1963 Women’s European Rowing Championships

The tenth Women’s European Rowing Championships took place in Moscow from 6-8 September 1963 on the Khimki reservoir over 1,000m.

The men’s Championships had been in Copenhagen in mid-August: this was the second and last occasion when the two European Championships were in different locations. Margaret McKendrick, who coxed GB crews in 1960-62 and 1964-65, believes the women’s event wasn’t in Copenhagen because the Danes refused to host a women’s event again after some bad behaviour by the Dutch at the 1953 International Women’s Regatta there.

33 crews entered from 11 countries which was two crews fewer but one country more (Bulgaria) than the previous year. Regrettably, with racing in five lanes, this meant that three of the five events – the eights, the coxed fours and the double sculls – were straight finals.

The team

The 1963 team comprised just three people and two boats: the 1962 silver medalist Penny Chuter in the single scull and the established United Universities double of Zona Howard and Vivien Roberts.

The lack of other crews came down to the cost of getting there, which was largely self-financed although the Amateur Rowing Association, with which the Women’s ARA had now merged, did contribute £389.1.3 towards transport. The United Universities sweep group had a “showdown” in late March about whether they should go or not, as Ann Sayer recorded in her training diary, and the consensus (which was not unanimous) was that they would not go. That said, two others of the group, Marrian Yates (who spoke Russian) and Barbara Philipson went as spectators.


Vivien Roberts recorded the double’s thinking in the front of her rowing diary for the 1962-63 season:

After missing final by such a narrow margin last year we decided that one more year must be attempted but that it was useless without a coach. Freddie [Page, Hon. Secretary of the ARA] was duly consulted and Richard Burnell approached. He undertook to coach us, worked on a training programme for land and boat, and periodically coached us from the bank.

They resumed their training in November 1962 – equipped with new riggers (at a cost of £8.18.9) – but then suffered when they were unable to row for eight weeks in January and February 1963 because the river in Reading was frozen solid during one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century.

Overall, their training programme involved fewer sessions than in the previous two years with only two outings per weekend, possibly so that they could prioritise quality over quantity. The previous July, in the run up  to the Championships, Vivien had recorded in her diary that, “Ronnie [Zona’s brother, a former OUBC President] says doing too much – must drop work since exhausting ourselves and not doing anything well.”

They also swapped seats because, “I just wondered if it would make a difference,” Zona says.

Early season regattas

According to an unidentified newspaper clipping, “Miss Chuter has managed to compete this summer in Prague, where she again finished second to the reigning champion Miss Alena Postlova of Czechoslovakia, although sculling in a borrowed boat; in Duisburg where she won two events against the West German, Netherlands and Belgian champions; and in Amsterdam where she finished second to the French champion when probably suffering from too much work. The double have competed in Ostend, where they beat the Belgian champions [and won], and in Essen where they had boat trouble and were unsuccessful.”

As this was the fourth year that these three athletes had competed internationally, the novelty appears to have worn off and their enthusiasm for putting together photo albums about their racing seems to have waned. As a result, there are no pictures of any of these races, but other members of UU have kept photos of the rare sight of Penny doing sweep rowing – they’d persuaded her to come out in some of their crews for a bit of fun.

1963 Welsh Harp Regatta UU eight coming in to landing stage

Penny Chuter at 4 in the UU eight after winning at Willesden Regatta in May. (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

1963 Serpentine regatta UU coxed four

The UU coxed four that won at the News of the World sprints on the Serpentine. Bow: Vivien Roberts, 2: Dorothea Cockett (nee Newman who was in the GB eight in 1954 and 1957) , 3: Zona Howard, Stroke: Penny Chuter, Cox: Joyce Guthrie. Penny sculled over to win the singles; Zona and Viv also won the doubles by a row over. (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

Although Penny had ‘solved’ the challenge of finding suitable racing experience by going abroad, she was still struggling to find the land training facilities that her researches had shown her she needed. A feature-type article by Brian Glanville (mostly a football correspondent, who described Penny as “a fine, big blonde” which is not the kind of thing rowing correspondents tend to say) in the Sunday Times on 19 May, explained that; “Miss Chuter would like to use weights, like Postlova but ‘I have written to ask everybody and I just can’t find anybody who has a circuit training class. I’ve tried to do the ordinary circuit training without weights, but obviously you can’t improve your strength without them – not in this modern age.'” A solution was eventually found the following year.

Getting there

Getting people to Moscow was relatively straightforward: the three competitors flew, while Marrian and Barbara went by train.

The boats had rather more of an adventure. Through a connection that has not been recorded, Becket School (in Nottingham) lent their small trailer which took the two boats and six blades rather neatly, and Zona Howard “gallantly volunteered her car”, as ARA Freddie Page put it in the Almanack. The car in question was a VW Beetle. It was driven to Moscow by Freddie with co-drivers Len Andrews (an Oxford college boatman) and Jack Arlett (a professional boat transporter who had not long returned from driving the men’s team’s boats to and from Copenhagen). Top Gear road trips are like going to the shops in comparison.

1963 Moscow trailer

Note the cute little single axle too. (Photo: Zona Hardy’s personal collection.)

The idea of a Beetle, whose engine was probably no more than 1,200cc, undertaking a 1,700 mile drive is outrageous enough, but factor in the trailer and the weight of three strapping men aboard too, and it’s a miracle it made it there, never mind back. Although actually, as Zona recalls, “They got it back in one piece but the car died. I took it to the garage to have a service and they said that really, the East European petrol hadn’t done it any good.”

The trailer party enjoyed finding themselves in the company of the Dutch contingent for some of the way, but struggled with “delays at frontiers, a fractured shoulder (boat, not human) and competition with horse-drawn vehicles along the cobbled roads of Poland”.

Good wishes

Just before leaving the UK, Penny got a postcard from ‘UU in Greece’ which said, “The expedition has arrived in Greece. The sun shines all the time, the sea is warm, the sky is blue, the scenery is beautiful and the people very friendly. We’ve spent the last two days sunbathing and swimming. The best of good luck in Russia – we’ll all be thinking of you.”

Once in Moscow the tiny British team received a further flurry of good luck messages including telegrams from UU, Alpha Women’s ARC, Laleham Skiff and Punting Club and Amy Gentry, the Chair of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association, as well as one from Zona’s brother Ronnie which had got amusingly mis-spelled in translation and said, “Good luck and good scullink” (you’ll get it if you say it in a Russian accent). There were also a card from Eleanor Lester, Vice-Chairman of the WARA.


Penny Chuter (fourth out of 11)

Penny’s first race is probably the most farcical in the history of international rowing as all five of the scullers in it had false starts and the entire race had to be re-rowed because none of the scullers stopped on the fifth false start.

As background, the official start command used back then, “Êtes vous prêtes? Partez!” was becoming increasingly discredited because the starter often failed to include a pause after the “prêtes?” which allowed competitors to anticipate the “Partez!” rather than react to it. Penny can’t remember which false start was hers, or who caused the last one but when that race went off, she says, “By then all the scullers were so ‘twitchy’ that no one stopped in spite of the fact that the umpire was waving his red flag and ringing the bell for the whole of the race. I knew the race was null and void but when I looked across no one else stopped so I kept going too.” When they got to the finish line, of course, the umpire declare ‘No race’ and a re-row was scheduled for the end of day’s racing programme which was less than an hour away.

Penny remembers the Czech physiotherapist, who spoke English, calling her over after he had finished working on his own athlete but even with his help, she says, “I definitely hadn’t recovered, but I guess neither had anyone else. In the re-row I was level with the Russian at 500m but my arms were seizing up  and it was all I could do to come second which meant going to the repechage. My riggers needed to be higher in these very choppy conditions and I rectified this for the repechage. It’s extremely difficult to make decisions on your own when you don’t have a coach to discuss things with.”

The next day Penny won the harder of the two repechages by 2.46 seconds. So far so good. However, on finals day, the weather turned hostile and, according to Penny, “It was an absolute sea so the race should not have been allowed to start,” or as Freddie Page put it, “Conditions were most unpleasant with a strong, gusty wind”.

The course at Khimki was on a natural reservoir that was considerably wider than a man-made rowing lake would be and, to give spectators a closer view, the racing lane were over on one side, which meant that for the wind direction on the finals day Lane 1 got the shelter of the bank for the second half of the course whilst Lane 6 was exposed to the worst of the wind. For the first half, all six lanes were exposed. This can clearly be seen in the footage of the finals towards the end of this film that shows highlights of the regatta (the single sculls final starts at 5’06”):

Based on kit and blade ‘colours’ (I haven’t found written evidence for this), the line up was:

Lane 1: USSR (Galina Konstantinova)
Lane 2: Great Britain (Penny Chuter)
Lane 3: Germany (Karen Wolf)
Lane 4: Hungary (Erzsebet Moser)
Lane 5: Czechoslovakia (Alena Postlova)
Lane 6: France (Renée Camu)

Konstantinova (née Samorodova), whom Penny had beaten at the Championships the previous year and in Grunau just a couple of months earlier, and Postlova had been the winners of the two first-round heats, but in those days lanes were drawn randomly for the final unlike today when lanes are allocated in a chevron pattern which puts the fastest qualifiers in the central lanes or in a diagonal ‘echelon’ pattern where they go into the most advantageous lanes when there’s a cross wind. Penny speculates that it’s a bit suspicious that the home sculler finished up in the most sheltered lane and the favourite (Postlova) was in the second worst one, “I don’t believe in random draws because it was just too good to be true,” she says.

The final clearly shouldn’t have been rowed because the conditions were far too bad – the boats that did finish were “full of water,” Penny says. Freddie Page’s later report in the Almanack recounted that:

Penny made her usual good start, and seemed to be taking the lead when a sudden gust of wind took her into the buoys and caused the Czech to capsize. Penny eventually got clear but was now last, and although she sculled on with great power and determination she could only overtake the German to finish fourth, missing third by 0.16 seconds.

The film clip shows how close the German got to her as she was extracting herself from the buoy (which was not the size of buoy you’d want on a rowing course) and she initially gets going again ahead of Wolf, but then hits another buoy and she must have slipped back because the 500m times show her as being 1.3 seconds down on the German. You can certainly see Penny shoving down some massive finishes as she approaches the line, though, and her time for the second half of the course was the fastest of all of them by over two seconds.

It’s also worth noting that at the time Penny hit the buoy it appears that the six scullers are in lane order – the Russian in Lane 1 is leading, Penny in Lane 2 is second, the German in Lane 3 is third and so on, although by the finish the order was Lane 1, Lane 6, Lane 4.

Penny felt both furious and let down, “The final of that race went against all the results of the international regattas that season; the only person I couldn’t beat when we went to Moscow was the Czech who fell out in Lane 5. I was still expecting that the best I could probably do was come second but with the very strong cross-headwind conditions and the Russian getting Lane 1, it was anybody’s guess. I did hit the buoys, so I couldn’t blame anybody else but I was becoming disillusioned by racing in unfair and very rough conditions which affect the smallest boats most. ”

Note: Barbara Philipson and Marrian Yates can be seen very briefly in the above film at 7.48 at the front of the crowd, looking very wet in the pouring rain on finals day.

Double (fourth out of five)

The double came fourth in their straight final, but they were over ten seconds down on the bronze medallists. Writing in Rowing magazine, Freddie Page reported that, “They still did not seem able to command the sustained high rate needed, and if they could only add this to their good style and experience, they would certainly be in the running for a medal in this event,” adding in the Almanack that, “The ability to bring their boat home in the last 250m seemed to elude them. Their style is sound, they have plenty of experience now, but they lack a little inspiration at the critical moment… If only they could develop that little more alertness they could hardly fail to gain a medal.” Zona roared with laughter when told about this comment recently, but added, “I think you need external coaching don’t you for that sort of thing,” which, of course, they didn’t really have.

1963 With Happy Haslam I think (c) CE May & Son Photographers 31 Southampton Street Reading

Zona (left) and Viv boating in Reading with the help of the Reading University boatman ‘Happy’ Haslam. © CE May and Son Photographers.

Russia won all five events for the fourth time in the ten-year history of the Championships (they had never won fewer than three).

Around the Championships

Zona Howard has various memories of non-racing aspects of the Championships:

The meat was tough – we all thought it was bear! But whether it was or not I don’t know.

We saw quite a lot of the Russian double because [one of them] spoke impeccable English so we became very friendly. Daina Mellenbergua she was. I kept in touch with her for many years afterwards. She was a chemist and taught, and we learned quite a lot about how important it was for her to do well because the accommodation she got in Riga was dependent on how well she’d done in the Championships so there was a good deal of not exactly blackmail incentive to do well. And of course they had training camps and all sorts of things. But she was quite open about it and she always used to boast, ‘I’m not Russian I’m Latvian’.

By now, Penny was quite a seasoned visitor of Eastern bloc countries and she was very aware of the differences between them; “Having been in Prague and East Berlin and Moscow, the East German situation was the worst by far, but it wasn’t good in Czechoslovakia either, and if I compare the three Moscow was probably the best because they were the dominant nation and they were controlling the East Germans and every other communist country as well.”

She also remembers that, “We were told to mind our ‘Ps and Qs’ and there would be microphones in all the bedrooms. There was one floor – always the same one – of all Moscow hotel or residential tower blocks where the lift never stopped and you couldn’t get to on the stairs either that was where all the recording equipment and all the security was based.” But she adds, “I was a bit of a rebel and I took the James Bond book From Russia with Love as a paperback and gave it to our guide, Boris, when our ‘minders’ weren’t looking.”

An important decision from FISA

An unidentified press clipping at the time noted that, “One lesson from the European Championships seems to have been learnt. The five-abreast course at Copenhagen made such nonsense of the repechage system that FISA have now decided that all international regattas are to be rowed in six lanes.” This applied to the Women’s European Rowing Championships too from 1964 onwards.

And an import merger in British rowing

On 1 January 1963 the Women’s ARA formally merged with the ARA; at long last there was a single governing body for fine boat rowing in Britain (the National ARA having merged with the ARA in 1956). The committee of the WARA became the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council within the ARA. The writer of the ‘Review of 1963’ in the Almanack can be forgiven for commenting that, “This was the only apparent sign of change,” although this overlooks the financial contribution that was consequently provided for the Women’s European Championships team’s expenses, but still, it was a step forward that was a pre-requisite to improvements in later years.

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