The 18th Women’s European Rowing Championships took place at Lake Bagsvaerd in Copenhagen from 13-15 August, shortly before the men’s Championships there on 18-25 August.
There were 49 entries from 17 countries including the USA. The men’s event attracted 116 crews from 27 countries.
The event also included a demonstration coxless pairs race to seek evidence that women could successfully steer and compete in a coxless sweep-oared boat.
Racing was over 1,000m, the distance set by FISA when it first introduced international women’s rowing in 1951.
1971 saw a major piece of progress in British rowing with the unofficial opening of our first purpose-built multi-lane rowing course at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham. Although the surrounding buildings weren’t ready until 1972, the rowing lake was available for GB trials which could, at last, be held in an environment identical to that in which the winners would compete.
Christine Davies, who had represented GB at the 1964 and 1970 Championships, remembers that the unfinished landscaping round the course was quite challenging, “There were these selectors charging around with their stopwatches. And one in particular, whose name I can’t remember, always wore makeup and her face was [covered with] all this mud and dust stuck all over her face!”
The Selectors were Frances Bigg, Hazel Freestone, Eleanor Lester, Barbara Philipson, Irene Saunders and Marrian Yates – the same group as the previous year minus Julie Johnson.
The Women’s Amateur Rowing Council’s report on 1971 in the Almanack notes that, “Sculling in all its forms has again occupied a lot of our attention this year because once more this side of the sport seems to have attracted those people who had aspirations to go to the Championships.”
Christine remembers another would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-important incident at one of these trials, “It must have been that year that I think it was Christine Peer and someone else [probably Elaine Steckler] who were competing against us in the trials for the double scull and they said it was going to be best of three. So we did the first one and beat them by 10 sec and did the second one and beat them by 15 sec, and they were going to give us a third race!” Being a lecturer in mathematics, Christine gently explained to the Selectors why this wasn’t necessary.
Diana Preston, who eventually got into the GB team the following year, remembers being part of an ultimately unsuccessful initiative led by Jean Rankine of United Universities and coached by John Langfield to try and be selected as a quad that year. “Jean bought a boat because the available boat was far too heavy for our very, very small crew. I think an average of nine stone, if that. So she had a boat built by Bill Colley. We went to Ostend, which was filthy… it was well-known as an awful, smelly regatta.” They also went to Amsterdam regatta, where Jean, who speaks fluent German, recalls that they happened to be in the changing room at the same time as some East Germans who started discussing which of the British women must be the cox. “They got the wrong one,” she says. There were trials on the Desborough Cut in Weybridge but, as Diana explains, “But we didn’t do the [standard] time so we didn’t go anywhere that year.”
That year Margaret was living and working in Liverpool, while Christine was in south west London. They used to train separately in their singles, only getting together for odd weekends and for a few days before the trials.
“[Margaret] used to row from Runcorn RC on the canal and we got permission to use this double there to train in. Absolutely dreadful double. How we could ever think of this as being preparation for serious stuff I’ve no idea,” Christine remembers. “So then we ordered a double from Edwin Phelps. [But] we had got the matter of where we kept it. And there was no room at Staines which was where I was [training], but we got permission to… keep it at Walton, the men’s rowing club there. And we collected this boat from Edwin and took it down to the river with this big beam [on his face] and he put it on the water and it sat there with its riggers out – beautifully balanced boat. And so we got in and what we were going to be doing was sculling it from Putney to Walton, because how else could we get it there?!”
This is a distance of about 32km.
Christine continues, “We sculled from Putney up to – I’ll say Mortlake, I could have said Chiswick, but Putney to Mortlake sounds good – and she stopped and said, ‘Christine, you’re not going to like this, I’ve left my keys down at Putney!’ So we had to scull all the way back to Putney to pick up these things that she’d left and set off again [an extra 14k or so]. So by the time we’d got to Hampton Court, the lock there was all packed up and gone home for the night so we had to portage our double round the lock!” Not something any of the 21st century’s GB doubles have ever had to do…
However, they really did love the boat. “You know how uncomfortable seats can get?”, she says. “Well, Edwin Phelps, when he was building a boat for people, he used to measure the distance between your pelvic bones and the seat was made for you. So it was perfectly comfortable! He was a real craftsman. It was scary getting in this boat because it was so beautifully light and responsive – you used to come forward and think ‘Don’t fall out of this!'”
Interestingly, some time later Margaret mentioned to Phelps that when they’d been in other boats together, “Whenever Christine’s adjusting the steering I can feel it. In your boat I can’t feel a thing,” and Christine remembers that, ” He just smiled and said, ‘I put the fin in the right place!'”
She adds, “His boats responded well on the Tideway. I had a single from him as well but on the Tideway you get debris and some boats, [and] if they’re not made properly, the skin is actually under tension and the slightest little hit and it fractures. His didn’t – they’d just bounce over it.”
Equipped with this top-quality boat, they caught the eye of National Coach Bob Janousek, possibly at trials. “He was confident we’d be in the final,” Christine recalls. “He said after that it’s a lottery who gets the medals really. But he was very, very happy with us.”
The course in Copenhagen has a reputation for being windy and, as a result, frequently unfair. It’s on a natural lake and in order to fit in the required distance it runs along a straightish part of the shore, so Lane 6 is reasonably sheltered, particularly if the wind is coming from the north or north east, and Lane 1 is out in the middle of the lake.
According to the report of the Championships in the Almanack (the author of which is not identified), “Conditions on the first day were difficult with a strong headwind,” although the windspeeds recorded in the results for all events on the first day are “nil”. It would seem likely that the anecdotal report is the right one – you could imagine that the windspeed hadn’t been recorded officially for the first day, and a dash had been put in the field for it in the results sheet, and somehow this had been interpreted as “nil” rather than “not measured”.
The double’s first round heat comprised of four boats with three to go straight to the semi-final. The GB crew were in Lane 1, which the report describes as the most exposed, and they came fourth.
The windspeed noted in the Almanack for the repechage was 0.8 m/s southerly. Meteorological conventional is to give the direction wind is coming from, so a southerly wind comes from the south towards the north, and on the east to west Bagsvaerd course this would suggest a cross wind, which should mess up the water for all lanes equally. This doesn’t really fit with Christine’s memory of what happened next and without further sources available, it’s hard to come to a firm conclusion about the impact of conditions or potential unfairness.
The four boats in the repechage finished within 2.73 seconds of each other – the closest race of the whole championships – but the British double was fourth and with only three crews progressing to the semi finals, they were eliminated.
As Christine remembers it, “It was awful. It was so sad. There were some lanes that were quite close to the shore that got a certain amount of protection and it got worse and worse [the further you were form the shore] and in the most important race we were in the outside one. Sitting there on the start, if we exerted maximum power we could keep our boat straight. It was as bad as that. We had no shelter. And we really worked ourselves – we really tried our best.”
She continues, “There are two things I can tell you: one is that by the time we finished – I’m saying it for me and I think it must have been true for the two of us – but we had absolutely given our all. I’m very good at giving my all. My kneecaps had gone blue and apparently what happens is your body has a way of shutting down the digestive system first which is why you don’t want to eat, and then if it’s really under stress, it cuts down the blood supply to the skin. But we were so shattered at the end of that it was I don’t know how long before we could get to the shore. They actually sent out a first aid boat but we said, ‘No, we’re alright.’ But the other countries were just so upset. They had seen what a good crew we were and they said you should have been in the final. To have other teams in tears because we didn’t get through…”
The double were therefore given the official result of ‘unplaced’ from 13 crews as there was no C final.
Interestingly, The FISA Centenary Book mentioned that, “A contract had been signed to televise racing,” and there was certainly at least one later case documented where racing went ahead in bad conditions when it should have been postponed because of pressure from a TV company to fill their live schedule. There’s no documentary evidence that this happened here, but it’s certainly possible.
The USSR was the top country again, wining three golds and a silver. East Germany won one gold, two silvers and a bronze. Romania won the coxed quads.
Around the Championships
Away from the unfairness of the course and their disappointment in the results, Christine has some fond memories of the Championships, “It was a nice… They used to organise things; we had a night out at the Tivoli Gardens – all paid for – which was lovely.” All competitors were given souvenir t-shirts, as they had been in Hungary, but the Danish organisers had upped the game and also presented them with the commemorative glasses pictured at the top of this page.
Christine also enjoyed getting to know competitors from other countries; “You used to know all the people in those days as well. Margaret had met the single scullers on previous occasions. And we used to have natters with the Hungarian single sculler and I think the first time she’d got a medal they’d given her a flat and the second time they’d given her a trip to London.”
The ARA International Fund accounts in the Almanack show that £554.73 was spent on the women’s team that year.
Seeking positives about domestic rowing in Britain, the Almanack reported that twelve crews raced at the WARC Eights Head, which was “very satisfactory” given that a postal strike had made the process of entering difficult. It also noted that, “School crews… entered events wherever they were offered, and are now providing some very good racing.” On the other hand, it also observed that, “The number of women rowing does not seem to have increased,” and that, “A good deal of work was put into Sculling Training Weekends during in the winter, but unfortunately this did not strengthen the entry for sculling events. Indeed, the [WARC] Scullers Head fell to one firm entry, and it has now been decided to remove this event from the calendar.”
Our men’s rowing was doing no better internationally either and there had even been some suggestion that there wouldn’t be a team at all for the European Championships, although in the end a full team was sent which on the face of it, seems a surprisingly full-on alternative to not sending anyone at all. No finals were reached, and the Almanack report on the men’s Championships concludes, “Twenty years without a gold medal is dreadfully long for a one-time major rowing nation.”