The 1961 Women’s European Rowing Championships took place on a five-lane course set up specially for the event on the River Vltava in the centre of Prague from 18-20 August, shortly before the men’s Championships on 24-28 August.
There were 32 entries from nine countries, which was four crews and three countries down on the previous year.
Over the seven years before these Championships, GB’s pattern of involvement had been on a ‘one on and two off’ basis, as much as anything because of lack of Women’s ARA funds to pay for the trip. In the April 1961 issue of The Oarswoman Amy Gentry wrote, “It seems to me to be only too obvious that our girls must seek continuing experience in the International class if they are to reach the top – which means that we must do much better than compete once in two or three years.” However, good intentions like these didn’t buy train tickets and as the WARA coffers remained depleted, the team self-funded in 1961 and 1962 until the WARA merged with the ARA in 1963. In 1961 this amounted to about £50 per person which, for comparison, was apparently a teacher’s monthly take-home pay at the time. And that doesn’t include buying their boats or blades.
After the 1960 Championships, United Universities members Zona Howard and Vivien Roberts, who both lived in the Reading area where they were teachers, decided that they couldn’t carry on travelling to London to train as much as they had and that the solution would be for them to double together. They had a boat built by George Harris in Oxford and kept it in the University boathouse in Reading, except when this was locked up during the holidays when they had to resort to keeping it in Zona’s parents’ garage in Henley and transporting it to the river on top of her VW Beetle for every outing.
With Zona and Viv doing their own thing, there weren’t enough people left of the required standard in the UU group who were also prepared to pay to travel to Prague, for UU to seek selection in the eight again. They consequently decided to put a coxed four together which they duly put forward for selection along with the double.
Unsurprisingly, these nominations were unopposed, but the crews still had to prove themselves worthy of selection. The four did time trials at the Welsh Harp Regatta in early May and at Weybridge, and the double raced at international regattas in Ostend and Amsterdam as well as at the Weybridge trial, after which both crews were duly selected.
Two scullers put themselves forward for selection: the 1960 representative, Penny Chuter, and Christine Dennis from Weybridge Ladies ARC. Christine capsized during a time trial at the Welsh Harp regatta and was then beaten by Penny in a later race, after which Penny was selected.
There were no nominations for eights or coxed quads and so the team was:
|Coxed Four (United Universities)||Double Scull (United Universities)|
Pauline Baillie Reynolds
(LALEHAM SKIFF AND PUNTING CLUB)
All eight members of the team had competed at the Women’s European Championships in 1960 when the four and the double rowed in the eight and Penny had sculled.
Although the four was coached by Frank Harry in training, he was unable to go to travel to Prague with them because the work he’d done during the Second World War as a civil servant meant that he was not allowed to travel behind the iron curtain.
However, the team was supported by three other members of UU: Frances Bigg (who had been in the GB team in 1957 and 1960 as well as racing at the international regatta in 1953) who took the role of Team Manager, Ann Sayer (also from the 1960 eight) and Elizabeth Ballinger.
Lacking suitable (or, in the case of the double, any) opposition at home, Penny, Zona and Viv went to several regattas abroad to get the race practice they needed. Penny raced at Dunkirk (20 May) and Grunau in East Berlin (25 June), and both she and the double did Ostend (22 May) and Amsterdam (18 June) regattas.
The Henley-resident Australian sculler Stuart MacKenzie, who had taken Penny under his wing, drove her to Dunkirk/Ostend with both boats on the roof of his car and considerably more overhang than European motoring regulations allow nowadays. She won on both days of Dunkirk regatta, beating the French Champion Renée Camu, as she had at Macon in 1960 but rather more easily this time. The trophies were pieces of dark blue Limoges china with a gold swirly pattern, she remembers. Sadly one of these got smashed after being placed in the boot of MacKenzie’s car.
The format of racing in Dunkirk was rather unusual but designed to maximise racing on a very long canal that was only wide enough for two boats at a time. Rather than using the usual knock-out approach, crews were set off in pairs, 500m apart, so the first pair would race from the ‘start’ to 1,000m, but meanwhile the second pair would be racing from 500m to 1,500m, and another pair would be racing from 1,000m to 2,000m, and so on. Everyone was timed. So although it felt like a side-by-side race, it was also a time-trial.
At Ostend regatta two days later, her biggest challenge was the method of ‘getting attached’ at the start:
So when I arrived at the start – and I had sort of been prepared for it – up out of the water comes this rope that goes across the canal and which had been buried in this absolutely filthy, black, slimy canal water, with all these little lines dangling down for each lane. So I look to see what the other girls were doing and would you believe some of them, because each length of line coming down was a finite length, would hold it between their teeth to get a few inches extra start because the line would be [higher up]. But you could pick up goodness knows what diseases! If you put it under your finger, then you’d be slightly behind because that would be a steeper angle but you’d also end up with one hand being all slimy and you couldn’t grip your scull handle. I pulled the rope down really hard and because we had these open wooden clogs in those days, I managed to put the end of the rope under my big toe and just about put enough pressure on it to hold it there. So I probably started about six feet behind the others but I actually thought that it was better to start behind rather than have greasy hands or get some nasty illness – nightmare!
Penny also won the single sculls at Ostend beating the Dutch sculler Marian Luderus by one second with Renée Camu in third place. The double, using a borrowed boat, came second to a Czech crew whose rating, according to Vivien’s rowing diary was “apparently 36!” to the GB crew’s 32 at the end. This was an unusual appearance for an Eastern bloc crew who usually only came over to the West for actual Championships.
At the Bosbaan Regatta in Amsterdam the double finished third behind Belgian and Dutch crews, and Penny was also third, behind Cornelia Pap of Hungary and the Dutch sculler Marian Luderus. Whipped up by a strong following wind, the water was very rough during racing and Vivien Roberts noted in her diary that they, “Just could not get any work on and found it impossible to finish [the stroke]. Both finished not a bit tired. Abominable course. Still have learned that must negotiate conditions with higher work. Probably would have managed in our boat or in this boat with calmer conditions.”
From Amsterdam, Penny and MacKenzie drove straight on to Berlin to race the following weekend on both days of Grunau regatta to which they’d both been invited by the organisers (who paid for their travel, accommodation and entries). It was possibly on this occasion that Penny discovered that the penalties for speeding behind the iron curtain were a trifle more severe than in the UK:
We were in his Austin Healey 3000 with two sculling boats (riggers off) hanging on brackets that were swaying about when he was going at 90 miles an hour, and he overtook in a place where the autobahn said there was roadworks and we got stopped and because the car was driven on the wrong side, I got the policeman and I can still remember the feeling of the cold metal of his pistol pressing into my forehead. We were terrified of being sent to an East German prison. All we could do was wave this letter of invitation as we could speak hardly a word of German between us and we finally managed to get away with it!
She was second on the the Saturday, six seconds behind Alena Postlova of Czechoslovakia (who was obviously able to race there because it was behind the iron curtain), but beating Helga Schlittermann of East Germany. On the Sunday she came third, eleven seconds down on Postlova who won again, and seven seconds behind Gisela Jaeger of East Germany whom she’d beaten by a few inches in the first round at the Championships the previous year. Although she was in the mix, there were clearly several scullers around who were faster than she was.
The UU four’s specific Championships preparation started later; they only finalised who was actually in the crew on 2 July, but the momentum picked up after that. Like the double, they had ordered a new boat from George Harris, which cost £275. This was delivered on 12 July and was named ‘Quantum’ because their coach, Frank Harry, invariably asked them, “How MUCH did you win by?” after regattas (‘quantum’ is the Latin for ‘how much’). The name Quantum also fitted neatly with the names of their eight, Quarry (an elision of Quintin and Harry – he was a stalwart of Quintin BC) and their clinker coxed four ‘Quinque’ which means ‘five’ in Latin. Whatever they answered in response to his question, “How much did you win by?” he would always answer, “Not enough!” and so they had “Non satis” (Latin for ‘not enough’) painted on the top of Quantum’s rudder. You’ve gotta love the classical humour!
As Ann Sayer recorded in her training diary, they were pleased with Quantum which “ran for longer and did not check before catch. High rates commanded more easily than in WARA boat.”
As in 1960 the four and the double had a training week at Weybridge from 31 July to 8 August and set off for Prague soon after.
Penny got a lot of her coaching input by correspondence. Having met the Oxford coach ‘Jumbo’ Edwards on the plane back from Macon regatta the previous year, she regularly wrote to him for advice on “technical stuff and rigging and all that Jumbo did – the scientific approach”. She adds,”I was also receiving a limited amount of technical coaching and some training programmes from Richard Burnell [the five-times Olympic medallist] who was also coaching Vivien Roberts and Zona Howard in the double [although only occasionally at that stage].” Both the double and Penny were also helped by Zona’s brother Ronnie who had been Oxford University BC President in 1959, and by Stuart Mackenzie on the occasions when they were training in Henley. But as Penny summed it up, “I literally had no proper coach then. I was just sponging as much information as I could off various people.”
Getting to Prague
The team’s solution to getting themselves and their boats to Prague as cheaply as possible was just marvelous. Ann Sayer organised the hiring of a bus (and driver) from the East Kent Coach Company, and they stuck the boats on the roof and drove there. As Penny Chuter remembers, “All the back seats were taken out of the bus to make space for all the riggers, suitcases and whatever. All the oars were on the floor. And it was a ramshackle old bus and in those days there weren’t many motorways – it just ‘bumbled’ along – nightmare! But we did it, and we all had to pay for it, there wasn’t a brass farthing elsewhere.”
Zona Howard remembers, “We were told to put blankets [round the boats], so we got blankets from the local charity shops and we used aluminium foil under them in case they got too hot, though I don’t think that really happened.”
The 800 mile journey nearly came to a halt at the English Channel because, as Ann Sayer noted in her diary, “The ferry booking had not been made, but the boat not full so we got on.”
Their first overnight stop was at Louvain in Belgium where Ann recorded that, “Zona and Viv did early morning exercises in a school playground and Penny went running and fell flat on her face on hotel steps.” On reaching Wurzburg, their stopping point the next night, a woman whom they asked for directions to the hotel gave them each a damson from her basket (as well as directions, I think). Other on-bus entertainment was apparently included, “Teaching Penny to say, ‘Two eggs for breakfast, please’ in German,” a phrase which she can still remember today and says came in useful when she was taking the GB squad to events in Germany in later years!
When they reached the German side of the Czech border the German guards advised them to head back a few miles to the nearest filling station as there wasn’t one on the Czech side between there and Prague. With the bus’s tank full, they then had a long wait at the frontier but kept themselves amused by chucking a ball around, which they somewhat riskily described as “bomb throwing” and playing a board game called Careers. Penny says she hated board games and so quickly worked out how to be ‘sent to the park bench’ (the equivalent of going to jail in Monopoly) to avoid playing.
Zona Howard described how it felt that the temperature dropped when they finally crossed into Czechoslovakia, “We were all silent because there was these open ploughed fields and towers with soldiers in the top of them with guns and this huge barbed wire fence. A gate was opened in it and we drove through. And I remember that all the guns were facing inwards as if they were wanting to stop people getting out but it just made you realise what the iron curtain was all about. It was the sort of picture that you see in all the prisoner of war films – fields cleared before the trees so that they could spot anybody trying to get through, which was not a very pleasant feeling, I must say.”
At one point, when the team had stopped for lunch somewhere in Germany, in a further wonderful example of Things That Just Wouldn’t Happen Nowadays, cox Margaret McKendrick got chatting to the driver who asked, “‘Have you ever driven a bus?,’ because he knew I could drive a car. And I said, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘The bus is in the car park, come and have a go.’ It’s most disconcerting, of course, because the engine is in the rear, so there’s a time lag in everything you do.”
Local river users weren’t always prepared to respect the disruption to their river caused by the installation of the five lane course that had been put in for the event. Margaret remembers suddenly spotting a fisherman in front of her in lane three whilst the crew was doing a full-course piece during training. As Frances Bigg put it, “The situation was appreciated and brakes applied at the very last minute he had no right to be there and the Czech from the bank (and boat) was violent.”
Worse, as Penny recalls, when the single scullers went out for their final there was another moored on the course, and so they all had to return to the boating rafts, wait while he was persuaded to leave and then go back out to the start.
Having arrived on Sunday, 13 August, the crew had plenty of time for acclimatisation training. Unexpected anglers aside, this went well for the four. By the Tuesday morning, Ann noted that the crew was, “More solid; getting the feel of the strong following conditions” (the course was with the stream). Then potential disaster struck on the Thursday when Pauline Baillie Reynolds strained a muscle around her ribs and was told not to row for 24 hours. Their heat was scheduled for Friday afternoon. “We thought we were going to have to scratch,” remembers Margaret McKenrick. However, with good British ingenuity, she strapped a thick sports sock over the affected area to protect it from her outside hand hitting it at the finish, got Frances Bigg to sub for their Friday morning paddle, and managed to race.
Racing and results
Penny Chuter (fourth out of nine)
A tough first-round draw saw Penny up against Alena Postlova of Czechoslovakia and Gisela Jaeger of East Germany, both of whom had beaten her by reasonable margins earlier in the Summer. With only one crew going straight to the final and Postlova out in front, Jaeger actually tried to come last in order to ‘play the system’, in the manner so derided at the Championships the previous year, to avoid the Dutch sculler Marian Luderus in the repechage. But she mis-timed it, and actually finished 0.24 seconds ahead of Penny, but both of them went on to win their repechages by several seconds the next day (Jaeger beat Luderus), so the attempted gamesmanship proved unnecessary.
In the five-boat final, according to Ann Sayer’s and Pauline Baillie Reynolds’ report in the British Rowing Almanack, “Miss Chuter lay last at 500m but put in a tremendous spurt to overhaul Jaeger, and very nearly caught the Russian (who finished third). She was the only sculler to do a faster time over the second half of the course.”
Ann Sayer wrote in her rowing diary, “Penny most narked after final because she was the only one who finished not completely exhausted. At 850m she was trailing dismally – a splendid spurt almost brought her up to ‘moping Minnie’ of Russia.” The team had taken to referring to Zossia Rakitskaya as ‘moping Minnie’ because she, “Absolutely never smiled and never communicated, and was always incredibly serious,” Penny says, although at the end of the regatta she gave her British opponent a present of what Ann described as “an egg cup for a dinosaur’s egg.”
Penny’s abiding memory of the race relates to what happened at the end of it. At that time, she says, the drugs of choice of cheating endurance athletes were amphetamines which “remove the pain barrier, and it’s only the pain barrier which stops you exercising yourself to death”. The effect of the drug is quite short-lived, so it needs to be taken in a particular time window before the race if it’s to work. But, as you may remember, the start of the single sculls final was delayed but nearly an hour because of a fisherman anchored on the course… As Penny explains, “If anyone had been on amphetamines that year then they would have taken them before they went out at a point that they’d worked out would be right for them to be at their best for the race time. So we went out but the race had to be postponed. We all had to paddle back in and wait an hour whilst the fisherman was removed. So when we went out to race the final, anyone who had been on amphetamines would have either had to decide to take a second dose, which would have been very dangerous, or not in which case they wouldn’t have had the big benefit.”
Penny is quite convinced that one of the medalists must have taken a second set of drugs as what she remembers happening is that the sculler fell in straight after finishing – in itself not terribly unusual – and two launches immediately dashed out from the boating pontoon to go to her assistance, which was unusual for the time as there there weren’t safety boats poised to rush to the rescue as there are now. She goes on, “And in those days you got two medals. You got the medal that was hung round your neck [on the raft – the competitors didn’t get out of the boat] and you got a bigger medal that was supposed to be for the federation [which was] collected by the athlete in the evening. Well, from the time she was pulled out of the water, we never saw her again. She was taken away in an ambulance and didn’t turn up that evening! So, there’s no absolute proof, but it… seemed to me, that everything was ready, that it was expected that she might fall out of her boat at the end.”
Coxed Four (fifth out of six)
The British four drew Russia and Czechoslovakia in their first round. With only one crew to qualify directly to the final, and the Russians being the dominant force in women’s rowing, the Brits applied their key learning from previous multilane racing and just paddled in, although they still finished second ahead of Czechoslovakia which they were rather pleased about. While this approach seems obvious now, British rowers just weren’t used to thinking about multilane tactics; with no course in Britain, they never needed to.
The four-boat repechage was clearly critical, with three to qualify for the final, “The Germans jumped the start and were not recalled. Much incensed, the British set off in pursuit and a magnificent race developed,” explained Ann and Pauline in their article for the Almanack, with Ann adding in her diary that, “Our astonishment left us speechless at seeing GB four going like clappers from the start in the repechage and at seeing GB, Germany and Hungary level at 850m.” The British crew finished third, beating Czechoslovakia again, and qualified for the final. They discussed making an official protest about the German false start but, according to Ann Sayer, decided not to, “On hearing that it would mean a re-row!”
Sadly, “In the final, Britain could not reproduce this form. They were left badly at the start, could not raise the rating sufficiently to get on terms… and then finished last,” according to a report in the Almanack.
It’s worth noting that the only Western competitors at these Championships were the three crews of the British team, plus the Belgian and Dutch single scullers. Penny and the coxed four were therefore the only Western finalists, and all the medals went to the Eastern bloc.
After the final, Margaret McKendrick remembers how the five crews (USSR, Rumania, Germany, Hungary and GB) did a lap of honour in front of the stands in the ‘Water Stadium’; “When they [the Eastern bloc crews] went round in front of the grandstand the crowds were quite silent, and when we got there they stood up and cheered even though we hadn’t medaled. We were the only crew from Western Europe who got into the finals. And they knew we were not on drugs.” Pauline Baillie Reynolds adds, “We shouted out, ‘Why are you cheering us?’ and the reply was ‘Because you’re HERE’. There were very few Western crews.”
Double scull (sixth out of six)
The double struggled against particularly high-quality opposition, with double sculls regularly posting faster times than coxed fours during the first two days of racing when there was a headwind.
As Ann and Pauline succinctly put it in their Almanack report, the British crew, “Had a tough draw and a poor row,” in their heat which contained two of the three eventual medalists with only the winner qualifying directly for the final. Vivien recorded the details of what happened in her rowing diary; “Start not good – self not really ready! Apparently rating 40 at end of 1 minute and 36 after 2 minutes. Did not feel really strong, rather rushed.” At 500m gone, they were only 0.6 sec behind Czechoslovakia in second place, but the Czechs then clearly pushed on to try and bag the single qualifying spot (which they failed to do) and GB were over 13 seconds behind them at the end.
They went out for the repechage feeling “reasonably confident,” as Vivien put it, that they could qualify for the final as the four and Penny had. Three of the four crews would get through. At half way, the Hungarians were leading, with the Czechs and Romanians very close together less than a second behind them and the British double 1.89 seconds behind Romania, after having had what Vivien described as quite a good start. They then, “Managed a burst at 800m and pulled up about one length on Romania but [were] unable to sustain last [less than] 10 odd strokes – just did not make it. Finish of stroke downfall, thing to work on [next] year.”
Around the Championships
The team were all impressed by the modern boathouses which they’d heard had been built by local rowing club members. The spacious accommodation for boats with plenty of handling space and sliding racks was a vast improvement on the cramped, damp buildings many clubs used on the Tideway in London.
The central location of the course was iconic for the competitors and good for attracting spectators but didn’t leave much room for manoeuvre on the water. As Zona Howard explains, “Racing with the flow, you had to stop fairly fast or you went into the Charles Bridge!”
“Every competitor was presented with a very nice cut glass beaker (with the crest),” Team Manager Frances noted. These were apparently also given to two of their party who were really there as spectators but were on the official list as team doctor and physio. “We decided to rob the doc and physio on behalf of Mr Miroy [Penny’s coach] and Sir [their name for Frank Harry].”
East Germans told off
Until 1966, FISA only permitted entries from a single German team, known just as ‘Germany’, so crews from East and West Germany raced off privately before the championships to determine which country would compete in each boat class. Ann Sayer noted at the time that some East Germans had raced their heat in green club shirts and blades with the East German emblem on them. This earned them the wrath of FISA president Thomi Keller who made them race their next round in their white national colours and with German blades, and remove the East German flag they had put up. The latter “reappeared the next day but had to be removed again,” as Ann recalls.
The unexpected fan base at the British Embassy
The East German rowers weren’t the only ones engaging in East-West points scoring cheekiness though, with British diplomats finding a sudden fascination with rowing. As Margaret McKendrck recalls, “I think the entire population of the British Embassy used to come down [to watch]. They all had minders – men in long raincoats and felt hats –and they said, ‘Our minders don’t like rowing,’ so they used to come down every day!”
The GB team agreed to take part in a medical survey of competitors at the Championships, which Ann Sayer and Pauline Baillie Reynolds wrote about later in The Oarswoman:
The Czech sports authorities work in very close cooperation with the medical profession…. if the doctors feel that someone is putting excess strain on any one set of limbs or muscles, he or she is advised how to counteract this, or possibly even changed to another sport.
While the Championships were in Prague, the staff of the Sports Medical Institute, which exists specifically for sporting ailments and research, took the opportunity to invite all the visiting teams to come and have a free medical examination. The British duly went, and endured examinations incomparably more thorough than any we had ever undergone at home. It lasted about three hours, and we were left with the impression that in Czechoslovakia, most of us would have been quietly redirected to some less demanding sport, or even advised against sport at all! While appreciating and impressed by the care taken over the physical health of sportsmen, we nonetheless felt that we preferred choosing our sports for ourselves, even if we were puny by Czech standards, and we would rather do what we wanted, however physically unsuited, than be pushed into a sport to which we had no leanings.
Margaret McKendrick adds, “[It] was an absolute hoot because most of the staff in the hospital had actually done some time in London hospitals so they all spoke English. We’d never ever had anything like that done. I had the smallest lung capacity of the lot. Largely I think because I was laughing so much I couldn’t breathe out. Ann Sayer had the biggest lung capacity of [all competitors] at the championships [including those from other countries]. But as she subsequently became the president of the Long Distance Walkers Association and held the record for walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, perhaps it’s not surprising. They presented us with a list of illnesses and if you’d had any of those you weren’t allowed to row. And between us we’d had the lot!”
Frances Bigg was amused that, “I was the only symmetrical one,” for which she gives credit to her physio Mrs Watts, and that the doctors took quite some persuading that she had had polio (contracted on the journey out to the European Championships in Duisburg in 1957) until she got to breathing tests, as the illness had left her with reduced lung capacity .
All of the competitors were housed in a student hostel, and Ann Sayer was struck by national differences when it came to nightwear; “The GB team were flitting to the wash room in frilly pyjamas [while the] Romanians were in very functional white vests and pants.”
The Romanians, however, had the upper hand when it came to knowing what to do with some red pimento peppers in their welcome fruit basket, which had totally baffled the Brits. As Margaret McKendrick explained, “The peppers hanging from the ceiling [in the photo below] were in bags of fruit given to the competitors. We probably knew about cooking peppers but nothing else. That was when we got really friendly with the Romanians. They piled into our room and fell about laughing about the peppers. Romanian school French was about the same as English school French so we conversed in fractured French. They took down a pepper, took out the seeds, cut it into strips and made us eat it. We didn’t know they could be eaten raw.”
Having made friends with the Romanians over the peppers, Margaret McKendrick remembers that the Romanians were more surprised about how the British team trained than the Brits were about how the Eastern bloc trained:
Romanians: “What do you do in the winter?”
Brits: “We row!”
Romanians: “You don’t want to row in the winter! Come and join us at our winter camp because we ski.”
Brits: “But we all work.”
Romanians: “You don’t mean that you actually work?”
Brits: “Yes, we actually work!”
Romanians: “We’ve just got job titles. We’re Sports Clerks.”
In general, Zona Howard remembers that, “Everybody was very, very friendly. They looked after us well and when we walked about with our blazers on people would come up and say, ‘You are English, I went to London once, what’s it like now?’ And they wanted to know things and you sort of felt how awful to be kept in a regime like this, it made you quite humble.”
Whatever privations their fellow citizens were suffering, the organisers had provided plenty for the competitors to eat. “Meat was a bit tough, but fair enough!” remembers Zona, whilst Ann and Pauline were impressed that different dishes were provided for those from Eastern, Central or Western Europe.
Ann and Pauline accurately summed up their conclusions on the reasons for GB’s lack of medals as “much the same as last year, only intensified.” Although the lack of a multilane course in the UK was one handicap, the real problem was the low standard of women’s rowing in Britain (frankly, the standard of men’s rowing at the time was no better as a result of how it was approached, supported, and practiced). This meant that not only were there no significant opportunities for GB crews to get meaningful racing domestically but, more importantly, there was only a very small pool of potential international oarswomen to draw from.