We are at the start of a new wave of rowing and it feels like a good time for the Coastal Rowing community to answer a few questions and decide what ‘shape’ we want our sport to be.
The Olympic Committee’s decision to postpone any commitment to FISA Coastal events for another 4 years may be a disappointment to some, but will have little impact on those who are already involved in the sport. Indeed, the 2024 deadline felt a little rushed for many people.
So what do we want from our sport, who are the ‘target audience’ and how can our approach be tailored to re-energise not just coastal rowing, but other rowing events too?
What are the roots of Coastal Rowing?
‘Coastal Rowing’ means different things to each community that it serves. To many, it represents a tradition of fixed seat boat racing against rival local towns, to others their particular ‘brand’ of sliding seat boats a similar experience to river racing but in more extreme conditions found on the sea and estuaries.
Latterly, a new segment has opened up - thanks to World Rowing leading an international campaign to give developing nations the chance to learn, train and compete using robust ‘FISA Standard’ racing boats capable of performing on coasts, lakes and rivers with the minimum of investment.
It seems that all these categories have things in common - they are run and participated in by people who involve their communities and enjoy the social side of the sport and the location / environment as much as the racing. Even the ‘Offshore Enduro’ World Rowing events have a mix of elite athletes competing alongside club rowers which is fantastic.
From talking to fine boat rowers, they say that their sport had a similar ‘buzz’ to it before the fixation on ‘super-elite’ competition took hold.
Should ‘Coastal’ follow a different path to ‘fine boat’ rowing?
Having come into rowing relatively late due to a ‘focus’ (my wife would say “obsession”) on windsurfing since leaving college, I found the sport provided a great light wind alternative to keep me fit. As a bonus, the competitions gave much needed focus to training sessions. The increased fitness levels that I achieved also helped to reduce the chance of injury when the wind eventually blew strong enough to go windsurfing.
In general it feels as though rowing seems too have stagnated compared to other sports - with very marginal gains in equipment design and competitions feeling overly serious and a little cold at the top level.
Some clubs seem to be struggling to attract a wide spectrum of younger rowers outside of the public school arena and the funding is skewed dramatically towards the elite ‘top of the performance pyramid’ with an obsession on Olympic medals.
There is a distinct demarcation in the equipment available, depending on which club you are a member of - the boats used by top clubs are eye-watering lay expensive as they squeeze out those marginal gains. Entry to traditional clubs can also be complicated for those with more recreational aspirations - learn to row schemes require relatively large crews to attend together and it takes several weeks to earn your ‘wings’ paddles. Many people then stick to crew boats due to the risk of trying tippy fine boat singles.
I’m sure there are exceptions to the above stereotypes, but having shared a coffee or two with people from across the sport over the years, it does feel as though we can do better.
In short, how do we open the sport up to a wider demographic, provide more entry points, open it up those looking for a local outdoor recreational activity, whilst also providing a pathway for aspiring athletes and making it more fun!
What other models are there to learn from?
Windsurfing started to gain traction in the 1980’s the equipment changed rapidly - evolving into learner, course racing, slalom racing, speed sailing, wave riding and eventually freestyle disciplines, each with their own style of boards and sails. Those who wanted to sail on a recreational basis benefited from innovations across all specialisms that were then incorporated in ‘Freeride’ boards - at a more affordable price and requiring less expertise to enjoy the experience.
The sport seemed to over-diversify and eventually ‘spin-offs’ such as kite surfing and latterly foiling and wing-surfing may have confused people considering which sport to choose? The cost of entry was high and trendy design changes happened annually, meaning that equipment was relatively expensive and became obsolete after a few years.
Sailing has had more longevity - people tend to start in their early years and many return later when their finances allow. The club atmosphere tends to be strong with multiple fleets including the potential for youths to be coached through defined levels. Innovation seems to have been less rapid than windsurfing with many fleets use identical boats, although step changes such as the use of foils are happening now. Racing is widespread and all abilities are catered for in the ‘ladder’ scoring systems.
Stand Up Paddle (SUP) boards have exploded onto the beaches, lakes and rivers after a relatively slow start. The trigger seems to have been the low cost inflatable boards that are so light and easy to pack into the boot of a car. The sport seems to have captured the family market too - allowing everyone to ‘give it a go’. At the top level there is still international competition, but I’m not sure that the recreational user would be able to name those involved.
So can we learn from these and other sports? Can we have the excitement and innovation to adapt our equipment for a wider range of locations and conditions; keep (or even build on) the club atmosphere and banter of sailing clubs; have regular (but more light-hearted) racing that is less susceptible to weather or even pandemics; give spectators an excuse to stop and watch; and most of all - can we open the sport up to a wider spectrum of people who would like to participate in a fun activity at a reasonable price?
So what do we want to be, what is our identity?
Over the past 7 years of rowing, I’ve had the chance to visit fantastic locations and participate in events from local club to international level. How many sports would give a 50+ year old the chance to do that? Windsurfing has a strong community spirit but it is ultimately a sport for individuals and cannot match the team spirit and history of coastal communities.
We could live with a fragmented approach - gigs and sliding seat boats of all shapes and sizes, all sticking to tradition... but what if alongside these fleets we all started to embrace the FISA Coastal movement? Could we open our clubs up to new members and also allow other clubs to compete alongside traditional boats in our competitions (and vice versa)?
Can we find a form of competition that is both safe for our precious boats and also bring the action close to the beach / bank where spectators and families can see what is happening and cheer their crews?
Can we have post-race events where stories and advice are shared, friendships formed and the community are involved?
Can we train together with other clubs and form composite crews so that smaller clubs can compete more widely? Post-pandemic could we race on a Saturday, have a social that evening and then train with the other clubs on the Sunday to make more use of our weekends?
Do we want to focus all the time, energy and money on super-elite, or create a wider movement that encourages people to leave the sofa behind and have some fresh air and activity in stunning locations?
How can we use the new FISA boats to help improve fitness and well-being for young and old, regardless of physical ability?
What do we want from the equipment manufacturers - specialised boats, recreational boats, or a combination of the two... and what are we prepared to pay?
What do we want from our national governing body? It’s all too easy to criticise such organisations but they are trying to help the rowing community and are inevitably heavily influenced by the mechanisms that provide most of their funding. If we want to have a say then clearly it will help if we have a unified approach and clear message - especially if we can use Coastal Rowing to bring a whole new wave of people into the rowing family.
What what do we want our rowing community to look and feel like?
Now is the time for us to be discussing these questions, building on the momentum that has started and using the ‘window’ that has been presented by the Olympic Committee’s delayed decision to come up with some answers and help shape our sport of Coastal Rowing.
Let me know if you have any positive ideas, answers to the above questions, or are willing to be involved in developing the thinking further.