Thursday 21 July 2011

The Sulkava Churchboat regatta

Anthony Shaw has completed the 60km Sulkava race in Finland (something which I think is outside the ambit of Rowing for Pleasure but thoroughly admirable nevertheless). He reports:

With three days to go to my very first serious rowing marathon, much had now been clarified (the kit, the timetable, the goal!) – and yet equally much remained uncertain. My position was still unsure, although experience of the last two training outings suggested I would be one of the stern four, since I had volunteered as one of the part-time coxes.
At least the route was clear, a single circuit of a very scenic 60 kilometre course around one of the multitude of islands that dot the waterway in eastern Finland known as Saimaa. Although it is officially a lake, the name also refers to the basin that includes the numerous local lakes that formed the heartland of the tradition of Finnish church-boat rowing. Local communities traditionally designed, financed, constructed and rowed their boats to services in lake-shore churches, sometimes involving 50 persons at the oars, and sometimes on trips lasting overnight.
To describe these participants as oarsmen would be a major error, since women in these near-subsistence economies were expected to take an active part in many farming or hunting activities, which invariably included laying nets for fish or crustacians by boat. Today the country's economy is far from subsistence, but for many of the urban based populous the summer holidays (typically taken during the whole of July) involve return to their country roots to relish the pleasures of the simple life in a cottage by a lake, with of course a boat on hand.
The crew of my Statistics Finland sponsored boat were just such an urban crowd. Our outings in the Helsinki archipelago attracted folks from all around this broadly spread metropolis whose approach to rowing nowadays is exclusively recreational. But now that the primary target of the last two months training loomed close, the level of commitment has suddenly become more serious. There was much talk during the final session of the benefits of various types of preparatory diets, alternative solutions to the tricky issue of onboard toilet arrangements, and suddenly the word 'race' was used. Refreshment breaks now seemed to be planned with an emphasis on minimising the time lost from maximum application of energy. Even the anticipated overall time is being re-calibrated, and somewhat alarmingly reduced below previous estimates.
I must confess that this is just what I had hoped. My previous involvement in this marathon was a leisurely, yet still determined, excursion as a member of the two-day Sulkava Rowing Trek.
Tony rowing in an earlier event in Turku - that's him on the left in the grey shirt.
This year's crew was almost as sociable if not quite as vociferous as the previous year's. But the physical demands were distinctly more athletic. Even with an hour's stint in the cox's seat, the completion of the final 25 km was an experience I am still currently wary of repeating. Unlike my neighbour with his strap-on pulse/general health monitoring device, my exhaustion was readily apparent to me by the slight dizziness, the pulsing headache and a desperate desire to lie down and cool off. Even though the row commenced at 6pm (a gun-shot in front of the capacious stadium), the weather during this particular week had been exceptionally hot, with about 28C as we set off. Thankfully it cooled steadily as we continued, but the regular stops for drinks (every 20 minutes one pair at a time taking a break long enough for a couple of swigs of fortified water/energy drink) offered only brief respite from the oar. For a considerable time during the latter half of the trip I was only dimly aware of the beautiful sights (wooded islands, open watery vistas and huge colourful skies) the major contribution I made to forward thrust being to stay out of the fellow rowers way, dipping my oar symbolically in the water and lifting it out in synchronised time. My neighbour at this time thought it worthwhile to fill me in with a litany of stories of his own marathon achievements over the years, on bike, in canoe, even with walking sticks – the Nordic ones. Challenging as this was to my state of consciousness, as well as my modest language skills, he did keep me awake as I struggled to follow the details of his story old in his colourful native language.
There were surely others in the boat who took it much easier than I had done initially, especially those with more experience of marathon exercise. The bow couple (a pair but not an item) whom I had watched nattering 10 metres away during my helming seemed to have plenty to say to each other, and in the latter stages of the trip there were some barbed comments about them from the senior cox, which of course went unheard! However the final 10 minutes produced an unparalleled coordination of power as we surged towards the finish line with a truly impressive singularity of purpose, effort and even skill, in order to complete the course in just four seconds under 5½ hours.
The mixture of competitive and cooperative effort, which is surely the greatest reward for participants in this sport, had continued through the spring and now carried on well into the night, as we gathered sit (suitably clean and sauna'd) around an open fire outside our overnight cottage accomodation to receive our medals and certificates. The time was past 2 am and my own enthusiasm for beer and barbecued sausage was minimal, but it was actually the first time I got to meet and trade a few words with some crew members who had materialised just for the race itself. They all had had a clearer understanding of the physical requirements of such a commitment and gladly sat around on the old garden chairs to replenish liquid and energy reserves. As part of the post-race wind-down, certificates were distributed to all, with one of the crew receiving an especially gaudy paper proclaiming him, amongst the curliques, to be an Expert Veteran Rower (to my own simple Rower) having now completed the course 33 times! Physiologically I have no chance of matching this, but given the merely modest discomfort at 48 hours distance (the buttocks being the only really sore muscles I notice) there is a serious chance that I will be back next July to face another struggle for modest, but pleasingly collective, aquatic glory.

1 comment:

ToneS said...

Please believe me that rowing the Sulkava 'race' is principally a pleasurable activity. My own uninitiated early enthusiasm was the cause of my physical discomfort in the later stages. For all the crew it was primarily 'done for fun'!

Row-on through (to the other side)!!