What makes a great coastal rowing event?
Over the past 4 months we have had the chance to participate in fantastic regional, national and international coastal rowing events. Here are a few reflections since returning from the last one in Italy, structured into the following themes:
- Planning and preparation
- Course and race format
- Race organisation and logistics
- Boats and equipment
- Looking after our athletes
- Fun and apres rowing
Our sport has Olympic aspirations and is now attracting elite full time athletes who rightly expect high standards at international competitions. They want an event environment that provides an opportunity to perform to their maximum capability.
Spectators and supporters are starting to access live streaming services and like to see how their crews are performing - whether they are at the front of the field, or involved in a tussle with other lower ranked crews.
Local and regional events are also continuing to develop and improve, with athletes using them to prepare for national and international race meetings. In many ways this mimics the format of other more established sports such as dinghy sailing events, although these also feature weekly or twice per week club racing too, providing parking and plenty of room for storage of boats and equipment will make life easier. Sand is easier on the athletes, boat handlers and boats. A gentle slope reduces the shore break / wave dump, making launch and landing safer and more controlled.
Demarcation of the rowing and public swimming areas is very important. The British Championships showed us that the public are often unaware of our sport and its dangers. The ability to segregate the event from members of the public is important - the World Championship in Oeiras, Portugal achieved this largely through taking over most of the beach.
There are an increasing number of athletes bringing their boats to events on trailers and using camper vans / motorhomes. The size and weight of our boats and trailers is significant and parking arrangements need to be able to cope with them.
Planning and Preparation
The timing of events needs to take other competitions into account. Ideally we need a structured series of events that leads up to the World Championships so that athletes can find their natural 'level' and hone their skills for the bigger events.
Events should be held near (or at) an existing coastal club to help inspire new members from the local community and also make use of local knowledge of the sea, tide, beach and weather conditions.
Having a calendar of events issued at the end of the preceding year allows adequate time for athletes to prepare, plan and budget for the year ahead... and negotiate the time with their families.
Course and race format
This is a subject that will continue to cause a lot of discussion, with a range of different opinions. I am going to continue 'sitting on the fence' as I enjoy all types of rowing and a variety of challenges.
We need exciting conditions to row in. Waves, wind and tides all contribute to the spectacle. Flat water is boring. Courses that pass along the coast and provide good viewing points for spectators would be good.
Running Beach Sprints as a niche fun event alongside the mainstream offshore endurance events seems to work very well. Some athletes perform better in one discipline, but an increasing number seem to be able to perform at a very high level in both.
Beach starts and finishes are exciting for boat handlers / crews / spectators and are a real challenge in waves. They do increase the risk of damage to boats, crews and boat handlers though, especially if the crew has not practiced them in training. Crews need to be competent to row in the conditions and boat handlers need to be well drilled, with a clear routine for safely launching and recovering boats.
Water starts and finishes allow more time for launching and recovering boats, they can look spectacular when viewed across the start line.
Chicanes increase the excitement when crews are close together and also give some opportunity to outmanoeuvre competing crews.
Whatever course format is decided, it is essential to publish it early so that the crews have time to learn about is and train in advance of the race. Last minute changes or uncertainty need to be avoided if at all possible as athletes have spent many months training and deserve the opportunity to put it into action in a organised manner.
There are an increasing number of Masters and Junior rowers at our competitions. Some events have included specific races for them to compete against each other. Organisers should continue in expanding this trend and encouraging club rowers to participate alongside professional rowers.
Spectators on the beach and on-line need to be fed with high quality race information. The use of drones, GPS, telemetry and onboard cameras is starting to provide real time imagery and data that adds to the excitement levels. Feedback from people watching on-line is showing that they want a perspective of the whole race and where their local crews are at each stage. Information on stroke rate, speed and mini competitions for lower ranked places helps local clubs to virtually cheer on their crews.
The excellent images and video footage from recent competitions is fantastic for helping to promote our sport and explain it to people who might join our local clubs.
Race organisation and logistics
Entry systems for registering crews seem to be very good, as does the flexibility in changing things e.g. if athletes become ill and need to be replaced.
The best race events outline the rules in advance and then enforce them consistently throughout. There seem to be a range of penalty options for starting infringements, missing buoys or having collisions. The athletes need to be very clear on the rules and see them being used to avoid fairness concerns.
Recent events have dramatically improved the stability of course buoys through improved anchoring systems. This is great, there's nothing more frustrating than chasing a moving buoy. Boat handling support has also been strengthened, with a very well trained, friendly and helpful team at the recent European Challenge event to assist in both launching and recovery of boats.
Rescue and camera boats should be aware of their impact on the race. They should avoid positioning in front or behind course buoys as this obscures them from the competitors. During the race, powerboats should avoid washing down the fleet of of boats when following the race leader - there is nothing more frustrating (or boring for spectators) than boats trying to catch up with the leader being knocked off course whilst the leader accelerates away in clean water. Drones and GPS trackers are great - they capture the action without impacting it.
At the Euros in Italy we saw extensive use of really useful boat trolleys that could be adjusted to handle singles, doubles and quads. This was supplemented by the use of quad bikes to tow them around the beach, which made the whole operation safer, more slick and reduced the number of trained boat handlers required.
Tee shirts are very popular and providing a momento of the event and also helping to promote it when the athletes return to their club. The designs are becoming more eye-catching and reinforce the 'different' and exciting nature of our version of rowing.
Having been stopped by passing local people at almost every event, it is clear that we should do more to explain the sport to the general public. Most people don't have a clue what we are doing but many are starting to spend time watching at the beach, especially when the music is playing and commentators are explaining things.
On the subject of communication, the British and World Championships benefited from a continuous stream of professional commentary. Clearly the commentators had taken time to understand the competition, athletes, course, weather and tides. Audiences were impressed to see them actually predicting what might happen... and then seeing it 'play out' on the sea. This is exactly what the sport needs and only comes from a team of professionals who have followed the progression and evolution of our sport to build up their knowledge, combined with impressive technical back-up.
Similarly in photography of our events it is easy to spot the high quality images captured by professionals who understand the sport, crews, weather, key points of the course and picture composition. They simply manage to capture the action, joy and pain!
Boats and equipment
Appropriate boats are important for rowers who are travelling long distances to events and relying upon equipment rented from suppliers. Those who bring their own boats and equipment (that has been set up during training at home) are potentially at a distinct advantage. Events need to be able to cope with the logistics and storage of an increasing number of these private and club owned boats.
Boats with 'beach piercing' bows that cause them to stop suddenly, causing athletes to be catapulted backwards seem more and more inappropriate for Beach Sprint events with beach finishes. Sharp 'knife edge' carbon wave deflectors and unpadded bow riggers positioned at the base of the athletes spine also seem to create needless risk.
I'm all for innovation, however event organisers also need to make sure that boats are safe. The last thing we need is for injuries to caused by 'unfinished' boats with sharp edges or adaptions should the boat capsize or during the boat entry / exit. At the moment pre-race checks seem to focus on tow ropes and heel restraints and weight. Maybe checks should be extended to consider factors that could cause injury through cuts or body impact?
Boat suppliers with 'pit crews' who have tools, spares and knowledge to set up and fix problems are essential in the highly charged competition environment. Events are often very tightly scheduled, with minimal gaps between races. This means that configuration of boats between races will require good organisation and close cooperation between crews using the same boat. Crews should double check their boats before each race using a clear checklist and table of settings.
Pool / hire blades need to be appropriate to the conditions. Personally, I would expect to have blades that are in the range 280-285 long for coastal rowing. This allows them to be set for higher wind and larger waves. Some athletes may prefer to have longer blades, however we have seen far too many long blades (e.g. 287-292cm) at coastal race meetings.
Tow ropes need to be properly secured to avoid them washing loose and jamming in the seat runners.
Rigger pins should be fitted with quick release 'C' washers to enable the athletes to quickly adjust gate heights between races.
Some boats take on a lot of water and need to be emptied out between races. This may require the boat to be tilted up at an extreme angle or for sponges to be made available to bail out the hull.
Most events seem to stipulate that boats will have adjustable rubber shoes fitted. I would advise athletes to bring neoprene socks in which to race - these are both more comfortable in the shoes and also reduce the risk of hurting your foot when running on the beach.
Looking after our athletes
Most of the time athletes spend at the beach they need to be sheltered from the weather - having shade from the sun and shelter from wind, rain and low temperatures. This is likely to be especially important at the Saundersfoot World Championship which is being held in the Welsh autumn where we normally see cooler temperatures and stormy conditions.
Athletes are the most enthusiastic spectators. They need to be located on the beach in a warm and sheltered area with views of the water and ideally the video screen during the racing.
Athletes need good nutrition and access to free drinking water to be able to perform at the top level. Traditional UK beach food such as fish and chips, burgers, etc is less appropriate than the Mediterranean diet of fish, lean meat and fresh fruit and vegetables that we saw at the World Championships in Oeiras. Many people will want to cater for themselves and eat familiar good quality food when racing, hence it is important that they know where the local stores are located and have self-catering accommodation available.
Our larger events are held over many days or even two weeks. Access to good washing and drying facilities is important, especially if the weather is cold and wet. Not everyone can afford to buy multiple all in ones, etc. I'm not sure how athletes are coping in hotels but the washing machines in our AirBNB's have been very useful.
Fun and apres rowing
Once the pressure of the event is released everyone needs to help with the considerable task of de-rigging and loading boats onto trailers... then the party can begin.
At this point I have to admit that the Irish team are best to advise on how to party! From recent experience, people seem to enjoy the chance to socialise and chat in a comfortable and informal environment - more 'flip flops' than blazers. Most recent events seem to have ended with smaller groups meeting for a meal and drinks, largely due to Covid-19 restrictions, rather than having a whole event party.
Looking forward to 2022
Events are clearly developing and improving at all levels from club to international. Lessons are being learned, however there is still more to be done.
Despite the pandemic, 2021 has been a much more active year for coastal rowing. 2022 promises to build on this with events across Europe and the UK building up to the World Championships at Saundersfoot in Wales.
Given the variable Welsh autumn climate, small size of the town and considerable tidal range, this will be a challenging event for both organisers and athletes. The race conditions could be epic though!