Saturday, 16 April 2016

Getting to the Heart of the Hart van Holland

"Do the Hart van Holland," my Dutch marathon rowing buddies told me. "It's in the Green Heart area and it's really pretty," they said. I looked it up. 90km: lovely! Long enough to make it worth the flight over there. I sought some crewmates, and finished up with a four-boat team of 18 which made up 10% of the total entry. Great!

Which made the fact that two of our crews, including nine, were stopped before the final timed section all the harder. Some of it was our fault. Most of it wasn't. Still, in the 70km we did complete we found out how you can get 40 boats in a lock, how to get through a passageway that's so narrow you can't get your blades out on either side, and what happens when you don't stick to the "swap the cox every 30 minutes" plan. We also saw some windmills.

What's in a name?
The event is based at URV Viking in Utrecht, where many of the boats are, of course, named after key figures in Norse mythology. We'd arranged to rent boats from them, and were duly introduced to Geri, named after a wolf who accompanied Odin, Nott, and Empacher (who don't just make racing  boats!) named after the goddess of the night, and Sigi, named after the beautiful widow of some Earl. All madly brave, inspiring and that kind of thing.

And my crew's boat? Well, this was rented in from another club and was called Lepelaar. Which turned out to mean "spoonbill".

Squawk. (Apologies to any ornithologists reading this: I have no idea what noise a spoonbill makes, if any.) Despite her lack of an epic name, she had the most interesting rudder fitting I've ever seen, which was obviously very appropriate for the event.

But enough of ironmongery...

How it all works
The Hart van Holland starts and finishes on the east side of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal (think a watery equivalent of the M1 if it only had lorries on it which were about the size of jumbo jets), but most of the event takes place on the west side of it, and therefore you've got to cross it twice, one at a time, and accompanied by two safety boats.

As it would be completely unfair to be timing crews whilst they are waiting for their turn  with this pair of lollipop boats, and you then add in the fact that there is a lock about 8.5km from URV Viking, and that incredibly narrow passageway, the race is split into four timed stages with chunks of paddling, negotiating things, and otherwise faffing about before, between and after the timed bits.

Our first mistake
The herringbone pattern was not strictly necessary.
Or even helpful.
...was failing to realise that the amount of time you spend on the untimed stages really matters. I'll explain why shortly.

How to get 40 boats in a lock
Even to those of us used to rowing through locks on the Thames, this sounds unfeasible, but the short answer is that it's very easy if the lock is large enough. In fact, with a strong cross wind (this turned out to be a theme for the day) blowing us all over to one side of the lock, it was clear that we could more or less have fitted in as many boats again. Good thing that the height change wasn't anything like what it is on the Thames or it might have taken all day!

Stage 1
You can't see me in the lock picture above because our crew was number 34 out of 40, and we were pretty much marshaled into the lock in order. The race was rowed in touring coxed boats (known as C boats on the continent), so the C2s went first followed by those of us in C4s, acknowledging that the C4s were faster so should catch up over the course of the day.

This indeed proved to be true as we overtook various C2s during the pretty first stage on the river Vecht (HVH fact: the river bits are wiggly; the canal bits are straight) passing through the charming village of Maarssen, where I vaguely entertained stroke (I was coxing) with Dutch facts I'd gleaned from previous rowing trips here, including:

  • The Dutch never pass up an opportunity to use double letters in spelling a word.
  • Traditional Dutch window frames are cream and black.
  • The letter "j" is pronounced "y" as in "yes", which led to the revelation that the club we passed flying a flag that looked like it had the Blue Peter ship on it, actually more or less did as it was called "Het Galjoen" (The Galleon).

Hope your linguistic brain cells are buzzing after that one.

A narrow escape
Very pretty bridge whilst queueing to
get into the Breukelen passage.
With so much going on, three quarters of an hour just flew by and we arrived at the end of the first timed stage and the start of the famous Breukelen (pronounced Brooklyn) passage.

The first of several techniques this requires is "slippen", which means "put your blades parallel with the boat with the spoons dragging on the water, but keep holding the handles". We got slightly bored explaining to Dutch people, who politely enquired what the English word is for this, and also "liggen" (lie backwards flat so you can get under a very low bridge", that there ARE no English words for these maneuvers because we simply never have to do them.

A new rowing experience.
We also had canoe paddles which the cox and bow used: bow turned round on her seat to face the front of the boat to paddle. And also a boathook, and a long rope with a tennis ball on the end  which we'd been advised we should throw to an onlooker who would help to pull us through. A trained spoonbill would have come in very handy here too, but there's never an obedient wading bird around when you need one.

Where it all started to go wrong
Unfortunately, through a combination of starting the first stage near the back anyway because of our start number, and even though we didn't finish it at the back, having to move into the bank to let a cruiser past whilst waiting in the queue for the Breukelen passage, and simply being too British about queuing politely, we were the last crew to enter, and the fabled helpful bystanders had got bored by this stage. That said, this didn't much matter as the C2 in front of us kept getting stuck across the channel.

Once we finally were near the end of the 600m-long passage, still queueing behind other boats, we could see  the tops of massive barges heading down the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. It wasn't quite a case of the sky darkening, but we would have been like a skateboard in front of a juggernaut if it hadn't been for the safety boats holding us back.

Further problems
After crossing the A-R Canal and wiggling round a few very sharp corners under rail and motorway bridges, we then reached a special section which had been introduced this year to celebrate URV Viking's 110th anniversary: a 110m sprint. Some of us had even practiced this at home, and reckoned that 20 strokes would be ample.

"Liggen" and "slippen" at the same time.
And nearly "capsizen" as well (NB, I made that word up).
Before this, though, we pulled int the bank briefly to swap round so someone else was coxing: other boats had also pulled in but, unlike us, these were "estafette" or relay crews who were swapping the whole crew in and out. The four British crews were "integraal" (all of us were in the boat the whole way though we took turns to cox). None of us would have wanted to be anything other than integraal, although not all estafette crews had a rest whilst out of the boat: some hopped on bicycles and cycled to the next changeover point, making it more of a duathlon than a traditional relay!

However, I did realise that the estafette crews didn't have to "waste" time going for a wee at the swap points. The comfort pauses added up.

Anyway, we slogged our way through the least sprinty sprint I've ever done, into a truly screaming headwind, and then ground to a halt in another queue, this time for a cantilevered bridge that was so low even the liggen technique wouldn't get you under it. But despite this being in the middle of nowhere, a surprising number of cars wanted to cross the bridge. So it would open and let two or three crews through, then close again for some cars, and so on. Then a couple of C2s got wrapped round each other across the river and held us up some more. And we hadn't even started stage two yet! But as we weren't being timed, we weren't bothered other than it was getting frustrating and cold. In fact, we should have been (bothered, that is).

Rowing through windy farmland.
We did a lot of this.
Anyway, we finally got going and all I can really say about the next 26km is that when you're that pleased to turn a corner and find you're now only in a screaming crosswind, as opposed to a stonking headwind, it was never going to be a day for fast times. At this point we were on the river Geer. However no one felt like making ventriloquist jokes about gottles of geer.

After a good while we caught up with our women's C4, and followed them at a T-junction. Fortunately some bystanders on the bridge at the junction shouted at us both that we'd gone the wrong way, and we probably only lost about 3 minutes.

Based on times from previous years, this section should only have taken us about 90 minutes, and we hung on for too long after the 90 minute point hoping that we must be nearly there (the cox at the time we started the stage couldn't get my GPS to reset, so we didn't really know how far we'd come). This led to the last person on the swapping rotation (stroke) having rowed (albeit including the faffing around bit in Breukelen when she had some snacks) for well over five hours, and her tank was understandably empty. We then did stop to swap her, only to find that we arrived at the finish of Stage 2 about 10 minutes later. Information really is everything.

"You're very slow"
Our men's C2 approaching a typical Dutch bridge.
...said the official at the end of Stage 2, which was at a rowing club where we could get out and use the facilities. "No we're not", we pointed out, "We just got very held up". However, he had a point as we'd been told that the cut off point for leaving this club was 1pm, and by now it was 1,30pm. But we'd overtaken a lot of crews on Stage 2, and so after a highly efficient stop (stuffing a power bar into my mouth whilst running up the stairs to the toilet), we set off again on the wide river Amstel, reveling in what was by now a screaming tailwind. I adopted a squaring very early technique.

But then we made another elementary mistake. As our super stroke had only had a short coxing stint at the end of the last stage, and the briefest of stops at the club, we started Stage 3 with her coxing again. Whilst this was definitely a good decision, I should then have insisted that we swapped someone else in to cox after 30 mins instead of carrying on to the point we turned off the Amstel which was nearly an hour later. At the time, this wasn't an issue, but it set up a problem for further on as it meant the last person in that rotation had to row for 2.5 hours. Three of us in the crew had done the 160km race round Lake Geneva, and we knew perfectly well that the last 30 mins of a two hour stint are tough, never mind going on for a further 30 mins after that. Doh.

Coxing through toytown
Our men's quad heading t'mill.
The flag on top of it is still distinctly "on the fly".
As it happened, I was coxing when we crossed a small lake and then entered the pretty little town of Abcoude.

The instructions (created with the aid of Google Translate) at this point stated, "Please note that the route in Abcoude is very narrow and the two bridges are very low". They weren't joking, although they could have added that it was also extremely winding, but it was tremendously fun to cox as a result. I will admit that I waited till we were through to eat my cheese roll: there are limits to my multi-tasking abilities.

Some time after this we went past one of the finest Dutch windmills I've seen, featuring traditional velvety-looking thatched walls. "Mooi!", as the Dutch say ("beautiful", rather than cow-commentary).

The end
Although the going was tough, I certainly felt we were trucking on quite well, and we knew there was
only about 4km to the end of the stage. having got the GPS going on this one. Unfortunately, due to a combination of me having added an annotation to the map in the wrong place after a briefing the previous evening, and following a Dutch crew, we took a wrong turn that lost us another 10 minutes, and when we reached the end of Stage 3 we were firmly told that this was the end for us as the safety cover for crossing back of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal had already been extended by an hour, and we still wouldn't make it. Looking at the times later, I think it would have been a close-run thing, but we had arrived at that stage half an hour after the last crew that had been allowed through, so we had to accept our fate.
A disappointing end for nine crews.

Personally, I found this thoroughly frustrating and disappointing: I had paced myself for another 20km and I really wanted to do them! Our overall time for Stages 1-3 was faster than those of ten crews who had been able to finish it all (because they'd started higher up the order), and was nearly 30 minutes faster than the slowest of these.

In total, nine out of the 40 starters weren't allowed to finish, but I was impressed later by the organiser's humility in recognising that the combination of the large entry (last year there had only been around 25 crews rather than the 40 taking part this year), the additional delays created by running the Anniversary Sprint, and the unusually strong wind meant that adjustments could be made in future, and promised to think about my suggestion that integraal teams might usefully be set off ahead of estafette ones or even that the course be rowed in reverse to spread out the arrival at the Breukelen bottleneck. And with that kind of approach, plus knowledge of the course, I probably will come back again, certainly recommend the event to other British rowers looking for a rowing experience quite unlike anything you can find in the UK.

A handy water bottle box in a C2.
The other rowing position had one on the other side to maintain balance
(so long as you both had the same sized bottle, of course).
Many thanks to Gertjan Miedema for use of his copyright photos.


  1. Liggen is needed in the UK too: for example, the Gloucester and Sharpness canal has low bridges requiring to lie down. Not sure all canals have low bridges (my memory of Birmingham canals is mostly of high bridges), but this is a call a Cox can make.

  2. True, that is the one place in the UK it is needed. Not common enough to merit a new word, though!