2018's little taste of paradise was the 70km Nord Holland Tocht which, let's be quite clear, is a challenge ("tocht") in the region of North Holland which is part of the country that patiently wishes the English-speaking world would call it the Netherlands.
The event is run by AZRV, a club in the town of Alkmaar, which I am ashamed to say I hadn't previously realised is the cheese capital of the Netherlands.Wikipedia describe it as "a popular cultural destination", though I don't think this is meant to be a rennet-related pun. There's a mock, traditional cheese market every Friday.
There was definitely clear role demarcation between white-clad cheese-sleigh carrying men (then sub-divided by hat/hat ribbon colour - red, blue, yellow or green: Google weren't the first to choose that palette, clearly) who run the cheeses to the single, massive weigh scales, blue-shirted men who load cheese onto the sleighs, and brown-shirted men who unloaded the sleighs onto carts. I don't think the polo-shirted men who then unload the cheese from the carts onto refrigerated lorries were traditional, though.
The NHT isn't one of the Dutch Marathon season's larger events, which leads to a situation where there are quite often, more categories than there are crews. This is at least partly because of the typically Dutch ethos that you can do whatever boat class you want (coxed double - the most traditional of Dutch marathon boats and what we did, coxed quad, or even the double-coxed (double) wherry); men, women or mixed; integraal" (same people in the boat the whole way) or "estafette" (relay, though that doesn't mean you get a rest when you're not rowing because you'll probably cycle, on a sit-up-and-beg bike, almost certainly with plastic flowers on the handlebars); and "prestatie" (performance/just doing it for the satisfaction of completing it) or "wedstrijd" (competition/racing). All of which adds up to 36 different categories. There were 14 entries. Actually there were 17, but to add further to the permutations, these started at a different place (their club, fair enough) on the circular route but for some reason went round in the opposite direction and weren't included on the results, although two of them thoroughly got in our way at a very narrow bridge (typical - you've got 70km, and three of us all finished up in the same place at the same time).
Incidentally, respect to the crew which competed in a "wherry" because one of them was blind, and so either stroked or enjoyed the ride when it was his pair's turn to cox. Now that really is inclusivity.
Chocolate (and also windmills and a funny smell)
Despite being scheduled to set off last, it was still pretty misty for the first few hours. This may not have been a bad thing as, once we'd passed some charming, restored windmills near the start (windmills are a required feature when it comes to choosing which event to do next), the landscape was somewhat industrial as we progressed along the North Holland Canal. However, at least this meant the steering was literally straightforward which meant that Marcel, the Dutch member of the team, was easily able to eat a pot of fruit salad while coxing (the Dutch really are different).
|It's no real loss that you can't see the cement factory on bowside.|
The olfactory aspect of the trip soon hit a peak as we passed the most delicious-smelling chocolate factories, breathing deeply, though agreeing that the slogan on the outside of one of them - "Growing cocoa solutions to serve you" - was exactly the kind of twaddle you get when you pay branding consultants a lot of money, and really thy could have slashed their marketing budget, painted "Ooo, chocolate!" on the side of the building, and done just as well.
Rounding a corner, the windmill-factor raised the stakes with actual moving ones - short of a field of tulips, and it was too late in the year for that, we really were living the dream:
Then it was time for another change of scene as we headed sideways off the wide, industrial Zaan and onto quite a narrow canal which eventually brought us to amusingly-named village of Neck where the clock gets stopped (for those of us who care) because there's a cantilever bridge that's too low to row under which has to be lifted to let us through (toll included in race entry fee) and it wouldn't exactly be fair for some crews to be held up while a cart of cheese or something was passing over it.
This was immediately followed by another typical Dutch marathon rowing feature: a section that was so narrow (owing to houseboats taking up half of the already limited space) that we had to deploy the "pieterburen" technique where you slip the blades on one side, and row with the other side only while the cox steers against you. Suffice it to say that we didn't put up a particularly good demonstration of doing this (sorry, Marcel - Brits, eh?) and a coot which happened to pop up from a dive under our riggers took one look at us flailing about and dived straight back down again.
The second half of the row was more rural or to put it another way, I can't remember much about it, apart from the last 5k which was into a fairly hefty headwind, and happened to involve Hannah and me rowing with Marcel coxing. He got into the spirit of this by adopting a full 2k racing cox position while we did our best to leg it back to the club.
I think we were fourth (behind two men's coxed doubles and a relay men's coxed quad), but who really cared? It had been a cracking day, rounded off by an excellent Chinese buffet, the handing out of participation medals, and an enjoyable time chatting to bemused locals (other than Marcel) who were slightly surprised to find Brits there, though not as surprised as we were to spot a new, Empacher, stern-coxed quad in the boat bay. Apparently Dutch clubs don't really row coxless quads, and by having stern-coxed ones, you can fit taller people in so rowers just take turns coxing from outing to outing. Like I said, the Dutch are different. But very pleasantly so.
|A decent participation medal always goes down well.|
|Hannah (middle) was trying to make a point here but I'd like to make it clear that we're standing on a SLOPE.|
|Gotta love ARZV's fixed trestles with mounted hose reel for boat washing (obvs only feasible when area in front of your boathouse is within your compound, but all the same.)|