Friday, 13 March 2015

Rowers' Paradise

When an Olympic rowing medallist describes somewhere as "Everything you could imagine paradise to be, and we rowed there", it's going to pique anyone's interest, never mind the passionate expedition rower's.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the sales pitch, it was the after-the-event summary of a trip I DIDN'T go on, but golly, I would have loved it... Crystal-clear water and World firsts, not to mention the impromptu lobster dinner. Wow!

And why didn't I go?
Basically, because it cost a lot. But you'll notice I didn't say that it was too expensive. In fact, it was a very suitable price for it's aims.

Here's why.

"Paradise", in this case, is in the Maldives, an island nation made up of 1,192 coral islands, of which fewer than 200 are inhabited, and straddling the equator (more on this later) in the Indian Ocean, southwestish of India. So, not surprisingly, everything there is incredibly expensive. For example, UK readers will known that petrol in Britain is more expensive than it is in mainland Europe, and massively more so than in the US. Well, apparently, it's about the same price in the Maldives. And you don't need to be an economist to see that their average incomes, aren't anything like ours. Almost everything needs to be imported, and that just costs.

Rowing to your hotel.
So, a major aim of this tour was to bring some tourist spend to these beleaguered islands, which are also under threat of simply disappearing below the waves as sea levels rise (let's face it, being the world's lowest country isn't really something any nation would want).

This said, the Maldives are very good at tourism, and those on it enjoyed not only the incredibly beautiful environment, but the very warmest of welcomes, as well as superb hospitality aboard their air conditioned "floating hotel" safari boat.

Trip facts
This trip broke new ground, or should that be water, in so many ways. Taking place in February 2015, it was the first FISA Development Tour, and was organised in partnership with Rowing the World and the Rowing Association of Maldives. It  was led by British Olympic rowing silver-medallist Guin Batten, who is Chair of the FISA Rowing For All Commission, who's also famous for her 2010 solo crossing of the 60km "Zero Degree" channel between Fulmulah Island and the Vaadhoo Atoll, in a coastal single scull.

Guin Batten 
The total tour party included 20 people, aged 30-70, of 11 different nationalities.

Lasting 10 days in total, the rowing was a mix of:
  • Serious challenges involving rowing considerable distances between islands.
  • Learning safety drills for the above challenges.
  • "Rowandering" about inside atolls, over the shallow reefs.
Add in some snorkeling (because "half of paradise is under water" so you need to be in it as well as on it), a load of BBQs, school children dancing, bands, mayors, lots of locals coming to say hello, and you can see why this trip was a long way above even the highly acclaimed "what's not to like?".

For boats, the tour hired three coastal doubles from the Rowing Association of Maldives, plus Guin's single from her Zero Degree Crossing, which she'd left for the Maldives rowing community to use. 

The serious challenges and the first "World first"
The group undertook two serious challenges, the first being a kind of warm up for the larger, second one.

But before I describe those, you need to know how a party of 20 fitted into just seven rowing seats, and it;'s called hot rowing...

A water change: Step 1 
This is kinda the sculling equivalent of hot desking (and with temperatures regularly around 28 degrees Celsius, it was literally HOT too). But how to do do this, out at sea? The answer is "water changes".

The rowing boats were constantly supported by a local "dhoni", a motor boat whose propeller was carefully kept in neutral whilst the changes were going on.

Step 2
The "fresh" rowers jumped into the water from the dhoni, swam out to the rowing boats, sometimes on a static line, and used various techniques to get on board, including a "seal" entry" over the stern, as well as the more conventional push up on the side.

Apparently rowing in soaking wet kit was very refreshing! Although people suffered from great handfuls of blisters because of rowing with wet hands.

Challenge No.1
This saw the first ever sliding seat rowing crossing from Addu Atoll to Fulmulah Island, a distance of around 28 nautical miles or 50km. The whole team participated, and with days being relatively short here (it being on the equator makes them roughly the same length, of course), despite setting off at dawn, they didn't finish till 20 minutes after dusk, which must have piled on the pressure – because you really don't want to be heading towards a coral island in the dark.

Challenge No.2: the Zero Degree Crossing
The big thing about this crossing is not so much the distance of about 60km, but the state of the sea. Guin had, of course, crossed it all on her own - but she'd also failed to do so a few months later in a coxed quad - yup, much more "woman power", but with only a 3-day window to try and fit the crossing in, the score was Sea 1, Rowers 0, despite them battling for 5 hours to try and make headway.

A LOT harder than paddling on flat water.
But despite success being far from a foregone conclusion, 14 of the party nevertheless decided to get up at 3.30am so that thy had a chance of making landfall at night, should they reach Vaadhoo. The first shift was the longest – even Guin described leaving harbour at night and venturing out into "surf country" as "scary", and those crews knew they had to keep going till sunrise, when it would be safe enough to do the first water change.

After that, there were 1 hour shifts, then 45 minutes, and finally 30 minutes, as crews got more tired.

Reaching the equator was a wonderful: the boats paused for 15 minutes, and all of those not rowing swan across the line. The married couple from Norway kissed (in the water), and Maldivian drums and music was played on the dhoni. Cool!

Although there was still plenty of hard work to do against the tide, they also picked up a good current as they approached landfall, and after 10.5 hours, they finally arrived "on the beautiful island you could imagine", where the floating hotel was moored, ecstatic and elated, albeit extremely tired.

Wow. Just wow.
"Rowandering"After all that achievement, the focus of the trip shifted to some gentler rowing, with more space to soak up the utter gorgeousness of the islands, the crystal clear water, and the wildlife. As they paddled slowly in the shallow waters within small atolls, they spotted sharks (nice ones), turtles, dolphins, and blue, green and yellow-coloured reef fish galore. As Guin said, "The pictures in your head will carry you through the rest of the winter."

It was on one of the evenings after a day of potter-paddling in paradise that a little motor boat appeared at the moored safari boat, selling huge, fresh and incredibly tasty (so I'm told) lobsters.

I really, really would have loved it. But so would you.

Rowing in the Maldives Unsurprisingly, rowing has a long tradition in the Maldives. Rowing boats were long used to travel between islands; rowing played an important part in fishing, a key part of the Maldives’ economy; and there were many local or even inter-atoll rowing (makes perfect sense, but I still love this phrase) races in these traditional wooden boats, often as part of local festivals or celebrations.

Does your rowing club look like this?
All this changed as recently as the 1980s, when motor boats finally took over, and although there are still a few of the old rowing boats around, they’ve generally been retrofitted with outboard engines (despite the hideous price of fuel).

However, driven largely by Guin, rowing is now being reintroduced to the islands, and particularly promoted to women. Their Rowing Association has been established, and there are about ten boats based in two locations, and a series of volunteer coaches from Europe have been helping to establish programs and transfer skills to local coaches. Despite  all this progress, there are still considerable challenges facing the further establishment of rowing as a self-sustaining program: there is no government funding for grass-roots sport; there’s no culture of volunteering; paying subs; or even of sports clubs at all.

And then there's the whole issue of boat maintenance. All seats have to be double action, for example, because ball bearings will corrode quickly in salt water, and with no handy suppliers, as well as the punishing effects of sun and sea, even keeping the few boats they have in working order is no mean feat.

The tour supported all of this: raising funds for spares, and by visiting so many islands, it did a great job of raising the profile of rowing amongst the islanders who were so welcoming wherever the rowers went.

All photos © Guin Batten, 2015.


  1. This is a terrific account, Helena. Great description of the trip and excellent background. Well done! There will be more trips in 2016 - rowing tourism in the Maldives will continue.