Thursday 18 October 2018

How to do the Tour du Leman

One of the many reasons why this 160km race round Lake Geneva is totally, utterly my favourite rowing event (and why I keep going back) is that the organisers are so lovely, particularly to British crews who need help with hiring boats and lifts from the airport (unlike the continentals who turn up with trailers and their own cars).

One good turn deserves another, though, and so over the years I've been the person they refer new English-speaking entries to for advice. I'm happy to help, but to save me retyping the same answers every time, here's my "How to" guide for Brits with no experience of long-distance rowing (unlike the aforementioned continentals, most of whom do several 50k+ rowing marathons a year).


I'm usually asked for "tips" but in my view, the learned-the-hard-way advice below is much, much more than mere "tips".

Before you carry on to the TdL-specific points below I would recommend you read:

Rowing practicalities

  • Rate 24. This is the optimum rate for this type of boat. If you try to rate higher than 25-26, you'll wear yourselves out for very little extra speed. If you rate lower, you will be in serious danger of not making the cutoff times.
  • Change the person coxing every 30 mins. I have come across the odd British crew that decided they knew better and tried something else. This rarely led to them even finishing. This means each person rows for 2 hours and has half an hour coxing. Therefore in terms of training, think of it as 6 to 7 rows of two hours each, not a single row of 15-17 hours.
  • Do the swaps on the hour/half hour i.e. the changeover time is within the 30 minute section. This keeps it simple for knowing when the next one is.
  • Decide your swapping pattern in advance and keep it simple. Do not have a pattern so complicated that it has to be written down - it will get wet and you won't be able to see it after dark. There are two basic approaches to this (which you should discuss as a crew and possibly model by moving bits of paper around):
    1) The person leaving the coxing seat swaps places with the person going into the coxing seat. This makes for the quickest swaps and spreads the task of stroking amongst the whole crew (whether this is desirable depends on your personnel) but it does mean that people finish up rowing in a number of different places in the boat which separates them from their water bottles, small snacks, and kit, and may (depending on the variety of leg lengths within the crew) necessitate moving the stretchers, which takes up time.
    2) Arranging the crew in leg length order. Start with the longest-legged person at stroke, the next one at 3, and the person with the shortest legs coxing first. The first swap is the cox with bow, then the cox with 2 etc. When the original cox (he or she of the diddy little legs) goes to cox for the second time (having rowed for 2 hours at bow), everyone else in the boat moves back one seat. This means that one person does all the stroking (apart from when they're coxing) BUT has the great advantages that no one is ever more than one seat away from their stuff (reduces faffing, see below), and you shouldn't need to move any feet (again, reduces faffing).
  • Accept that you may row for a while with your feet not in the absolutely ideal position. It's better than faffing and changing them on the swaps (are you getting the idea yet that faffing is to be avoided at all costs?).
  • Bring/wear trainers. Touring boats have ergo feet. Flip-flops are not appropriate.
  • Attach your watch to the laces of one trainer so you can see it when rowing - the psychological benefits of knowing where in the 2 hours piece you are and even - as the day wears on - how the heck long you've been rowing for are not to be sneezed at.
  • Arrive in Geneva on the Thursday afternoon/evening. Yes, I know this means you have to take 2 days off work, but only getting there on the Friday means you won't have time to go out and prep the boat.
  • At least some members of the crew need to book hold baggage. I'll explain why shortly.
  • Go out in the boat and practise swapping. You will get better at this with a bit of practice. You will then get worse at it during the race as it becomes harder to "get your leg over". Practising will also allow you to check your heights and where to put your feet. Consider practising sitting on the ground first. 
  • Even if it isn't raining, any kit you put in the bottom of the boat WILL get wet. There is always splashing and a bit of wash. If you start in a long-sleeve, put it in your hatch (if you have one) or a dry bag when you take it off or it will be useless if you need it again after dark.
  • I keep a lipsalve (it's a long day out in the sun and breeze) down one of my socks and a roll of finger tape down the other sock (so it's accessible enough that I can tape up while someone else is swapping with the cox without delaying the restart - See Rule 2, "Look after your hands and bum" because "When it's gone its's gone").
  • If your back hurts, suck in your stomach muscles/engage your core. It's a hassle, but hassle is better than pain.
  • I take long-acting (12 hour) Ibuprufen before the race starts, and then again after about 10 hours (note that this is not medical advice and I have no medical or pharmacy qualifications).

Preparing your boat

  • If you're renting a boat, be very clear that what you're getting is just a boat, not a PREPARED boat. It's your responsibility to bring what you need to prepare it for the conditions you'll meet out on the lake (even on a flat calm, dry day). The wash from motorboats (including water ski tow boats) and the lake steamers can be considerable.

  • Many touring boats have open bows and sterns without decking. If you're renting a boat, ask for a picture of it so you can see what you'll be starting with. 
An open boat before preparation.
  • The first thing you need to do is tape up your riggers/put stiff enough plastic over them. There are lots of approaches to this. Depending on the design of your boat, it may be possible to put a piece of wood/broom handle across the boat behind the coxing seat so that the tape can be extended beyond stroke's front stay. 
Riggers covered with groundsheet-type material, strengthened with duck tape.
Stiff plastic added to riggers. Note buoyancy bags added by crew too.
Or just use a lot of strips of duck tape.
  • The second essential bit of boat prep is to build up the bows. If your boat has a hard canvas and already has a spray deck, you just need to make this a bit higher to parry any wash. If you've got an open boat, you need to make a sort of "hut". This needs bits of wood and you will NOT be supplied with these by the organisers. As the "ridgepole" piece of wood you'll need is longer than you'll get in a suitcase, consider taking two shorter bits and metal joining brackets that you can screw (bring a screwdriver) into them to join together. Like I said, at least some of you need hold luggage.
Open boat built up in the bows.
Splash boards built up on a boat with a hard canvas (flowers optional).
Bows on a boat with hard canvases built up with short pieces of wood and thick polythene.
  • And finally you need to attach the "mast" that the race organisers will supply which carries the 360-degree light needed for after dark, a radar-reflector and your boat number. Depending on the design of your boat, this can require considerable ingenuity and it still often falls over.
Mast fail.
  • Preparing the boat always takes long than you think it will.

Race day details

  • Take a change of clothes and shower stuff to the club on race day so you can shower when you get back.
  • When you register, you will be given some meal tickets. Make sure you take these to the club with you on race day as you need them to get the soup/pasta meal that you get immediately you finish the race (whatever time of the night that is - the chef must hate this). Quite why there can't be a tick list per crew in the kitchen I don't know, but not having your meal tickets always causes problems (probably because the chef is so frustrated, see above). 
  • Crews are numbered in the order they entered the race (first crew to enter is No.1, and they probably did so immediately after the prize-giving the previous year). There is only one landing stage that takes two boats at a time only. Crews have to boat in reverse number order (i.e. crew no.1 last so they have to hang around on the water for the least amount of time). If you have to boat early, there are a few places where you can then pull in and get out of the boat again - you may use this time to make another visit to the ladies/gents, perhaps.
  • The club gets its juniors down to help you boat so don't worry that you may not be able to lift it given the contents of a sweet/sandwich shop that you've stored in it. This is the best service ever (and even better when you finish the race).

Bunker life

You know how the race entry fee says it includes accommodation in dormitories "in the shelters of the civil defence"? What this means is the local nuclear bunker. Whether or not it's still true that there's a bunker bed for every Swiss citizen I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it was back in the 1970s, with the result that there are underground dormitories all over the country, featuring decor of the period (think orange and lime green with round-cornered geometrical patterns), which are used for various community events. The bunker is about 10-15 mins walk from the club up quite a steep hill.

And yes, it's underground. As in, with no windows. The claustrophobic are warned.
Beds in the dormitories.
  • Bring suitable night attire: continentals have no concept of gender segregation. The bunks are contiguous but at least they are only about 25% full so you may find a German bloke sleeping along from you but at least he'll be three mattresses away.
  • Some male continentals will wander around in their budgie smugglers first thing in morning. This is where poor eyesight and not putting your contact lenses in can be advantageous.
  • A standard European electricity adapter won't fit in most of the sockets. Google the issue for up to date info. You need one like this:

Eating out in Switzerland is expensive, and there are no shops near the club. After several years of paying too much for the wrong food which took too long and required too much of a walk to get to, I strongly advocate taking all your own food (or buying it from the supermarket at the airport but there's no guarantee you'll be able to get what you want). There are basic cooking facilities in the dormitories (a 4-ring cooker, fridge and sink) but take a kettle and saucepan (and plates/mug and a tea towel). We cook fresh pasta, add cold sauce, and have instant porridge for breakfast. See why I keep banging on about needing hold baggage? Buy milk and a bag of salad at the airport. Prepare to be astonished by the variety of food the continentals bring with them - who knew that a cheese board could be on the "What to take" list for a rowing marathon?
The kitchen.
Wash basins.
Eating area. The Germans tend to lay the table. Even for breakfast at 5.30am on race day. #NationalStereotypes 
  • There's a bakery right outside the dormitory but it doesn't open early enough on Saturday mornings to be of any use then.
  • There are pillows (with pillowcase) and blankets but you might want to bring a sheet sleeping bag liner.


  • Tell the organisers in advance if any of your crew is a vegetarian and if this DOESN'T include eating fish (or they'll assume it does).
  • The Swiss kiss three times - left cheek, right cheek, left cheek again. Two men greeting each other don't, though.
  • Don't do it sweep (and certainly not the first time unless you're men, and have serious experience of long-distance sweep rowing, and the sides work out).
  • Do your research by reading all of the documents on the race website.


What training do you do on the water/ergo? 

I usually do 3x6k on the ergo (with a couple of minutes rest in between each), and also just reasonably long outings on the water. The trick is to do rate 24 and not pull TOO hard. If you rate much lower than that in a touring boat it’s just heavy, if you rate higher you wear yourselves out and the boat doesn’t go much faster.

If you haven’t done the Boston Marathon already, do so (unless it's the week before the TdL in which case don't because there isn't enough time to recover). I would also recommend that you and your crew find a touring boat to rent (if your club doesn’t have one) and try to do at least a 2.5 hour row. You'll probably finish that thinking "How on earth am I going to manage to do that another 5 times?" There are several answers to that:

1) Even subconsciously, you always pace yourself for whatever you're doing.
2) Provided you stick to the Rules of Expedition Rowing (Rule 1: "Eat"), it doesn't actually get any worse after the first five hours until about the last five hours.
3) That's because you didn't eat while other people were swapping with the cox.

What did you wear?

Shorts are preferable to an all-in one, especially if you're a woman because they're much easier to pull up again when they're damp and sweaty after you've answered a call of nature (see below).

Check that your sports bra doesn't rub after a long outing: it's definitely a thing that one which is fine for a normal training session will bite after about 2 hours. If in doubt, go soft. Beware decorative stitching. Ditto any shorts or leggings with grippy rubber bottoms.

Consider waterproof socks if the forecast is inclement.

There is neither a need nor an observed practice that everyone in the crew matches.

How long did it take you? 

My best time was 14.29. This was on my sixth Tour (and in a women's crew). My slowest was 16.25 in a mixed crew, on my first tour. Experience really counts. (On the first one we rated too low for too long, faffed, and took too much water with us, but we really just weren't used enough to long-distance rowing, despite three of us having done the Boston Marathon.)

For several years recently there has been a women's crew which has taken over 19 hours (who didn't make the cutoff points but were allowed to continue anyway). I would hate to be out there that long.

How often did you swap over?

Like I said, every 30 minutes. And no, it's not a good idea to take a small cox and stop every 3 hours for a 15 minute break. 

Which pump would you recommend for us to purchase in the UK?

The list of "materiel" you are required to have with you (and this is scrutineered just before you boat) specifies "a bailer and/or a pump". The year we sank, when only 5 crews finished from the 23 crews which started, we had a hand pump which proved inadequate, but I don't think the organisers would let the race run in those kinds of conditions again, so I'm not convinced that an electric pump is really necessary. The Germans often bring neat little ones they've made ("vorsprung durch technik" and all that) which are powered by motorbike starter batteries, but you can't get those on planes (not even in hold baggage). I stick to bailers - plastic milk cartons with the bottom cut off and one per seat.

However, if you want a pump, this is the only one I have found that is powered by ordinary batteries.

How much food were you able to buy locally and what options did you find? 

Like I said, I don't recommend this. The organisers usually give you some bottles of Powerade, but it’s not enough for the whole race. Take empty bottles and powders.

How much food did you take from the UK? 

All of it. See above.

How much/what sort of food do you take on the water?

Enough to eat in each coxing stint, plus the odd bite while someone else is swapping coxing during your 2 hour stints. Personal choice for what to take, really. I find that if I only eat sugary stuff for 14 hours my stomach starts hurting so I need a mix of sweet and savoury but that may just be me. See the Rules of Expedition Rowing for more on this (Rule 1). Take a large lunch box for everyone's food for the coxing seat - this stops it getting trodden on while swapping.

I've read your blogs. Would you still recommend a stroke rate of 24? 

Yes. Though I'm slightly worried that you're asking - it feels like you don't like this answer and want a 'better' one that will work just as well. If you aren't good enough at rowing or fit enough to rate 24, your chances of making the cutoff times are fairly slim.

As we are new to endurance, what would be the longest row you would suggest prior to the event? 

Doing the Boston Marathon is a good start but a bit like the broken biscuit at the top of the packet been necessary to stop the rest of the biscuits breaking, you'll only really get the hang of it once you've done it. Sorry! See above for advice that you do a MINIMUM 2.5 hour row, swapping.

Can you recommend any rowing gloves that do actually minimise blisters? 

Actually the best way to minimise blisters is to row square blades (as a crew) if your technique is good enough and the water's flat enough. But gloves are essential, and it's also important to practice (on a long row) in them to find out how they work for you. It's quite personal. I use kangaroo leather (thin but strong) gloves from Kakadu but the exchange rate against the Australian dollar has made these increasingly expensive and when I bought my most recent pair I was then slapped with a £15 customs fee that I'd not had to pay before, so they're no longer cost-effective.

I use tape too. See the Rules of Expedition Rowing for more on this (Rule 2).

Do you have any tips on the crew changing over for coxing?


Do all boats need the plastic covering with wooden supports? Do we need to take the wood and plastic with us?

Yes. See above.

So just to confirm, you will be taking pieces of wood in your luggage and there isn’t any at the club in Geneva? 


Any top tips with navigation?

Use a GPS. The co-ordinates are here. I never know why the Villeneuve one is Approx – and it’s not quite correct. But Villeneuve is a tiny island you go round so it’s really obvious once you get there – have a look on Google Earth and you’ll see what I mean!

Also, make sure that everyone in the crew understands that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Do you get liability insurance through your rowing club or do it personally? 

British Rowing membership gives you cover for events abroad that are affiliated to another national federation.

Biggest mistakes I've seen British crews make

This includes, but is not limited to, crews I've been in.
  • Thinking because you're a successful 2k rower in your 20s who has trained hard all winter that this'll be a breeze. I'm <55kg, 5'4" and 50. Just saying. 
  • Not bringing trainers.
  • Rating too low.
  • Rowing out of time. This is the main way to be slow (as well as rating too low).
  • Faffing on the swaps.
  • Not eating enough.
By the way, did you get the bit about the trainers?

1 comment:

  1. My chum Elaine was there! She had a blast despite not rowing on Lac Leman.