The RAF Rowing Club's Tour to the USA - Royal Air Force

The RAF Rowing Club's Tour to the USA - Royal Air Force


New England in the Fall; the RAF’s

rowers take on the USA at the largest

rowing regatta in the world..!

New England

in the Fall

By Sqn Ldr George Hannaford

The RAF Rowing

Club’s Tour to the USA

Heart pumping, legs burning, lungs about to burst, your body

aches to stop, but the urgent rhythm and racing pace drives you

on. You sense the other boats near you, the flashing oars, the

cold splash of the water, but you dare not take your eyes off

your stroke man’s blade; focus is inside the boat, the roar of the

crowds an acoustic blur. The pain builds, your breath comes in

monstrous gasps and then the final bridge and English voices

shouting - “Come on the Air Force!” - the briefest glance, a rush

of reds, whites and blues, then eyes back in the boat, the build

for the last few strokes an agony of flailing blades and limbs and

then, at last, the cox’s call to “wind it down”. But you can’t stop;

got to keep moving, keep rowing, keep control, ease off, don’t

stop........... breathe..!

The final minutes of any rowing race are an intense mixture

of adrenaline, pain and a burning desire to both win and stop.

It is the crew that has trained together the hardest to harness

that desire, whilst dealing with the pain, which stands the best

chance. Technique and fitness come in there too, but mostly it’s

the desire and the pain.

Oddly, these thoughts were not forefront in our minds last

October when 19 members of the RAF Rowing Club (RAFRC)

assembled in Heathrow’s Terminal 4, a sea of powder blue Sports

Lottery polo shirts and a huge pile of luggage bound for Boston,

Massachusetts and a 2-week tour of New England in the Fall. Our

thoughts were more on whether the Club President, Air Mshl ‘Soon

to be CAS’ Steve Dalton really had phoned up the CEO of BA to get

our eight 3.74m rowing blades and two sculling blades on board

the same flight as hold luggage. It turned out he had and after

a seamless 8-hr flight; a mighty faff with the hire vehicles; the

briefest night stop outside Boston; and a teeny weenie unplanned

50-mile detour towards Canada; we were officially ‘On Tour’ and

en route to our first rowing destination: Rochester, New York State.

Under the leadership of Club Chairman, Sqn Ldr Andy Ellison,

the squad comprised a men’s senior eight, a women’s four, a men’s

veteran four (plus spare in case we broke one), 2 coxes, a sculler

and our in-country Team Manager, Sqn Ldr Jim Thorley with his

wife Claire; a total of 21. The aim of the Tour was to provide RAF

rowers with the opportunity to experience competitive rowing in

the USA; to foster relations between the RAF and the American

people; and to broaden and develop personnel through cultural,

social and sporting activities. The Tour was planned so that the

squad would have the chance to train and then compete in a

relatively low-key event on the River Genesee in Rochester before

taking on the prestigious Head of the Charles. Held in Boston

each year since 1964, the Head of the Charles has become the

largest 2-day rowing regatta in the world and in 2008 featured

over 8500 competitors from 19 countries, all of them converging

with their boats and supporters upon the river that runs between

the bustling Patriot city of Boston and the university town of


Day 2 in-country dawned warm and bright and the squad

arrived at the ‘Genesee Waterways Center’ to meet our hosts for

the first week. Boats were sorted, blades assembled and in short

order we were on the water, rowing in our respective crews and

getting a feel for the equipment, the venue and the 5000m course.

Next day was Saturday and the first of the 2 Head of the Genesee

race days. Head races are normally held from Autumn to Spring

over a distance of about 5km. At the allotted time, each crew

takes to the water and rows up to the start before turning, starting

in numerical order with a 20-second interval between boats and

racing back to the finish, ideally having overtaken any opposition,

with the winner in each category being the boat with the quickest

time over the course. Crews had assembled in Rochester from

all over New England, including some from the more famous

clubs and universities such as Yale, Brown and Harvard who, like

us, were taking the last opportunity for racing in the calendar

before the Head of the Charles the following weekend. Against



such opposition, the RAF squad acquitted itself very well, achieving a

silver in the men’s club fours event and bronze in both the women’s

and the veteran’s fours. Our sculler, Sqn Ldr Tim Ellis, also put on an

excellent performance against stiff opposition in the men’s single

sculls. The following day the squad was placed at the disposal of

the Race Committee to act as boat marshals for a second day of

racing. The senior men were able to boat the Eight which made an

impressive sight and the vets took their four out for a spin, but the

main effort was helping out and fostering good relations with all

the local Genesee rowers.

Monday saw more quality training on the Genesee before

heading off towards Canada - on purpose this time - to take in the

magnificent Niagara Falls and to sample the city of Buffalo’s original

chicken wings. The next day we were invited by the Pittsford Crew

to make use of their facilities by the Erie Canal near Rochester. This

club has a state-of-the-art indoor water tank with variable flow rates

where rowers can practice in a controlled environment. This tank

is perhaps one of the best in the USA and boasts rowing seats for

32 along with 25 Concept 2 rowing machines. Once again we were

made most welcome and stayed for a couple of hours to give our

coaches the opportunity to work on us from close quarters.

Too soon it was time to leave Rochester and the splendid colours

of Autumn and return to Boston for the Head of the Charles Regatta

(HOCR). Our hosts for this stage of the Tour were the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology (MIT) which is one of the best engineering

universities in the world with its own boathouse set on the banks

of the Charles near the start of the race. As before, a swift unload

of blades and boats squared away meant that we were ready to

row the next morning. Due to high demand for entries, only 3 RAF

boats were entered for the HOCR: the men’s senior coxed four; the

veterans’ four; and the single sculls. That meant some valuable

training on the Charles for the whole squad beforehand, but only

half the team could actually row come race day. Not ideal, but at

least we knew somebody would be cheering for us..!

On the day itself the weather was just right for racing: a slight

breeze with a cool temperature. Tim Ellis was first away with the

veteran scullers at 0844 hrs and he recorded a fast time over the

4800m course, overtaking 4 other scullers and finishing 11 places

higher than where he started. Next away were the men’s seniors

and then the vets, who went off at a gentlemanly 1400 hrs as the

sun came out, and rowed the course in 19:12.466, overtaking 3 boats

and finishing 14th out of 24. All of our 3 boats rowed superbly, but

the senior crew played a blinder by finishing in the top half of their

division, thereby guaranteeing an invitation for the 2009 event and

the opportunity to do it all over again!

As we waited at check-in for the return flight, we all agreed that

our fortnight in the Colonies had been a great success with all

boxes ticked and new friendships made. Over the entire tour the

RAF rowers and coxes covered in excess of 2000 km between them,

rowing on 8 of the 12 days in country, so job done there! A huge

thank you must go to the RAF Sports Board for all their support;

to Logica for their generous sponsorship; to our President for his

timely and active involvement; and to our own organizing team

who made a good trip into a truly memorable tour. The squad was

made extremely welcome by the hosting rowing clubs and we were

blessed with excellent weather throughout. New England in the Fall

will certainly remain a destination of choice for future rowing tours.

Rowing in the RAF is well funded and supported with a strong

presence in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the Thames Valley as well as

many other locations. Training takes place around the country and

at the central Home for Rowing at the RAF Watersports Centre at

Danesfield, near Marlow. A full programme of events is staged each

year with key Inter Station and Inter Service rowing regattas held

in May and July respectively as well as participation on the civilian

rowing circuit. This year the RAFRC will be reciprocating MIT’s

excellent hospitality by hosting their rowing squad at Henley Royal

Regatta (1-5 Jul 09) and the Veterans will be competing at the FISA

Masters Championships in Vienna in September. Anyone interested

in taking up the sport or perhaps returning to it after a break should

contact their local PEd Staff for further details.

Edited by Flt Lt Dave Hirst

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