Saturday, 15 July 2017

Because who wouldn't want to win a stork?

As far as I'm concerned, the Netherlands is marathon rowing heaven. I mean, they have an actual marathon CALENDAR, so many are the 50km+ events that take place each year. Compare that with the UK's single event of that distance... Occasionally I wonder about moving there just so I could take part in them all, but then I'd have nothing to look forward to afterwards (and recent political events have put paid to the idea unless I got on with it very quickly), so instead I'm working my way through their list at the rate of about one a year. But how to choose which one to do next when you're feeling like a kid in a sweet shop?

Actually, the 54km Haegsche Bluf Marathon (trans "the Hague Bluff Marathon" - despite being almost unpronounceable, a lot of Dutch is quite easy to decipher in writing) was an easy pick for two reasons. First, most of my Dutch marathon rowing friends are members at De Laak, the club that organises it, but second, the prizes are STORKS! Soft toy ones, I hasten to add. And wearing club scarves too. Other events take note.

A bit of background about the "bluff" thing and storks

The stork is the Hague's municipal symbol. Usually pictured with an eel in its beak. Yum. (If you're a stork.)

The "bluff" thing is harder to get to the bottom of. There is an area of the Hague called Haagsche Bluf which the route of the marathon passes relatively close by, but not actually through. And Haagsche Bluf was also the name of a current affairs TV programme in the 1980s and 1990s. Neither of these apparently have anything to do with the event's name, but this blog is happy to pass on free useless facts.

However, as one of the organisers explained, there's also a dessert called Haegsche Bluf, which is puffed up with air, like bluffing is. The recipe seems to involve something like a hamburger sprinkled with currant juice and a lot of sugar, which  actually sounds less tasty than an eel and if you ask me, someone was bluffing rather a lot when they passed this off as a pudding!

[Update: Further info from the race organisers suggests I may be misleadeading you about the hamburger thing, possibly not helped by the Google Translate which came up with "stiff spotted protein" as a translation for what turns out to be beaten egg whites as an ingredient in another version of the recipe.]

The plan and then the change of plan

The Haegsche Bluf Marathon offers two events - a "participation" version, and a "racing" version (no prizes for guessing that we entered the racing one) for crews in double wherries, touring coxed doubles and touring coxed quads. On the basis that the more the merrier, we decided to do a mixed quad which involved me and two other women whose names both began with S, and two men whose names began with R. R1 is my husband, and R2 and S2 are brother and sister.

A double wherry: wider than a touring double (C2x+) and with twice the number of coxes. Photo © Andreas Dijk.

We'd been warned in advance that the course involved some sections that were so narrow that we'd have to use a technique which the Dutch call "Pieterburen" (after a town of that name where it definitely has to be employed). As this was a new one on all of us (despite our approximately 150 years of combined experience), we set out the day before the race to have a practice. 

Pieterburen involves "slipping" your blades on one side so that they are parallel with the boat and paddling fixed seat on the other side (VERY gently at bow) while the cox has the (sizeable) rudder on hard in the other direction. It works surprisingly well unless you grind to a halt, for example by getting your rowing blades tangled in brambles, after which it is nigh on impossible to get the boat moving again and you have to resort to getting bow to turn round and use a canoe paddle.

Another crew using the Pieterburen technique. The water lillies weren't helping either. Photo: © Andreas Dijk.
Having roughly got to grips with Pieterburen, we reminded ourselves how to do in-boat swaps.

Generally, there's no elegant way of swapping in a touring boat. Photo © Sandra Knowles.
Pleased with how it was all going, we headed back, stuffed ourselves with pasta and got an early night.

Unfortunately, the morning brought a major problem. The softness of the bed (very) in the hotel didn't agree with S1's back, and she woke up in the wee small hours with it totally locked up. A gentle paddle on the erg suggested that it wasn't going to be talked into loosening up easily but being one of the toughest people I know, she swallowed some ibuprufen and was prepared to give it a go. We got into the boat. We pushed off. Her back said, "You ARE kidding?" People pulled us back in and lifted her out of the boat. Um.

But the Dutch are calm people, so whilst S2 was looking after S1, I ran through our options with the the race organisers. These included S1 coxing the whole route (not in any way a good idea), doing it as a coxed three (which they were happy to let us do but would have put paid to our chance of winning that stork), and borrowing a Dutch rower. Amazingly, there was a volunteer for the latter - Marian, whom I'd done an afternoon's tour with a couple of years ago, and who - crucially - had brought her kit down to the club so that she could go for a short outing in her single once the event crews had all been started. An experienced long-distance rower, she'd also paddled the course two days earlier to check that there were no obstructions or anything, and as this was done in a "holiday/stopping for coffee half way" style, she was in a fit state to do it all again. What a star!

Our new lineup sets off. Photo © Adrian Graham.

Like a dressage test... and an orienteering course

Coxing in Britain doesn't require particularly complex boat-handling or steering - our rivers are wide, and although I've done the odd fun thing in my 31 years in boats, such as shooting Barnes Bridge three abreast during the Women's Head one year with my crew's blades overlapping those of boats we were overtaking on both sides, and the 25-boat mass start of the Tour du Leman, the biggest test of that area of my coxing skill is bringing the boat in to land each outing.

This was totally different. Think of an Olympic dressage test compared with riding your horse up a field, round a cone, and back to where you started. As I was having so much fun (and the rowing wasn't particularly hard) the crew let me cox for the whole of the first hour, although for the rest of the event we swapped coxing every half hour.

Early on there were a lot of road bridges which were quite long (enough for two, or sometimes four lanes of traffic and pavements to go over the top). These were also either only just wide enough to row through, thus requiring exceedingly accurate alignment, or too narrow to row through so had to be approached at enough speed that we could drift through with our blades slipped. One of these was also at right angles to the bit of river we'd been rowing on with a strong headwind coming down the river which had to be factored in to where we stopped and turned.

A tight fit. (The black shelf thing running under the bridge is a bypass for hedgehogs.) Photo © Andreas Dijk.
After getting through it, we had another 45 degree turn which had to be followed by two hard strokes to get the boat moving before stating to Pieterburen. None of which would have been possible without the high skills of my dressage ponies, of course.

Getting an (official) tow from Renee through a long section where we had to slip on both sides. (sorry about the splash of water on the camera lens - frankly it was a miracle I managed to take pictures whilst also steering!)

Other highlights in this section included having the occasion to say, "Bamboo on strokeside," and going under the marvellously-named "Fruitweg" bridge, which was indeed the way to the fruit market.

"Slippen through the waterlillies" is not the same thing as "tiptoe through the tulips".
Photo © Adrian Graham.
Later on the course we also had to bring out the common Dutch rowing technique of "liggen" (lying flat backwards to go under a low bridge) and our map-reading ability was tested to the max too - one wrong turn and we could have finished up in Rotterdam.

Successful marathon rowing in the Netherlands really does require many more skills than just basic rowing.
A "wide" bit of canal,but note the 90-degree bend ahead. Photo © Adrian Graham.

Greenhouses, pylons and the biggest sheep ever

Once we'd got through the obstacle course, the rowing became more normal and there was a bit more time to admire the sights. These mostly involved greenhouses, many of which were growing tomatoes, and which were surrounded by small strips of grass. As mowing these would clearly be fiddly they were generally kept neat by a goat or two, although at one point S2, who was coxing at the time, thought she saw a couple of white cows grazing in front of one. As we got closer, these turned out to be two of the largest sheep we'd ever seen - on reflection, they may well have been texels, a breed originating from the island of Texel in the north west of the Netherlands. Or just a couple of normal ones who had eaten themselves silly. Then again, we were close to the town of Monster (really)...

By this stage R2 was starting to grumble that he hadn't seem any traditional windmills, other than one near the club (now looking somewhat incongruous in an industrial estate).

Token thatched windmill.
He soon perked up, though, when I announced (I was coxing again by this point) that we were about to go through a pylon. Actually, he was initially unimpressed with this, muttering something about, "There's nothing special in that, I've often rowed under electricity lines," but when I explained that when I said. "Through a pylon," I meant actually between its legs, he was pretty pleased (he hates tomatoes).

Through the pylon and between the greenhouses.
Somewhere around here we started overtaking "participation" crews who had set off considerably before us but, cunningly, been diverted up a spur which not only gave them a chance to get out and have a coffee but also kept them out of the way while the bulk of the "race" crews passed, which was a good solution for both groups. As we'd set off about 20 minutes later than we should have because of our enforced crew change, they were back on the main circuit by the time we caught them, and they were all, without exception, incredibly kind about pulling their blades in to let us past.

Somewhere round here, we passed a commercial building attached to a greenhouse which had a company name on it and the unexpected slogan, "The next step in orchids," which baffled me completely. I mean, who knew there was one, or that we needed one? And what on earth is it?

The clock stops

After about 37km, we reached the pretty village of Schipluiden where the clock was stopped as it involved several incredibly low bridges including one which couldn't even be rowed under using the full "liggen" technique and had to be raised to let crews through, three at a time so as not to hold up road traffic (which included horses and carriages) excessively. We were delighted to find S1 here who was walking very carefully but was at least upright and had been recruited into the timing team.

Arriving in Schipluiden. Photo © Thijs Bol.
As well as the very low bridges there was a final narrow section. At one point during this R2, who was coxing, told us that we needed to do another ten or so more strokes of Pieterburen until we were, "Past a swan." As I was at three I queried whether we couldn't just row normally as the said waterfowl would surely get out of the way," but he replied that I should wait and see - quite rightly because the swan in question was a six-foot high fibreglass boat moored at the side of the canal. Compare that with the scenery you get on Britain's only 50km rowing marathon...

Our opposition in the C4x+ category coming out from under the "golden balls" bridge while we faff around towards the end of the untimed section.

And starts again

We started the final 8km timed section about 50m ahead of the only other crew in the C4x+ racing category after some quite canny hanging back on their part. Although they had only started rowing the previous year and still had some room for technical improvement, four of them were men and they began to creep up on us inexorably. When we stopped for our final swap, they came past us, but we overtook them back again when they stopped to swap a few minutes later although this was to their configuration with all four men rowing. S1 had told us we were one and a half minutes ahead of them at Schipluiden - it was going to be a close-run thing.

Fortunately, our ongoing concerns about taking wrong turnings were taken care of by it being Marian's turn to cox, and we were highly reassured by her, "It's OK, I know where I am," after R2 and I had a brief, breathless debate about whether or not we were now on the final extra spur that the race crews had to do to make our course as long as the participation one that had included the coffee stop detour earlier.

As we headed under the bridge onto the spur, I started counting strokes - I knew it was about 2k, but only roughly. 220 strokes later we got to the control point but - Oh no! - there was a string of sailing dinghies being towed and we had to wait for them to pass before we could turn. Just as we were doing so (whilst I was also cramming in my last Jelly Babies), the oppo appeared. Counting frantically up to 220 again (it later emerged that R1 was doing this too), we legged it back down the spur towards the main river after which we'd been told it was just 600m to the club.

I looked to my right and saw some dark blue terraced houses. But those hadn't been visible from the club, I thought - aargh - maybe it was going to be more than 600m? Where were we?! To my massive relief the next block of houses were painted the cream colour I'd remembered seeing when we set off and a few strokes later we heard cheering and crossed the line. Overall, we were just six minutes ahead of the others after 5 hours 14 minutes of racing. Seriously hats off to them.

Very pleased to finish. Photo © Martin Paasman.

Some lesson for event organisers everywhere

I mentioned earlier that the right prizes (such cuddly storks) can have an actual effect on the number of entries an event attracts, but it's also worth saying that the way that you help competitors celebrate their achievements (whether that's completing the row or winning a category) plays a big part and RV De Laak were top notch in this area too.

Overall the HBM is a cracking event - varied, interesting, very well-organised, and with a friendly bunch of competitors who are more than happy to talk to the English visitors over a beer afterwards. Next year's Dutch rowing marathon has got a lot to live up to...

The rowing equivalent of a "stirrup cup" on arrival. Photo © Martin Paasman.
How many British events can boast of a velvet medal-cushion in club colours? Photo © Martin Paasman.
We won the stork! And we were also thrilled to help Marion to her first win.
Having joined the volunteer team, in a particularly nice touch, the club presented S1 with a volunteer stork.
Photo © Martin Paasman.


  1. What a delightful report of the Haegsche Bluf! Enjoyed it very much and makes me longing to take part next year third time around.

  2. Sounds wonderful Helena! X Nicky

  3. What a wonderful story you wrote! I laughed al lot about all the funny things you wrote. And learned al lot about things that seem normal to me, but apparently aren't for visitors! I happened to be one of the clubmembers of The Laak who helped with this maraton, and met 'S1' at the timing point in Schipluiden, where she joined us for a long time. She was really very nice. All of this makes me proud to be one of the volunteers of the Haagse Bluf Marathon. Thanks a lot for coming and for writing this fabulous story! Marike van den Berg

    1. Well, thank YOU for helping to lay on such a great event, Marike! Keep up the good work! Ooievar came rowing with us today - he went through a lock for the first time - we have a lot of these on the Thames.

  4. This sounds like a very cool event.
    In the states where I live we do not seem to have a lot of organised Expedition Rowing although I have done some trips on my own. A 50 mile in a single on the Upper Connecticut River and a 60 miler From Fort Ticonderoga to the Hudson River through the Champlain Canal.
    I call myself a Gypsy rower (my own term)
    I belong to no rowing organizations or clubs and I row from the top of my Mini Cooper.
    I have been to hundreds of bodies of water up and down the East coast of the US but mostly in New England. I can walk my boat in at beaches of boat launching ramps and except when I go to well known rowing venues, like the Charles River in Boston, I never see other rowers. I have been doing this for twenty years and never another recreational rower. Lots of kayakers, canoes SUPs and fishermen but no rowers.
    In two years I will retire and I plan to take a year long voyage around the Eastern US and Canada on a route called the Great Loop. My main boat is a 32' Trawler type power boat but I will bring my single with me with the intention of doing a lot of rowing, If you look up the Great Loop you will see it is a mostly protected water route of over 5000 miles. The opportunities for rowing are endless.
    Anyway I will blog that trip so I will keep you posted if you think you and your readers would be interested.