Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ringvaart Regatta 2015: Time for a little lie-down

What with sofas for marshals; floating bananas; llamas; a 25km row to the start; mid-race chips; a stork on a stick; loads of students who could hardly row; but then loads more students who excelled at bilingual organisation, the 100km Ringvaart Regatta is probably the wackiest rowing event I've ever taken part in.

Though I have to say it was an unusual choice for a first sculling race for the only other British entry in the event, "Jim the Sculler".

Event: The Ringvaart Regatta
Where: The Netherlands
Distance: 100km
Time: 11 hours, 10 mins and 44 seconds (excluding chip-eating time)
Boat type: Numerous – fine boats from VIIIs to singles, touring coxed quads and doubles (coxed and coxless), and don't forget the "single wherry" – a very large wooden coxed single. We used a touring coxed double, designated C2* in 
Dutch nomenclature (they use * instead of x+)
Number of crews in the event: 144

When: The first Wednesday after Ascension Day (canals are quieter midweek)
Event Organiser: OOC&C Ringvaart Regatta

We all know that the Dutch do canals, but on this trip, when we got truly up close and personal with them, we learned a but about quite how ingenious they really are with them, and how they use them for things that those of us who hail from "above sea level countries" would have thought you needed dry land for. 

What is the Ringvaart? 
You know how I just said the Dutch are clever with canals? Well, that stops short at the engineering aspect of them. Branding, they don't do. "Ringvaart" means "ring canal", and that is what it is. It went like this (in the 19th Century):
  1. Dig a canal round a lake.
  2. Pile the earth you've dug out of the trench on the banks of it to make them higher than the lake.
  3. Pump the water out of the lake into the canal (so it eventually flows away to the sea, in a highly leisurely way, stopping for some weekend breaks en route).
  4. Build Schiphol Airport on the resulting land (OK, this was a bit later).
  5. Devise rowing race round said canal.
All perfectly simple and straightforward. And about 70km long. So to make the rowing race into a rounder number, a few years back, an extra straight bit was stuck on the bottom, resulting in a route shaped, as our crew tended to describe it, as a candyfloss on a stick. We started at the top of the stick, rowed round the candyfloss, and then down the stick.

Race warm-up is very important
We know this – we're experienced rowers. So, nobody batted an eyelid when my Dutch buddies at the lovely DDS club in Delft (just 2km from the bottom of the stick), from where we rented a boat, explained that their usual practice is to row up to the start the day before. A distance of about 25k. 

Well, none of us had ever been in a touring coxed double before, so we needed to find out how it worked. En route, we admired the traditional cantilevered bridges; gave marks out of 10 to the various bridgekeeper huts on them; and nearly got splatted into a large post as a MASSIVE barge came past with the weirdest kind of sucking wake that picked us up and chucked us sideways.

Whilst doing this (and just a reminder that we were going in the opposite direction to the one we'd be racing in the following day), we couldn't help noticing the screaming tailwind. I rapidly devised a swapping strategy that should avoid me being in the stroke seat whilst battling back against the wind the next day, although I might as well have given this to some mice to look after  for all the good it did in the end.

Totally unrowable?
When race day dawned,  we were already up and eating porridge, having been allocated a start time of 6.20am. 

To say it was somewhat breezy at the boating area would be a British understatement. As for the "Kaag" lake we would have to cross about 2km after the start, our new friend Sculler Jim pronounced it "totally unrowable". Having only had a relatively limited number of outings since he'd bought his first sculling boat 7 months before, he'd decided that he wouldn't ever be racing on rough water, and so had never gone out in any. He looked somewhat concerned.

Rough water. (Smooth sculling.)
Anyway, off he set, and we briefly amused ourselves by wondering how many strokes it would take before the  two crews who had put their race numbers on their fronts realised that this wasn't such a good idea, before heading out after him. 

The start itself was the epitome of liberalism and the relaxed Dutch lifestyle: no red-faced umpire screaming "Crew 13, GO!" here, but a polite young man calling out "You may start when you want" (and yes, that was in perfect English, obvs).

Anyway, back to the plot. That lake was rough. Very rough. We were truly impressed at the scullers who were surviving it. But we were also ever so smug with our larger hull that also cut through the waves brilliantly. The corrugated plastic rigger covers weren't actually necessary as hardly a drop touched them. We were complete converts to the touring coxed double as a boat type.

We caught up with Sculler Jim at the far side of the Kaag, where he and several other single scullers were stopping to bail out. By now he looked downright traumatised: all he could say was "My bananas are floating in my footwell!" It was clearly not an issue he'd had to deal with in the various ironman triathlons he'd completed.

We left him to it, and paddled on up the canals, still enjoying the screaming tailwind, but in flatter water.

Two little words you just don't need when rowing in the UK
Many of the bridges over canals are low. Quite a lot of them are narrow. And to deal with these you need 2 techniques which I'd learned from the natives on a previous Dutch rowing trip. For the low ones, you need to "liggen", which means lie back flat: an extremely pleasant way of stretching your back out in the later stages of a long race, actually.

And for the narrow ones, the only approach is to "slippen", which means swing your blades round so they're parallel with the boat. Apologies I haven't included a photo of this here, but as you can imagine, if a bridge is narrow enough to slippen, it requires fairly accurate steering too, and this isn't quite the moment to get the camera out.

More showboat than showroom?
Only in Holland
Although the Netherlands is quite a large country by area, the vast majority of the population live in the area round Amsterdam, where we were, so land, in particular dry land, is at a premium. But with mile after mile of canals, moorings are cheap as chips (not the chips that were mentioned in the introduction – I'll get on to those later). So, if your business is a small, second hand car dealership, it does really make perfect sense to park your vehicles on a barge on the canal.

And while we're on the subject of national differences, we also rather liked the thatched windmills: not just the roof, you understand, but full-body thatch eight up the walls. Presumably it's rather good insulation. It gives 'em a rather lovely velvety look.

Less of this cultural stuff, back to the rowing
There were various stops along the route where crews could choose to take a "comfort break", and get snacks (such as less soggy bananas) from the following cyclist that every crew was meant to have. 

With so much space in our boat, our larder was pretty well stocked, and our cyclist was getting a bit bored, so it was jolly good having Jim around who welcomed a helping hand. 

Just before the 40km stop, we were impressed to realise that Jim had caught up with us, but we managed to get away again, as we'd decide not to stop at that one, whilst he did.

Not long after this, we turned round the top of the "candyfloss", and one crew member uttered the potentially fatal words "Is it me or has the wind dropped?". Fate clearly wasn't interested in being tempted that day, as the afternoon got calmer and calmer, and the sun even came out. 

By this time, we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, eating jelly babies, and saying "Oo look a windmill, quite frequently." A slight blip in our happiness was being overtaken by my Dutch friend Linda (who isn't much bigger than me) in a single scull. Respect. We later learned that she'd done the whole 100km without any stops at all. Even more respect. And finished 28th overall, the 6th sculler (that includes men). Unprecedented amounts of respect. 

Not a good idea.
Soon, the church spire and large windmill of Leischendam hove into view, 88km into the race.  

There's a lock here, which wouldn't be practical to go through, so they stop the clock, hoards of students lift your boat out, and carry it round the lock, and plop it on the other side till you're read to start again. You're allegedly allowed up to 45 mins break (though we got a bit distracted – and this is where the nice salty chips with mayonnaise came in – and took a few minutes longer but weren't penalised for it). The students were indeed lovely, and cheery, but possibly didn't have much experience of touring boats (which were in the minority in the event), and despite our suggestions that this really wasn't a good idea, insisted on throwing our boat to over heads when they lifted it out. To give them credit, they didn't drop it, but phrases like "ridiculously heavy" were bandied about.

"Team GB."
Refuelled, and with just 12km to go, off we set again, and entered "emptying the tank" mode. Coming into Delft, we noticed a pretty double gatehouse, which Vermeer apparently famously painted, but we're a lot better at rowing than we are at art appreciation, so didn't really savour the moment, particularly as we were more interested in the student with the megaphone announcing 700m to go.

One last sprint, and we were there! With excellent timing, Sculler Jim (who had faffed around at Leischendam a lot less than we had) was there to meet us, which just topped off a top event.

Verdict: Highly recommended!

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