before from a conveniently-placed road-bridge high over the water. 

We'd all been given starting grid positions, which we largely ignored, and as there hadn't been practise laps the day before, it's not like this stopped a massive amount of overtaking, barging sideways, and daredevil holding one's nerve as we ploughed through narrow gaps between crews.

Despite having been warned by other competitors and a helpful spectator who we privately christened "trout hat man" (he had a trout embroidered on his hat: he did not sport a fish as headgear) to start slow, we were soon in 9th position, and going strongly. We noticed that crews we overtook immediately tucked straight in behind our stern, as if they were slipstreaming like cyclists or racing cars. This isn't something you'd ever do in a VIII because you'd just be slowed down by rowing in the faster crew's wash. But with churchboats being more closely related to car ferries than fine racing shells, the rough water wasn't an issue, though I'd be interested to hear the views of those who understand these things a lot more than me, on whether you can actually get a slipstreaming effect when you're going at only 12-14km/h.

Just before half way, our cox (I'd swapped in to row after the first half hour) steered us an impressively daredevil course across the bows of a rather charming chain car ferry (which, fortunately, slowed down) as we watched the crews behind drop further back as they elected to take the longer route round its stern. 

The course was extremely well marked, and with crews staying reasonably close together the whole way, the whole race was very easy to navigate. And it really didn't seem long before the cox called out that he could see the town bridge that we knew was just beyond the finish, and we powered on through the last 1,000m. As we crossed the line, the announcer made a brave attempt at trying to pronounce all of our names, before delivering the bitter blow that our finish time was 5 hours and 9 seconds. Ooo, we SO could have gone 10 seconds faster. Still we finished in 15th place, 39 minutes behind the winners, but over 2 hours ahead of the last crew.

On landing, we were met by a local journalist who asked in tones of awe "Have you EVER rowed 60km before", and seemed  slightly disappointed when I explained that, yes, most of us had, and considerably further in fact. However, nothing is like rowing a churchboat, and the reason for her interest in us is that we were not only the only British crew (containing one Dutchman) but also the only one entirely made up of people taking part in the event for the first time. the programme showed the number of participations of each participant, which included one bloke who was on his 43rd time, and large numbers who had done it more than 20 times. Who knew?!

This year, about 5,500 people took part, down from its peak in the early Noughties when over 10,000 competed each year. I think it's time for more UK crews to start entering, in a 21st century kind of reverse viking pillaging trip.

Rowing, but not as we know it
As well as the slipstreaming tactic, another thing we observed with surprise, was that quite a lot of crews had coxes who must have had excellent steering and motivational skills, because they sure weren't chosen for their petite physiques...

And none of us had previously had the experience of overtaking a crew whose cox was puffing away on a cigarette either.

But my favourite "you're kidding me!" sight was the rower who appeared to have eschewed the usual selection of energy bars and bananas that most people were stowing by their rowing seats to keep them going on the way round, and had brought a large jar of gherkins with him. 

Gherkins on board: completely inexplicable.
Footnote on Finland
The race organisers in this delightful, tranquil, and very beautiful part of the world were immensely helpful and they, like every Finn we met, spoke excellent English. 

However, wanting to make the effort, we quickly learned the Finnish for "Thank you" (kiitos, pronounced KEY-toss"), which the locals seemed amused by us saying at the end of a detailed English conversation.

Incidentally, the word "kiitos" is a great example of typical Finnish spelling: as far as we could tell, it seems practically essential that any self-respecting Finnish word contains at least one "k" and a double vowel.

The two men from Monmouth Rowing Club in the crew enquired of a barman how to say "Cheers!" and reported back that it was "Get pissed". The rest of us were somewhat dubious about this until we heard some locals... it actually wasn't far off.

The historical documentary 
NB The single ladies in our crew were jolly careful not to leave their knife sheaths lying around: they'd come for a sporting challenge not in search of a husband! (Watch the videos and you'll find out.)


  1. Nifty stuff! And a nifty time (from someone who struggled in 20 minutes behind What's not to Like). V glad you enjoyed the experience, and since you don't mention mosquitos I presume you did have air-tight accommodation. Or didn't they itch after the first 10km?

    I must beg to differ over the Thing Not to Like - rubbing elbows with your neighbour. Actually in my 5 'races' I've never noticed the problem, either because after nearly 30 years in the country I have lost most of my English sang-froid, or more correctly because I actually enjoy being sat next to someone who I may or may not have ever met before (the places being decided often at the last minute - plenty of opportunity for no-shows with 14 rowers) but get the chance for lengthy discussion, proceeding to sharing many of the rigors of the trip, and even some minor body fluids!

    A couple of clarifications: the pickles are purely for refreshment, plus salt in the Finnish variety; those shiney seats in the picture should be matched by shiney neoprine trousers, which maximize seat slide but must create a frightful amount of heat (never had the displeasure!); the longer route round the back of the ferry is said to gain a little from some 'current' (it is a big lake, Saimaa); but sorry I don't know about slipstreams (I just presume the Finnish coxes do).

    And if you come back, counter-pillaging, the phrase you most need is 'kippis', which you seemed to understand pretty well! Oh, and 'terveisiä', actually the Finnish CHEERS - Tony in 'sinki

  2. PS I'm going to take my tape measure this afternoon to check the width of the boat at bow and stern - I think they should be the same, but the seats are often at a rather rakish angle there, maybe just to maximise fraternisation?? 'Tervs Tony'

  3. Hi Tony

    Hah - the mozzies... We were SOOOO worried about them. We'd all brought at least 2 different sprays, and I'd even got a very fetching black net piece of headwear, which made me look somewhat a) like a beekeeper or b) in mourning. Didn't need to use it!

    The Thing Not To Like wasn't actually the bumping elbows - that was just an interesting feature. Maybe it's less of a problem if the pair of rowers have different length legs? Anyway, the Thing Not to Like was the shiny seats, and neoprene trousers would come under teh heading of Things Definitely Not To Like (No, Not At All).


    P.S. I only imagined the pickles were for refreshment (not sure what YOU'RE thinking of!) but even as that we sere still baffled!

  4. OK Helena, my 30 years estrangement from my mother culture reveals itself. I suppose I was thinking of refreshment not in the nutritional or rehydrational sense, but more in the way a hatful of scooped up cold water refreshes during a long outing. I suppose a better term would be stimulational or invigorational, more like a sherbet fountain?? One of my pet dislikes on long rows is the requirement to quaff large amounts very unrefreshing tepid water/energy drink.

    BTW I did measure the lateral width of our churchboat last night, and it is the same at all 7 rowing points. I was also unusually rowing at stroke, sitting on a very raked sliding seat, and getting quite very close with a lady who I had never met before! But I too am grateful that we weren't sharing those shiny plastic seats and hot neoprene trousers. There is a limit to these sporting intimacies!

    More terveisiä from churcboat-land. Tony