Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"Visitor rowing" in the Netherlands and the romance of the coxed single

We all like going on holiday. Fact. And we all love rowing. Fact. So rowing on holiday would be like chocolate chip ice cream in a chocolate-lined cone with a chocolate flake, right?

Yes, but how can it be done when you're somewhere that you got to by train? It's not like you can hire a sliding seat rowing boat like you can hire bikes in touristy destinations, is it?

Well, generally, no. But one Dutch rowing club has come up with a neatly-branded service that makes it all possible. Please give a huge cheer for (trans "visitor rowing")!

From an infrsatructure point of view, RV 't Diep (trans The Deep Rowing Club) in Steenwijk (pronounced "Stain-vike") in the north-east of the Netherlands, just over an hour and a half by train from Schiphol airport, is an ordinary, mid-sized rowing club equipped with a mangle for wringing out boat-wiping towels.

Every Dutch rowing club I've been to has a mangle apart from RV De Laak in the Hague, but they explained this was only because theirs had broken and they were in the process of sourcing another.
But while almost all Dutch clubs have a touring rowing section, and are probably friendly to visiting touring crews, 't Diep has taken it to a new level by actively advertising its touring boats for hire.

Just the two of us offers a number of whatever the touring rowing equivalent of workhorses are, in other words "C-class" coxed quads and doubles as well as double wherries (a wider boat with two sculler and two coxes). But I was on holiday with my hubby, and although we had with us our new touring mascot, Ooievar (trans "Stork"), whom we'd won the previous weekend (on that occasion with three friends) at the Haegsche Bluf Marathon, his stubby little wings didn't look like they'd be much use for grasping the rudder lines never mind blade handles and so we were one short for a C2x+.

Storks: cute but no good at coxing.

Given the narrowness of some of the photos we'd seen of the canals in the area, going coxless was not an option; we clearly needed a coxed single, known in the Netherlands as a single wherry.

Did 't Diep happen to have such a craft, I enquired? It did, came the response (in perfect English, of course). Yay! There was more: this was, in fact, the club's ONLY single wherry and it was 60 years old. There was a distinct hint that this was a highly cherished boat, which made the generosity hiring it out to total strangers that we all the kinder (although I had emphasised our credentials as the kind of total strangers to whom it was safe to lend your club heirloom).

The perfect craft for the rowing couple looking for a romantic paddle, and available for hire at a very reasonable daily rate to appropriately experiences oarspersons.

And so we set off 

Our 35km day out started at the blue marker on the map below when we headed west down a canal that was edged with waterlillies although it was wide enough for these to be a pleasant decoration rather than a hindrance. Funny, isn't it, how floral edging is charming on rivers, but ghastly when it's at the top of every wall of the house you've just bought (as ours was). However, I digress.


As with most touring boats, the wherry felt like rowing and it didn't seem particularly heavy, we just didn't go very fast. But speed didn't matter as there was a seemingly endless succession of what would have been described twenty years ago as postcard-perfect thatched houses to look at. Nowadays, of course, no one sends postcards and they just post pictures on their blogs instead...

This one scored very highly for its immaculate reed thatch, shutters and traditional tiny loft windows with black and cream frames.
This one had a fine collection of smartly-painted milking receptacles, old clogs and, for some reason, chamber pots displayed on shelves outside it - apparently for the entertainment of passing boaters. 
Quite a few houses also featured this part-tiled, part-thatched style. We have no idea why. (UPDATE: See comment from Anna at teh bottom of this page which explains exactly why this is!]

Readers who have experience of swapping the cox in a touring boat will know that it is essential that rower/s who aren't swapping need to keep the boat stable while the two swappers clamber about. This presents an obvious challenge in a coxed single but we got better at it as the day went on and Ooievar stopped threatening to fly off to safety as the procedure began.

Map reading

Unlike in the UK where the navigation element of a tour down the Thames involves sticking to the wet bit, touring rowing in the Netherlands requires the cox to map read.

We had a bit of a fail at this. Not epic, but I'm wondering if I should hand back my Bronze D of E badge.

The first hint that all was not well was when the canal took an unexpected 90 degree turn to the left. It would be churlish to complain that the map provided by 't Diep wasn't quite of Ordnance Survey standard, especially as we'd made no effort to try and figure out distances on it. Our plan had been to go right at that point, but we didn't see the right turn option and somehow thought that it was just an extra wiggle that wasn't shown, and we were still heading sort of north-north-west.

You really should listen to warning bells, shouldn't you?

Well we didn't, or not until we heard the Big Ben of warning bells which was our arrival in the village of Kallenberg, a charming destination (delightful foot and cycle bridge by a cafe), but not one that we'd been intending to take in.

We adjourned to a side-canal to get out of the way of various day-boats whilst we figured out whether we were heading north west or south east through it. Yes, I know, this really is embarrassing.

Having realised that we were heading north-west, we came up with a new plan, and paid more attention from then on.

Narrow bits, open water and firemen!

Up until this point we'd been rowing along reasonably wide canals - what you might call three-digit B roads. The new route took us into what can best be described as single track roads with passing places. Fortunately, there wasn't much other traffic.

There were, however a lot of reeds, and not all of them neatly growing behind the wooden planks that edged the canals. There are two key things about reeds. One is that they look like long grass (you know - green and, more to the point, SOFT). The other is that they are tough enough to be used as a material for roof covering. Which means they're not actually soft at all and if you hit some with a blade on the way forward, the blade just stops. Totally.

Reed-lined banks. And funny little windmills, many of which weren't rotating owing to having their direction vanes at 90 degrees to where we thought the should be.
After a while we got better at using a mix of "slipping" one or both blades (putting them parallel with the boat) and "feathering high" as skiffers would say (the higher up a reed you go, the more grass-like it is) and stopped grinding to a halt quite so frequently.

The deserted nature of this part of the trip afforded an opportunity for a couple of forty-somethings to take some picture of their cuddly stork without passing boats having a laugh. Quite why I was being shy about this given that I'm now posting the results on the internet, I don't actually know... he's awfully photogenic, though. As is Richard, of course...

Man and Ooievar.
By this point, the only not-totally-delightful aspect of our wherry was causing whoever was coxing's bottom to hurt a lot, and if Ooievar had been a bit bigger he might well have got used as a cushion. Luckily for him it was time for another swap over, which also suited me as we'd reached the Gieethoornsche Meer (trans Lake Giethoorn), which was covered in white horses, into which we needed to row to cross it. Our wherry handled the conditions brilliantly, as most touring hulls do, and R slogged away into the headwind while I provided a running commentary on the attractiveness (high) of approaching sailing barges and refuelled on marzipan pastries. It's important to make one's Dutch rowing tour as authentic as possible, you know. Shame R hates marzipan.

A mini-sailing barge.

Back into flat water again...
... until the Fire Brigade turn up and create a load of wash.
Soon we turned north onto a thoroughly wide canal to head back up to Steenwijk. At frequent intervals along both sides of this we spotted little ramps from water level onto the bank, possibly for some kind of wildlife, although the only animals we was using them were a couple of dogs who'd been for a swim.
Back onto the equivalent of an A road.

I mentioned Giethoorn (literally "goat horn") earlier...

The plethora of utterly gorgeous thatched cottages which we rowed past is typical of the whole area which is a National Park, but nowhere are the thatched cottage more idyllic - or more densely packed together - than in the village of Giethoorn, a short bus-ride south of Steenwijk. After just a few minutes wandering along its bijou little canals, you're overcome with feeling of being in some kind of full-size toytown. One of the strangest things about it is that despite it thronging with tourists (unexpectedly including lots of Chinese visitors) during the day, it's always immaculate: the only plausible explanation for this is that fairies do exist and wave away any hint of imperfection with their wands. In a place like Giethoorn this seems perfectly likely.
If Disney did Dutch villages, they would look exactly like Giethoorn. Any resident not having hydrangeas in the front garden would surely risk becoming a social pariah.
It's an ideal place to stay for a rowing tour, and you can also hire bikes there to cycle past all the bits you've just rowed along (make sure you ask for cycles with hand brakes not the weird Dutch pedal-backwards-to-slow-down ones) - you'll leave feeling totally sated with the area's charms. There's even a real-live stork-on-a-stick by the museum. Ooievar loved it.

You can also meet actual goats.


  1. What a lovely tour report! The green-blue blade design seems very on point for the environment of the club.
    Our club has a single wherry as well, but I believe it's only used for weddings (in which case I think whoever is not wearing a long skirt gets to row. Maybe go extra-puffy with the skirt to prevent Sore Cox Bum?)
    The partly-tile, partly-thatch roof cladding originates in farms where the front of the building was the family home and the back was the stable. Thatch was the cheapest roof treatment in those days, but it was always dusty and often windy and leaky as well. So if they could afford it, the family home got tiles. There's even a figure of speech "order de pannen zijn" (being under the tiles) which means having ones affairs in order financially. Nowadays, of course, it's the more well-off families that thatch their roofs...

  2. Thanks for this PERFECTLY logical explanation of the tile/thatched roof, Anna - now we know!

  3. thanks for the lovely report about rowing in our region. Will you be joining us next april in the weerrribbenwiedenmarathon? might be fun!

  4. If not next year I definitely will one year soon!