|Years||1960 (8o 4th)
1961 (2x 6th)
1962 (2x unplaced)
1963 (2x 4th)
1964 (8o 6th)
|Clubs||University of London Women’s BC, United Universities Women’s BC|
|Height||5’3″ or 160cm|
|Racing weight||11 stone 12 lb or 75kg|
Zona is on the right in the picture at the top of this page along with Vivien Roberts, her double sculling partner (Photo: Zona’s personal collection).
Getting into rowing
Having messed about in boats from an early age as she lived in Henley, Zona joined the boat club when she went to Bedford College (part of the University of London) in 1957. “My brother Ronnie rowed,” she explains, “So I thought if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
She remembers her first outing being, “In the early morning in the mist,” on Regent’s Park lake, but she rapidly progressed to rowing out of the UL boathouse in Chiswick.
Unusually, as well as rowing in eights at fours for ULWBC, she learned to scull while she was still at university and won her novices at Barnes and Mortlake Events in 1958.
At that time there was no standardisation of which hand was in front/on top in sculling, and Zona settled on ‘right over left’ totally by accident. “When I first went out sculling from UL, I remembered my brother saying that you mustn’t scissor [swap your hands round at the finish] and so I took my first stroke as right over left and kept like that so I was always right over left instead of left over right so poor Viv had to change when we started doubling because I’d been at it longer than she had!”
Although she moved to Oxford to do a PGCE after graduating in 1959, she was ‘recruited’ to join Tideway-based United Universities Women’s BC by Pauline Baillie Reynolds whom she’d met at various regattas that summer whilst racing for UL. “I used to go up at the weekends and spend the night up with a friend and we had Saturday, Sunday outings,” she remembers – the start of many years of travelling quite long distances to row with UU because she subsequently worked and lived at a boarding school in Caversham, near Reading.
During the week she carried on sculling in Oxford, using her brother Ronnie’s sculling boat which was racked in his old college boathouse (he had rowed for Oxford in 1957 and 1959 and been President in 1959 when he survived an attempted ‘mutiny’). “I used to go out at lunchtime and scull around quite a lot, just trying to keep a little bit fit,” she explains, adding, “I don’t remember seeing any other women on the water.”
After struggling with the amount of travel involved in rowing in the UU eight for the 1960 Championships, Zona and her crewmate Vivien Roberts decided that it would be much more practical for them to double (there were no women’s pairs races in those days) and base themselves in Reading because Vivien lived in Bracknell. Having tested the idea in various borrowed boats, they ordered a double of their own from the boatbuilder George Harris in Oxford in January 1961, which they collected in April. “I remember that first outing,” Zona recalls. “He’d made it all so light and getting into a boat down at his workshop was [difficult as]it was at an enormous angle and we didn’t have a solid place to put a foot on to get in, it was just cross trees and I seem to remember Viv went through one of those but didn’t go through the boat. And [George said], ‘Ah yes, I think we need something a bit more solid there!’ So he added a solid piece of ply to put a foot on.”
“It was called Manatee because she was wide like one,” she continues. “He’d built it because I was going to row bow and I was heavier than Viv and he said it needs to be wider there, and I was a zoologist and I’d come across dugongs and manatees and I thought ‘Manatee’ was quite a nice name. It just sort of glides through the water!”
Although there had been a GB double at the 1960 Women’s European Rowing Championships, this was not a boat class that really existed at the time with the result that Zona, Viv and those who occasionally advised them had to work out how best to rig the boat from scratch. At various points during the 1961 season they took the drastic step of cutting down their blades because their outboards were too long once they’d reduced their inboard to fit with their non-adjustable riggers (Vivien did note in her diary, “Must give them an exhaustive trial before removing more”); packed out their riggers by 0.5 inches with blocks and then re-lengthened their inboards by 1″ each; raised Zona’s seat by 5/8″; changed their pitches; and frequently moved their feet back and forward (which wasn’t something you could just do whilst sitting in the boat as you can nowadays) to try and find the optimum balance between length and clean extraction. These are huge changes but with nothing to go on it’s not surprising that their experimentation was high-level rather than finessing.
Another problem with there not being other women’s doubles around was that they had no comparable crew to train against, but they’d do pieces against university ‘bandits’ whenever they could, often trained against Penny in Henley, and also timed themselves over fixed courses, using an analogue stopwatch that was attached to Vivien’s footplate. “We’d wait for the sweep hand to come up to the top and then go,” Zona remembers.
Vivien clearly spend a lot of time counting strokes in order to get ratings; her training diary includes extensive tables listing the equivalent ratings for various numbers of strokes taken in 15 seconds, or for the amount of time it took to do 11 catches (10 full strokes). Crews with a cox or coach would be able to get this information from an analogue ratings watch, but this required a spare hand to operate, of course!
During the academic year, they kept the double at Reading University’s boathouse but this was locked up in the summer holidays, which was when they needed to train the most in the run up to the Championships. So the double was moved to Zona’s parents’ garage in Henley. “With both of us teaching we had got the holidays when we could do more and we were able to boat from Leander because Ronnie, my brother, talked to Richard Burnell, who was Captain of Leander at the time, and said, ‘These are homeless internationals, could they row from it?’ And there were certain restrictions at the weekends. We were OK during the week, but we weren’t allowed to go out when there were other men going out. We weren’t allowed to keep the boat there so each time we had an outing but we had to take the cars out of the garage, get the boat that was in the roof rack or in a rack attached to the roof, out from the garage, put it on my car, put the blades on, tie everything on, park by the wall [at Leander], take everything off, walk it through the garden and then have our outing. We had to do the return journey and play the car game to get the boat into the garage and the cars back in.” On occasions, they also boated from Phyllis Court and Henley Rowing Club (which was by the bridge, not where it is now).
They were not, of course, permitted to set foot inside Leander. “Ooh NO!,” Zona laughs at the very suggestion. “Not even to go to the loo. But it was worth it for a good stretch of water. And again, you know, we picked up the odd bandit [an unsuspecting crew against whom they could do pieces] and tried to do something. Not very successfully there, but never mind, it gave us something to go for. And that was really all we could do. And we did get a bit of coaching – Sid Rand followed us once or twice and gave us a bit of help, but we had no proper regime or anything like that. You could only tell by feel whether it was going well or not.”
It’s fair to say that land training wasn’t a major feature of their programme. Vivien recorded in her rowing diary for their first season that, “Circuit training- of sorts – was carried out on Wednesday evenings in a gym,” in the winter but she doesn’t mention it in the following two years. Zona recalls, “We ran to try and get up our fitness. And I played lacrosse at Queen Anne’s where I was teaching, again to give me exercise. But that was really all. And we tried press ups but we weren’t very good at them! We were active but we weren’t really training.”
For the first two years, they made up their own training programme and had very little on-water coaching. They did get a fair amount of help from some very good people, though: Ronnie helped when he could but by this stage he was teaching and coaching at Radley College and simply wasn’t able to do more, and Penny’s mentor, the famous sculler Sam MacKenzie was often involved too when they were training in Henley, and was their main source of advice on rigging changes. The Reading boatman Happy Haslam also looked out for them. But this wasn’t the same as having all aspects of their campaign managed by a single coach, “So it was quite remarkable that we ever sort of got anywhere!,” Zona laughs.
The double – and the rest of UU – were aware that they were ambassadors for women’s rowing at a time when some men had their doubts about it, and were careful to be as professional as possible. “Men always thought we would titivate ourselves on the landing stage and waste time so I know that whenever we went out anywhere and there were men’s crews around we would always make certain we were the most efficient getting out onto the water and coming in and getting your boat out of the water so others could use [the landing stage],” she explains. Many years later, her brother Ronnie was coaching Oxford women’s lightweights out of Radley’s boathouse, and Zona was horrified that they lacked the same attitude. “They used to spend an age on [the landing stage] and I thought, ‘We fought this to be more efficient than the men all the way through and you’re just rotting it all up!’ I got quite cross!”
Ronnie also contributed to women’s rowing because, as Oxford President, he had got to know the rowing journalists of the day, which encouraged them to take an interest in Zona. “Because Ronnie knew them and they followed him, they were quite interested in me and therefore people like Desmond Hill and Richard Burnell did their best to promote women’s rowing in a more professional way,” she says. Inevitably there were both bad and good examples of press coverage in the many years since, but the broadsheets at the time generally did report women’s rowing accurately and in terms of the facts.
The full accounts of Zona’s international years can be read here:
Later rowing and life (Zona’s and Manatee’s)
In 1967 Zona married David Hardy, a colleague (and fellow rowing coach) of Ronnie’s at Radley where they remained, deeply involved in all aspects of the school’s life, until he retired.
“I messed about in boats,” says Zona. I went out rowing occasionally because I went out in my brother’s sculling boat there. And later on they were very short of J14 coaches there and I was asked if I would help the little boys, so I used to go out with them and help them which was thoroughly enjoyable but I eventually stopped when I found getting in and out of the boat was too difficult. And I did a bit of coaching from a launch once or twice for quads, but when they were learning how to scull I would go out with them and sort of try and demonstrate how to turn round and do other things like that. And I was even called ‘Sir’ which I thought was rather nice on occasions. I thought I’ve really arrived!”
Viv and Zona’s final race together was probably at the FISA Masters Regatta in Nottingham in 1979. “Viv and I did go to a veterans regatta because we thought it would be nice to take old Manatee out for the last time,” she remembers. “We trained a bit at Radley and we were way over the age of everybody else there but we did beat the others off the start although we then lagged behind. But that really was our swansong.”
Manatee became part of the fleet at Radley, but when it got too old for that, George Harris mounted its bows on a plaque and it now forms a most unusual – and large – ornament in her hallway. Occasionally it does service as a coat stand and at Christmas she decorates it with tinsel to make it look like a Christmas tree.
Vivien Roberts died of cancer in December 2015.