The 1977 World Rowing Championships took place in Amsterdam from 20-27 August. 66 crews from 18 countries took part in the women’s events, which was up slightly on the entries at the previous year’s Olympic Games, but lower than those at the first two World Championships incorporating women in 1974 and 1975.
This was the first Worlds where all three categories of racing – open and lightweight men’s and openweight women’s – were integrated in the programme of racing. Previously the 1,000m women’s races were held first, followed by the men with the lightweights “slipped in somewhere between”, as Rowing magazine put it, which had led to the women’s racing having a certain feeling of being less important and also often being under-reported as journalists were only sent by their newspapers to cover the openweight men’s events at the end of the regatta.
Setting the scene
After the first three years of women’s inclusion in the World Championships and Olympic Games, and the formation of new GB women’ squad run by Penny Chuter, the 1977 season was the start of a new era, to some extent, for the British women’s team.
Penny was no longer running the squad, new athletes came in, and more coaches became involved to the extent that each of the four crews which competed at the 1977 World Championships had separate coaches for the first time. There was also a new focus on crew sculling.
Penny’s changed role
Penny’s duties as one of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA)’s National Coaches changed in the autumn of 1976 following Principal National Coach Bob Janousek’s resignation from the ARA and specific responsibility for the GB women’s squad no longer appeared on her – or anyone else’s job description. She took on more of Bob’s coach education work, including regional work, coaching award scheme lecturing, and the development of the Gold Coaching Award amongst other things.
As a result of this and other structural changes at the ARA, for the 1977 season there wasn’t actually a single individual leading the GB women’s rowing team, which instead came under the remit of the new International Rowing Committee with trials organised by the Selectors. Liz Lorrimer, who had competed at the World Championships in 1974 and 1975, became Chairman of Selectors, and Maureen ‘Mo’ Thomson was appointed Team Manager. Both of these were volunteer roles.
“After Bob left, I wanted all of our squads to focus more on crew sculling, as opposed to single sculling,” Penny Chuter explains. Sue Handscomb, who had rowed in the eight at the World Championships in 1975 but embraced sculling in the 1976-77 season, largely because she had to remembers, “At the end of one of the early trials weekends we were told, ‘We’re going to concentrate on sculling this year. So if you want to be selected you need to get in a sculling boat.’ I bought a sculling boat from Shiplake College and I’d go out in the morning a couple of times a week before work – getting in as much as 45 mins if I was lucky!”
Training and assessment
As was the usual practice at the time, the 1977 GB women’s squad didn’t start training officially until early October 1976, over two months after the Olympic regatta had ended.
According to an article by Irene Saunders, Vice-Chairman of the Amateur Rowing Association’s Women’s Rowing Committee, in Rowing magazine, “Because women’s rowing has some ground to catch up to reach the same standard as the ARA teams [by which she meant the GB men’s crews, but this choice of phrase does highlight the lack of integration in the international programmes at the time – Ed.] the squad system will continue, although there is now no National Coach with responsibility for coaching women’s crews.” Quite why the disparity in performance levels between GB women’s and men’s rowing should be given as the only reason for using a squad approach is unclear, but this somewhat baffling comment may just have been a hastily penned phrase and no more should be read into it.
The first phase of the training programme, written by Penny Chuter, involved running on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with general endurance circuits on Wednesdays too, rowing at weekends, and Tuesdays and Fridays off.
First Nottingham training/trials weekend (30-31 October 1976)
21 women attended this ‘formation weekend’ including all but one (Diana Bishop) of the seven women (including cox Pauline Wright) who had competed at the Olympics in Montreal as well as five others who had been in the GB crews for the World Championships in 1974 and 1975, and a promising number of newcomers too.
Following this weekend, the training programme stepped up to six days a week and included a lot more weights.
Second Nottingham training/trials weekend (5-6 December 1976)
Based on the results of both the October and this December weekend, the Selectors invited twelve women to continue to train ‘as a group in accordance with their policy statement’:
Nicola Boyes (Civil Services Ladies RC)
Jane Curry (Thames RC)
Chris Grimes (CSLRC)*
Pauline Hart (Weybridge Ladies ARC/Midland Bank)*
Catherine (Catti) Moss (CSLRC)
Gill Webb (Stuart Ladies RC)*
Rosie Clugston (CSLRC)*
Yvonne Earl (CSLRC)
Sue Handscomb (CSLRC)*
Beverley Jones (Thames RC)
Maggie Phillips (née Lambourn) (CSLRC)*
Sue Bailey (Stuart Ladies RC) – cox*
* indicated former International representation.
Returning Olympians Lin Clark and Beryl Crockford are notably not on this list but were continuing to train in their pair, which was entirely accommodated by the Selection Policy for the year which said that, “Trials for crews seeking approval to attend International Regattas will be held at Holme Pierrepont National Water Sports Centre on 23/24 April, but the Selection Board hope that any such crews or individuals will attend one of the earlier weekends.” Although a squad system was being run, this was not the only route to selection in 1977.
Beryl and Lin had asked Penny Chuter to coach them back at the start of the season, which she’d agreed to do “in her spare time” and this worked well for all of them as both rowers were full-time PE teachers. Lin’s abiding memory of the winter of the 1976-77 season is of doing very heavy weights. By now they were both very proficient weight lifters, Penny recalls, which enabled her to “load them up” in an attempt to at least come closer to the strength of their steroid-enhanced Eastern bloc opponents.
Clare Grove, another of the Olympians, is also not on the list as she had withdrawn from the squad by this point because it was impossible for her to combine the training with being at college in Dartford.
As a result, the Selectors invited newcomer Stephanie Price from Bristol Ariel RC to join the group.
A new double
GB women’s rowing acquired another recruit of a very different kind in the form of Astrid Ayling, a West German who had just moved to London after marrying GB and Kingston RC oarsman and blade maker Richard Ayling, who had won the silver medal in the doubles at the 1974 World Championships, as well as bronzes at the 1971 and 1973 European Championships.
Astrid teamed up with returning Olympian Pauline Hart (née Bird) in what began as a private venture and developed as a self-contained unit, which entirely suited the Selectors, particularly once it became clear at the January assessment that they were fast.
Pauline remembers how it started; “What happened was that I raced at Weybridge Silver Sculls in October when I had a feverish cold. I really shouldn’t have raced as it turned into pleurisy so I had about six weeks off. And in that period I got married, so I wasn’t really training with the squad, and then maybe around November, Richard Ayling floated the idea that I might like to scull in a double with Astrid, and who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity because obviously Astrid was a World silver medallist!”
The duo had a couple of outings in a boat borrowed – incredibly, for the time – at Leander (admittedly both of their husbands were members, but even so…) which showed that the idea was sufficiently worth pursuing for Richard to ask former Kingston RC coach Don Somner to take them on.
Getting straight to the point, Don’s first questions to them were, “Where are you going to row?” and “Have you got a boat?” The answers to both were “No!,” but he got them permission to use heavy old men’s boat from the ARA.
“We went up to the ARA boathouse at Hammersmith,” Don remembers, “And the boat was thick in dust it as it hadn’t been on the water in ages and we had to search round for riggers, but we eventually got out. They went up and down past where St Paul’s is, with me on a bike, but it was completely hopeless – you couldn’t see enough to coach! I think it was low tide so they were a mile away, and I said, ‘I’ve got no clue whether you’re any good but you’ve both got track records so you ought to be, but the only way this is going to work is if you come to Kingston.'”
Conveniently, according to Rowing magazine, Kingston RC had “quietly dropped any reference to ‘men only'” at its August 1976 AGM which paved the way for Astrid and Pauline became the club’s second and third female members (the wife of the highly supportive club President Jerry Oldham was the first). The fact that their changing facilities were limited to a single ladies loo seemed a small inconvenience compared with access to such excellent water.
Pauline loved it. “The ARA basically left us alone which was just fantastic, compared with my previous three years in the squad where every single session was timed and recorded, and you were constantly fighting and competing against everybody you rowed with. I could actually concentrate on my training and it was really pleasant. Astrid is obviously very strong and a really good athlete so I was training with somebody that I really liked training with and it was blissful really!”
For Astrid, the whole setup, or lack of it, was a massive change from the well-established and highly organised West German club-based programmes. “It was all so different coming from something that was functioning to something that was really starting from scratch,” she muses, but she seems to have been quite relaxed about the challenges and just enjoyed continuing to row.
Although he’d already successfully coached Kingston club crews to a high level, Don realised he needed to learn more about the training regime needed for rowing at the highest level. “I read Rudern, the East German rowing bible,” he explains, “And it became obvious to me that the secret to all of this was huge, low rating mileage. We used to do full length pieces up and down the Kingston to Hampton Court reach – sometimes twice – at ratings of 18 and 20 and we had markers every 1k where I told them, ‘You’re 5 seconds up or whatever,’ so there was always a target. And they got better and better!”
Third Nottingham assessment weekend (22-23 January 1977)
These trials involved 1,000m pieces on the Saturday and 2,000m on the Sunday in rare excellent conditions. Despite the earlier edict compulsory sculling trials, most people –apart from Astrid and Pauline who did every session in their double, and raced in pairs and coxed fours trying out various combinations, at least partly to give the newcomers the chance to row with as many of the more experienced oarswomen as possible.
Although Sue had managed to finance the purchase of her own scull by slightly reducing her hours at work to below the level where employees automatically had to pay ‘superannuation’ or pension contributions so she was able to ‘take’ home more of her pay packet. “Now that I’m 60 I’m regretting that but it seemed like a good idea at the time! ” she laughs.
Most of her other Civil Service Ladies clubmates didn’t have the means to, or didn’t really want to embrace sculling, though. Maggie Phillips remembers, “When it was announced that we were all meant to scull I thought, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ so we kept training in our four at Civil Service and someone asked Rusty Williams to come and have a look at us, and he said that we were too good to be sidelined. So we turned up at the trials in pairs and we were on par with people or relative to other boats. Chris Grimes and I quite wanted to do a pair for the Worlds, but Lin and Beryl had obviously got that slot.”
Although this weekend was compulsory for all squad hopefuls, Beryl and Lin didn’t attend in their pair because, according to a report in Rowing magazine, they couldn’t arrange transport for their boat from London. Their fellow Montreal team mate Gill Webb did take part but had actually already withdrawn from the squad so that she could concentrate on her degree coursework which she had been allowed to postpone in the run up to the Olympics.
As for the coxes, former international Sue Bailey didn’t continue her involvement with the squad that year possibly because she was still only 15 and once her Stuart Ladies clubmate Gill Webb was no longer in it, she had no way of getting to training sessions. The top cox for the year was Olympian Pauline Wright (why she’s not on the list issued after the December trials is unclear) and Liz Norman from Stratford-upon-Avon BC also joined.
A particularly promising aspect of the weekend, Rowing noted, was that more (male) coaches were offering to work with the squad with John Langfield and Rusty Williams helping the various quad and four combinations and Mike Blake from Bristol Ariel RC videoing.
Fourth Nottingham assessment weekend (5-6 March 1977)
This involved yet another set of 1k and 2k pieces as well as the customary 1,500m run, which Sue Handscomb won by three seconds from Beryl Mitchell, and which was done because the West Germans did it and it was thought to correlate to 1k rowing speed, although not all of those rowing took part in it.
In a reverse from the January weekend, the pair of Beryl and Lin were there this time but the double of Astrid and Pauline weren’t.
Christine Davies, who had been in the GB double for the European Championships in 1970-72 also participated in this assessment, along with junior sculler Bernadette Casey from Thames.
In contrast with the previous assessment, the sweep rowers stayed in fixed pairs: Beryl and Lin, of course; Chris Grimes and Maggie Phillips; and Nicola Boyes and Yvonne Earl. The Olympic pair was mostly considerably out in front, while Chris and Maggie were generally faster than Nicola and Yvonne not least, Maggie says, “Because they couldn’t steer. Nicola couldn’t see so Yvonne had to steer it and she really had no sense of direction!”
Five of the sculling group – Jane Curry, Rosie Clugston, Sue Handscomb, Beverley Jones and Catti Moss – were tried out in various combinations in the quad as well as doing pieces in singles against each other and against Christine, Stephanie and Bernadette from which no consistent winner emerged.
The racing finished with a 2k race between potential combinations:
4x+: Catti Moss/Jane Curry/Sue Handscomb/Rosie Clugston (8.42)
4+: Chris Grimes/Nicola Boyes/Yvonne Earl/Maggie Phillips (8.43)
2-: Beryl Mitchell/Lin Clark (9.00)
2x: Christine Davies/Bernadette Casey (9.26)
1x: Stephanie Price (9.55)
1x: Beverley Jones (9.57)
The fact that the quad was only a second faster than the four over double the international distance didn’t bode terribly well for the sculling crew. Maggie Phillips remembers that, at the time, a coxed quad should have been about 12 seconds faster than a coxed four over 1k (at the Worlds that year, the winning quad was 10 seconds than the winning four). Hmm.
‘Selection’ involved a three-stage process for the main squad – much as it does now, in fact. First of all the best individuals were identified and put into specific crews. Next, those boats – as well as the single scullers and privately-formed pair and double – had to achieve a ‘standard time’ to show that they were fast enough to merit being sent to early-season international regattas. Their performance at those would then determine whether they’d finally be selected to represent GB at the World Championships.
Don Somner was far from convinced by the standard time approach. “The Selectors were incredibly rigid,” he explains. “I remember being told that we had to make a particular time for 1k, so I asked how this time had been chosen, and was told that the Selectors felt that this was what they expected a double coming something like ninth at the World Championships would do. In still conditions, of course. But that would be in August and we were being asked to achieve it in April, which was just bonkers.”
The idea of using standard times to select whether or not a crew was fast enough to represent GB had been used in women’s rowing since the 1960s, but back then the only event for which crews could be selected was the European Championships, and the ‘trial’ at which crews needed to make the standard time was just a few weeks before the Championships themselves.
In 1974 and 1975 crews were also asked to make standard times in order to be selected for the World Championships, but they only needed to do this at the various early-season events in May, June or even July as they approached their peak, rather than as an entry criterion for those early regattas.
“Anyway,” says Don, “I wasn’t going to be swayed and we carried on doing our low rating stuff. I think by the time we went to the trials in March we probably went over at 28 or something like that and we did a second under the standard time. I was as surprised as anybody else because that was not on the cards! I expected us to not do it and then to have a fight with the Selectors. So we were told we were good enough to go to the early international regattas.”
The squad crews selected to race at the early season regattas were:
|Coxed quad||Coxed four|
|Catti Moss (Coached by John Langfield)|
About the quad
“And so we became the quad and it was a very slow quad,” Sue Handscomb remembers, laughing about it now, with the benefit of 40 years’ distance.
But before they were finally selected as a crew, she adds, she and some of the other women scullers would sometimes join in with the GB men’ sculling group which was being overseen by Mike Spracklen. “We would go for miles and miles and miles,” she recalls, “From Hammersmith and down to Battersea and then up to the Pink Lodge and back again in your sculling boat. And that was just your first session! As we were with the men, if you couldn’t keep up you were just left behind so if you wanted coaching you just had to try and keep up. I loved Mike Spracklen’s coaching though I didn’t get it often enough. Rosie Clugston and I had a session with him once when I remember the miles just flew by because he just had you so involved in your technique that you didn’t even notice how hard you were working.”
Once the women’s quad was formed, Spracklen handed responsibility for coaching them to his friend and Marlow RC clubmate Geoff Baker, who had also been his partner in the double at the 1958 Empire Games. Despite Geoff’s enthusiasm for his role, Sue found many of his unorthodox coaching ideas hard to work with although they’re entertaining in hindsight.
One of his suggestions was that when they were racing in rough water, they should fill the boat with balloons so that there was nowhere for the water to go. Apparently he and Spracklen had done this in 1958. Not only was the random bursting of the balloons rather off-putting, but it obviously didn’t prevent the ingress of water. The crew eventually persuaded him to tape their riggers and increase the height of the splashboards in the bows instead.
He was also experimenting with rig and technique, including coaching the crew to slide less far forwards. To stop them going past a certain point – presumably because the slides didn’t adjust – he taped matchsticks onto the front of their slide runners during one session. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to get all of the crew to understand why. “We got to the end of the session,” Sue recalls, “And he said, ‘How was that?,’ and Jane replied, ‘It was a bit difficult to start with but once I ground the matchsticks down it was fine!’ So we’d spent the outing with Jane trying to force her way over the matchsticks. No wonder we weren’t moving together!”
On another occasion, she says, he decided the best way to get us more synchronised was to tie our seats together with string so, “If you were late you were going to get tugged forwards, and if you were early you’d get tugged backwards. That evening we had a substitute cox and his commands sounded slightly different to those of our normal cox, Liz. The session was 40 (that’s not a typo!) ten stroke racing starts and on one of the quite early ones, the cox gave a command to stride or something, but Jane thought he’d said, ‘Easy.’ She stopped completely dead. Her seat stopped completely dead. And because our seats were connected, I flew through the air and landed on my coccyx on the boat and managed to crack it. And when I went to the doctor’s complaining about a sore backside, she said, ‘I can’t imagine how this happened because you’re very well covered down there!'”
Geoff was also keen on the crew doing 500m pieces with their feet out (actually a very good discipline for weight transfer at the finish – Martin McElroy’s gold medal men’s eight from the 2000 Olympics did a lot of this too). On quite a few occasions, one crew member would end up on her back in the boat, feet in the air at some point in the piece, Sue recalls, adding, “We were doing them up and down the stretch outside Kingston RC and it was a great spectacle for the KRC members to sit on the balcony, tea in hand, watching the entertainment!”
Training venues and back trouble
In the early part of 1977 the four and the pair did quite a lot of their training at Thorpe Park, near Egham in Surrey, which had a four-lane, 1,500m course buoyed out on disused gravel workings. It was owned by a company called Leisure Sport who had made it available to both the men’s and women’s squads previously and had also sponsored the men’s squad financially. Although the changing facilities were limited to bushes, it was within easy reach of London (unlike Nottingham) and certainly for the women, who raced over only 1k at the time, offered a reasonable approximation of the kind of course they’d be racing over internationally.
Unfortunately Leisure Sport withdrew the facility at the beginning of May, citing protests from local residents. The pair went back to training on the Tideway while the Four moved to Kingston where they sometimes did 500m pieces against the double on Sundays.
However, the four’s coach, Rusty Williams, was struggling with a flare-up of a chronic back problem, and was quite unable to cycle up and down with them. Instead he used to park his camper van (which he had so that he could lie down in the back of it – sometimes he couldn’t even drive it himself but a helpful friend would act as chauffeur) by Turk’s Boathouse, just down from Kingston RC where there’s a good view both up and down river, and would observe them through binoculars. They’d stop each time they passed him to get his advice, and then head off to put it into practice on the next piece.
Early season racing
Mannheim (14-15 May)
Only the pair of Beryl Mitchell and Lin Clark, and the single sculler Catti Moss competed at the first international regatta of the season but, as Rowing magazine put it, “The two women’s crews entered were at the opposite ends of the scales of success.”
Beryl and Lin won on both days from a field of four crews on the Saturday and three on the Sunday. The report of the women’s squad’s year in the Almanack records that they beat the Bulgarians who had been silver medallists at the Olympics the previous year, and certainly they did beat a Bulgarian crew on each day – by 2.5 seconds on the first day and 0.12 seconds on the second. Whether this was actually the same Bulgarian crew that raced in Montreal is not clear because Rowing described the “depth and quality” of the entry as “not great”. Still, it was, as the magazine said, “A good shot in the arm for this enthusiastic pair,” who showed, “that by sheer perseverance, improvement will come.”
Despite having won the women’s pennant at the Scullers Head a month earlier, Catti Moss failed to qualify for the final on either day in the 11-strong single sculls event but had at least made her debut on the international circuit, “Gaining valuable experience for the future,” as Rowing put it.
Salzgitter (28-29 May)
Salzgitter Regatta – near Hanover in West Germany – was a new international event for 1977 to which the cash-strapped ARA was understandably tempted to send the crews which hadn’t raced at Mannheim, after the regatta offered to finance all their entry fees and travel and accommodation costs. Unfortunately, not many other women’s crews went.
Sue Handscomb from the quad remembers, “We went to Salzgitter regatta that year but there was no opposition, which we found out just before leaving but we went anyway which was rather strange.” This was possibly because it gave them some structure which might otherwise have been lacking as Geoff Baker was on his honeymoon.
The coxed four event was hardly any better with just two crews on each day. The British were a “game second” on the Saturday but won on the second day, “With a spirited row leading virtually the whole race,” according to Rowing magazine, beating a West German crew whose line up was not necessarily the same as the one they raced later in the year.
The video below shows them racing at Salzgitter and then, at the end, training at Molesey.
The double of Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart, “Performed well on the first day,” according to Rowing, “Finishing a length down on [a] West German double [which is] probably the most experienced West German women’s crew this season.” The report continues, “On the Sunday in a difficult cross-wind, the Kingston girls just failed to qualify for the final, their rig being totally unsuitable. Coach Don Somner carried out an extensive, four-hour re-rig which he hoped, ‘Would help their race speed for Ratzeburg’.”
Ratzeburg (11-12 June)
Disappointingly, entries in most of the women’s events at the well-established Ratzeburg regatta were hardly any better than they’d been at Mannheim or Salzgitter, with only two on each day in the coxed four, two on the Saturday and three on the Sunday in the coxed quads, and three on each day in the pairs. The singles and doubles had larger fields.
In the pairs, Rowing magazine described Beryl and Lin’s two last places in their “new plastic boat” as “disappointing,” although they were within a second of coming second on each occasion.
About the double, Rowing said, “Which was erratic at Salzgitter in the rough water, proved the same in the rough at Ratzeburg,” but added, “The Saturday race [where they finished fourth but only three seconds behind the winners] showed some considerable promise in a crew which sometimes shows real speed.” On the Sunday they were fifth out of six but were well off the pace of the first three crews.
Astrid had set a new course record there of 3.28.51 in 1975, racing with her West German doubles partner Regine Adam.
The coxed four, “Fought hard against the more experienced Dutch girls,” but were beaten on both days – by nearly three seconds on the Saturday although, more promisingly, by less than one second on the Sunday.
The quad were also second on both days behind a Dutch crew, but beating a Danish one on the Sunday. Rowing observed, “The quad has tried nearly everything, but an easing of rig, probably after their low-rate performance on the Kuchensee [the lake on which Ratzeburg regatta takes place], should have helped.”
Catti Moss again didn’t make the single sculls final on either day. Rowing‘s verdict at this stage was that she, “Will need this year for experience to find her feet but is obviously very determined.”
Nottinghamshire International Regatta (25-26 June)
Apart from the doubles, which included the Bulgarian Olympic champions (Bulgaria was the few Eastern bloc countries that regularly ventured from behind the Iron Curtain to attend early season international regattas), the women’s events at NIR were notable for an almost total lack of other international crews and, in fact, for low numbers of entries altogether. As the GB squad was no doubt expecting this situation, which meant that all of the events were straight finals, all of the British crews doubled up, with the pair and double also doing a quad together, the four also doing pairs, and the quad splitting into doubles.
Lin and Beryl dominated the pairs, showing that they were clearly GB’s top sweep boat by finishing well ahead of the two halves of the coxed four, who came second and third out of five each day.
The coxed four won its own event comfortably on both days too but only against club-level opposition.
In an unidentified newspaper clipping, probably from The Guardian, Chris Dodd wrote, “There was an upset in the women’s events when the ARA quadruple scullers of Susan Handscomb, Rosemary Clugston, Beverley Jones and Jane Curry were defeated by a composite of the two other ARA crews – Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart, the double scullers who earlier could not keep in touch with the Bulgarian Olympic champions… and Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell, winners of the pairs.”
In actual fact this was hardly an upset at all as the pair and double, containing three Olympians as well as a three-times European medallist, were in a different class as athletes from the much less experienced quad. The ‘small boats’ quad won by six seconds on the Saturday and seven on the Sunday, rating considerably higher than the ‘official’ crew which Rowing magazine suggested must have been hampered by their “too severe” rigging, despite its comments after Ratzeburg that this had probably been eased.
The Bulgarians looked massively impressive in beating Astrid and Pauline by eight seconds on Saturday and 18 on the Sunday, but the GB crew finished very comfortably ahead of the doubles formed from the quad in both races.
Catti Moss won both of the singles events by clear water, with Stephanie Price finishing second on the Saturday just two seconds ahead of Christine Davies. Christine reversed this result on the Sunday, beating Stephanie by just under a second.
Lucerne (9-10 July)
After disappointing entry levels all season, Lucerne at last gave all of the GB women an opportunity to measure their pace against at least a reasonable proportion of the crews they were likely to meet at the World Championships.
“In the pairs Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell were one of the stronger starting British boats,” Rowing reported. “They had not had much in the way of good results since their opening performance in Mannheim but were keen to show that by now they had improved. Of all the British girls’ crews they finished closest to the leaders, six seconds adrift on the [East German] Olympic champions in fourth place [out of seven], also the best result.”
The double also did well against a strong field of 11 crews. “They qualified strongly for the final, and a certain sixth place looked on the cards,” according to Rowing. “In the race the double, still looking weak on the strokeside bladework, held position well before they began their finishing burst, this taking them past the Hungarians who they beat by 0.3 seconds for fifth place.”
In contrast, the four, quad and single scull found themselves not to be in the same league as many of their opponents. “The coxed four lacked the early pace of the opposition,” wrote Rowing’s correspondent, and finished last out of five. Although they were close to the third-placed Dutch and fourth-placed West Germans, they were 16 seconds behind the winning East German champions. A Russian crew finished second, four seconds behind the East Germans but a full ten seconds ahead of the Dutch in a clear example of the East/West divide in women’s rowing.
Catti Moss did enough in the heat to qualify for the eight-boat single sculls final from amongst the 11 entries. In the race, Rowing observed that she, “Showed fight but lacked speed and was dropped by the field after only ten strokes.” She finished 26 seconds behind the winning Hungarian in what turned out to be her last race for GB.
“The quad, rowing on a very strange rig – a wide span with the scullers sculling level to short of the work – never seemed to have the power rate of their adversaries,” in Rowing’s view, and they came last out of eight, 22 seconds down on the winners and just two seconds faster than the British coxed four.
The four (second furthest from the camera with two dark hoops on their white tops), Pauline and Astrd in the double (second closest to the camera), Beryl and Lin in the pair (second closest to the camera, and the quad (furthest from the camera) can all be seen in this video taken by Rusty Williams.
National Championships (15-17 July)
As in previous years, the squad’s schedule at Nat Champs involved a frenzy of doubling up.
Astrid and Pauline won the doubles by 29 seconds, the quad won by 14 seconds over the members of the 1975 GB coxed four (Lin, Beryl, Clare Bayles (née Grove), Gill Webb and cox Pauline Wright), Lin and Beryl won the pairs by 28 seconds over Clare and Gill, and the four won by 11 seconds over club crews.
In the most closely-fought women’s races of the Championships, Astrid took the gold medal in the singles by five seconds from Pauline with Stephanie Price two seconds further down in third place, Catti Moss fourth, and Beverley Jones and Rosie Clugston from the quad finishing fifth and sixth.
According to Rowing magazine, the National Championships were unofficial trials for the quad, and preceded official trials the following week at Kingston.
After these – which were just timed runs with no opposition – Jane Curry was replaced by Stephanie Price, whom the Almanack described as “only on the rowing scene for 18 months,” although she had a background as a swimmer.
“I honestly don’t think I was aware that the boat was much faster with Steph in it instead of Jane,” Sue Handscomb recalls, although the trials proved a disruptive experience for her personally. “I was told by the Selectors afterwards that, in fact, I had not made the boat on paper – but they decided to keep me in there anyway! It was a big knock to my confidence – I’m not quite sure why they would tell me that. All I know is that I was the fastest single sculler out of the group being considered for the quad.”
Serpentine Jubilee Regatta (23-34 July)
The Serpentine Regatta in Hyde Park, which had been popular in the 1960s, had fallen into abeyance by this time, but a special edition was run in 1977 alongside the Home International to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and despite it being just a domestic event, a few of the squad members took part in scratch crews and actually got some quite close racing.
Double scullers Astrid and Pauline and the four’s cox Pauline Wright teamed up with 1976 Olympians Gill Webb and Clare Grove to win both the quads and the fours, the latter by only three quarters of a length, perhaps as a result of Astrid at that stage being a sculler rather than a sweep rower. Stephanie Price, who had only just raced her way into the GB quad, won the single sculls.
Copenhagen (30-31 July)
Only the four, quad and double went to Copenhagen. As Maggie Phillips remembers it, her four and the quad needed to prove themselves to the Selectors before they made their a final decision about whether these two crews should be sent to the World Championships or not, although in hindsight she realises that the Selectors were probably reluctant to send just a pair and a double, especially as the Championships were only in Amsterdam and so not particularly expensive to attend.
Once again, the numbers of entries in all three women’s events was very low.
Things started badly for the quad whose luggage was lost in transit, “We spent most of Friday sweltering in our travel clothes and not being able to go out for a paddle,” Sue Handscomb explains, adding, “Presumably some other bags were lost as well because we didn’t borrow any from anyone else either. But Mo [the Team Manager] did a great job in getting our kit flown out in time for us to race.”
Mo Thomson’s later report in the Almanack states that, following its change in line-up, the quad, “Started sculling more confidently in Copenhagen and came a close second,” although the results printed in Rowing magazine have it coming third on the Saturday.
In contrast with her highlighting of the positive aspects of their performance, in an unidentified newspaper clipping, probably from The Times, Richard Burnell is downbeat about the quad. Under the headline, “Not exactly a wonderful Copenhagen effort by British oarswomen,” he follows a derogatory comment about the four with the view that, “For the quad it was an even sadder story. They finished in third place, ten seconds behind Russia and five seconds behind the local Bagsvaerd club whom they beat by a length six weeks ago. This was not encouraging.” To be fair to our quad, the “local Bagsvaerd” crew was actually a composite crew which is likely to have been a national crew and had apparently changed in composition by at least one person since Ratzeburg six weeks earlier.”
While she doesn’t for a moment suggest that it affected their results, Sue also remembers certain challenges to do with their accommodation. “We stayed in a school classroom on camp beds. The Selectors also slept in our room but went out in the evening and would come back after we were all in bed and dozing off and woke us up with rather loud brushing of teeth at the sink in the corner. They came back to ‘apple pie beds’ on the second night! There were both men and women in different rooms down the same corridor which meant that every time someone opened the door opened the full women’s team were on show (in whatever state of dressing) to whoever was walking past – something I found a bit disconcerting!”
The coxed four were second out of two on the Saturday, coming in some eight seconds behind Australia, a result which probably told them very little. On the Sunday, “They were second again, but in a two-crew race with Australia and Russia withdrawn, they trailed home some two and a half lengths behind Holland,” according to Burnell’s article. Maggie Phillips’ interpretation of their performance was very different, though. “We had a really good row and we did our fastest ever time,” she remembers. This was 3.33 and although this was six seconds slower than the British Record set at Lucerne by the four that went to the Olympics the previous year, it was quicker than the standard time that they’d had to achieve back in the spring.
The quad’s best time for the weekend was 3.22, putting them back in the region ahead of the four where they should be. Knowing that the the policy for the year involved a new emphasis on crew sculling, Maggie was fairly sure that the quad would be selected to go to the Worlds and that, if they were, the four coudl put up a strong argument for being sent too.
“In the women’s double sculls Pauline Hart and Astrid Ayling came nearer the form they have promised but never quite achieved this summer,” Richard Burnell wrote in an unidentified newspaper clipping, probably from The Times. “Raising their rating from 34 to 36 almost 300m from the line they seemed just to have the edge over their Dutch opponents. But somehow they missed it by less than a quarter of a second.” They did, however, beat two Danish crews.
Final selection and preparations
The team which was finally selected to represent GB at the World Championships was:
|Coxed Quad||Coxed Four|
Only five of the 14 competitors – Stephanie, Beverley, Liz, Yvonne and Nicola – had not previously competed at a World Championships.
The pair’s training camp
Penny Chuter arranged for the pair to go out to Amsterdam in advance of the rest of the team for a pre-World Championships training camp which, in her case, was literally a camp she pitched a tent at Bosbaan campsite. She’d arranged for Lin and Beryl to stay in greater comfort with a family who lived within walking distance of the course. Having frequently raced there when she was an international herself, Penny had several good rowing friends in Amsterdam, but all of their guest rooms were already full. “I was almost the only one there and it rained virtually every single day so it was a complete nightmare,” she recalls.
Lin’s main memory of the training camp was learning the pleasures of Nutella and banana sandwiches. “Beryl and I ate SO many of them,” she laughs, looking back.
The four and the quad’s training camp
Meanwhile the four and the quad did their final preparations at home in Nottingham as part of a wider GB training camp that also involved some of the men’s crews.
Unexpectedly, they had a trip down a coal mine and another to the nearby Speedo factory to break up the monotony.
While the pair went out to the Worlds well in advance, the double nearly didn’t get there at all. Although, as their coach Don Somner remember it, they’d successfully applied to the governing body of world rowing, FISA, for Astrid to switch to representing GB instead of West Germany, her country of birth, either she hadn’t got round to applying for a British passport following her marriage in 1976 or she hadn’t realised it was necessary to have one to compete at a World Championships for GB, but however it was, it all became extremely last minute. Fortunately – how different things were then – one of the GB men’s eight worked at the Foreign Office and was able to expedite her forms through the process, but she was literally handed it as they were on their way to the airport to fly out to Amsterdam.
The advent of massage
Eastern bloc athletes had long had substantial support teams including masseurs and physios as well as doctors. When a programme is investing so much in its athletes, this makes sense. But although the British rowing team generally had a doctor with them when they went to major international events, that was pretty much it. the time had come to improve things.
“After issues at the Montreal Olympics with a lack physios exclusively for our rowers,” Penny Chuter explains, “I was determined to point a voluntary physio to support the team at training camps and at the World Championships, with some limited support throughout the year. Our first Team Physio was Helen Bristow, who worked with us for a number of years. Amsterdam was therefore the first year that the Team had a physio as well as a doctor.”
She continues, “In addition, about ten of the regular coaches attended a massage course, including Rosie Clugston (although an athlete in the team), as she was at that time training to be a physiotherapist herself. This qualification enabled us to give pre- and post-training or racing massage, in support of our one physio, who only had time to deal with injuries.”
The double’s coach Don Somner remembers, “We had to turn up at the ARA HQ in Hammersmith every Sunday evening for several weeks. All sorts of tables were set up in the Conference Room. After being shown a particular technique we had to work in pairs and massage each other whilst the trainer came round and made comments.”
Although Pauline remembers Don massaging them a couple of times, once they were at international events, Astrid simply persuaded the West German masseur to work on them.
Sue Handscomb also made alternative arrangements. “There was absolutely no impropriety but I just didn’t like the idea of being massaged by a male coach so I would lock our room door at the World Championships, saying to Geoff, ‘Don’t worry, Rosie will massage me, no problem!’ I just thought that a massage from him would make me more tense than it would relax me!”
Yet again, how different things were then.
At the World Championships
Double (5th out of 16)
Team Manager Mo Thomson wrote later in the Almanack that, despite the double’s “very encouraging and consistent performances at International Regattas,” because theirs was the largest event with sixteen crews entered, “All that was hoped was that the girls would manage the first twelve.” Coach Don Somner had slightly higher expectations as, “By now they were going really, really nicely. My sort of hope was that we’d get at least ninth place,” he says, adding, “But the idea of getting to the final just wasn’t a feature.” Hold that thought.
The event began with three heats with the winner of each going straight to the semi-final and the remainder to three repechages. Three crews from each rep would join the heat winners in the semis.
The GB crew finished second in their heat, just two seconds behind Bulgarian Olympic champions, which was very considerably closer than they’d been at Nottingham International, although the Bulgarians appear to have been playing a long game (they were further up on the British crew at 500m than they were at the finish) and doing no more than was strictly necessary to qualify directly for the semi-final as Rowing magazine describes them as having “eased slightly” by the finish.
Bearing in mind that no GB women’s crew had yet reached a World Championship (or Olympic) grand final in the three years they had been running, Rowing went on, “The performance of by these two girls had got everyone talking. Finishing only a length down on the Bulgarians, could it be possible? No British women’s crew had ever been as competitive as this before.”
But to reach the final they still needed to finish in the first three in the four-boat repechage to reach the semi-final, and then come at least third in that.
Despite having what the Almanack described as a “mediocre scull” in the rep, they won by over three seconds ahead of France, Poland and Denmark.
The pattern of the draw system used at the time meant that the field they faced in the semi-final could have been a lot worse. “By finishing second in the heat, they had missed the Bulgarian and Soviet crew also from their heat, and by chance East Germany. On form, though, the situation still looked difficult as they had never previously beaten the USA or the West Germans and had only just beaten the Dutch in Lucerne,” Rowing explained, omitting that the Dutch had actually beaten them at Copenhagen.
In the race itself, “They kept their heads and the rating at 40 for most of the way in what was a strong cross-tail wind,” according to the Almanack. Rowing went into more detail, reporting that, “Away from the start the girls were second and not far down on the USA double at that. At 500m the United States had half a length on Astrid and Pauline which was the most they got.” The Dutch were actually just ahead of the British crew at this point, but fell back to third place by the finish line. The West Germans finished fourth, beaten for the first time by their “lost daughter.”
“Then the oddest thing happened,” Don Somner remembers. “I went down to the stages and was helping the girls get out of the boat and various members of the ARA hierarchy all rushed over and wanted to shake my hand. And I said, ‘No, no, the final isn’t till tomorrow that was just the semi-final.’ I thought they’d seen the crew coming third and thought they’d won a bronze. And they said, ‘But don’t you understand, it’s the first crew that’s EVER been in a final!’ And I thought, ‘Oh I didn’t know that!'”
Rowing magazine described the final in detail. “It was clear that a medal was possible but to do that both the United States and Canadians would have to be beaten. Both of these were fast starters and so it was this the girls would have to watch.”
It continued, “At the ‘Partez’ the girls must have been distracted because they produced their worst start of the Championships.” At 500m they were in fifth place. “Over the last 500m the British double fought hard and finished only less than two tenths of a second down on the Canadians and 2.5 seconds off the bronze medal gained by the USA,” still in fifth place ahead of the Dutch.
Jim Railton, probably writing in The Times, described the result as, “A significant and welcome ray of sunshine,” while Rowing called it, “A great step forward for British women’s rowing.”
Pauline agrees entirely. “I had a sense of achieving something, being in the hunt,” she says. “That was an amazing feeling.”
Just for the record, it would be another 20 years before Britain finally got a medal in openweight women’s doubles.
Pair (9th out of 10)
After the 1976 Olympics, an unidentified reporter in Rowing magazine wrote, “If Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell can row another season together it is possible that these girls could become a pair capable of reaching the final,” and at the start of the Championships, the ARA hierarchy seemed to believe this was the case, a year on, as Mo Thomson’s report in the Almanack describes them as, “The crew on which all hopes were pinned.”
Despite “some rather inconsistent performances” so far in the season, Mo continued, following their pre-Championships training camp, “They seemed in good spirits… and took to the water quite confidently for their first race.”
The progression pattern was that the first crew in each heat would go straight to the final with the remainder to two four-boat repechages from which two would qualify.
Mo’s concise summary of their heat was that, “They led the field until 250m and did their fastest 500m, but unfortunately blew.” Rowing magazine’s take on the race went into more detail; “The British girls shot off the start in a very workmanlike manner. At 500m they were only half a length down on the leading Romanian pair [and were in third place out of five]. Just after this point, though, Lin Clark started to feel the effects of this fast first 500m and Beryl Mitchell began to pull her into the buoys. She kept going but this loss of pace had shown its effect, the pair losing ground steadily. By the finish the pair were ten seconds down on the… winners.”
What neither writer mentions is that Beryl was apparently far from well, although this doesn’t really fit with the observation that she pulled the boat round in their first race. In his report for The Telegraph, Desmond Hill unveiled the story; “The coxless pair had a hard enough assignment without sickness to plague them. And a suspected, though unconfirmed, appendix scare for Beryl Mitchell was something they could well have done without. Though she insisted on racing, it was an insuperable handicap.”
In the repechage the Bulgarians finished out in front with just 1.17 seconds separating the remaining three crews. Unfortunately the British pair was at the back of these and so did not qualify for the main final. “Though the British went straighter than before with Lin Clark this time ‘carting’ Beryl Mitchell,” according to Desmond Hill, “They were overwhelmed in the last desperate minutes.”
Summing up the repechage day of Championships for The Times, Jim Railton wrote, “Overall… the British women’s team did as well as they were capable of, with the exception of the coxless pair, Lyn Clark [sic] and Beryl Mitchell, who finished fourth and last with two to qualify for the final in their repechage. Mrs Mitchell, however, was reported to be unwell today: this crew, which started with high hopes at the beginning of the season has never quite reached its real potential.”
In the petite final, “Lin Clark took the pair off a fraction slower than the previous races, perhaps through caution caused by the problem she suffered in the heat,” Rowing reported. At half way, Russia were leading with France second, nearly four seconds ahead of Beryl and Lin. In the second 500m, “They fought back and cut the deficit [to just over one second] and were unlucky not to catch the French,” and they crossed the line third – coming ninth overall – behind Russia and France but ahead of West Germany.
Coxed four (9th out of 9)
Coming into the Championships, “Rusty Williams’ crew had shown odd flashes of speed during the season, but one felt that in comparison with the Eastern bloc countries they were a little out of their depth. But the girls were keen and always gave of their best,” as Rowing put it.
Sadly they got off to a bad start. “Their first race was disastrous, ensuing mainly from over anxiety amongst the individuals,” Mo Thomson wrote later in the Almanack. Maggie Phillips agrees, though she doesn’t know why. “I just remember the first race was awful,” she says. “Coming off Copenhagen when we’d done our fastest time ever, I thought, ‘How did we row like that?’ It might have been that up till then we never knew whether we were going to be going to the Worlds or not and I think, possibly, that once the relief had set in that we were there, maybe that affected us, but equally by then we had nothing to lose!”
In the four-boat repechage, from which they needed to come in the first two, “We raced our socks off because we had a good draw and we thought we could just make this,” Maggie recalls, although Rowing magazine says that qualifying, “Looked unlikely to even the most optimistic.” It went on, “It proved to be just so. Again a slow start was the root cause and the crew never was in touch with the other three crews.”
“I know we fell apart in the small final,” Maggie says. Rowing‘s analysis was that, “A slow start followed by a sluggish pace that kept the girls completely out of the battle for the lead after half way. Their spirit was never in question though… [and] they fought every stroke until they crossed the line.”
Quad scull (9th out of 10)
As for the four and pair, the quad had a heat, repechage and final.
In the heat, according to Rowing, “Last place always looked likely. Off the start the girls lost a length on the field very quickly. Their rating was much lower than the rest and this looked to be the cause of their problems.” They duly finished sixth out of six.
Mo Thomson’s report in the Almanack, says that, “The Quad Scull again were left off the start,” in the rep, but although they, “Never featured in the qualifying places,” they sculled confidently and passed through the half way point in fourth, and although they’d slipped back to fifth and last place by the end, they were less than two seconds behind the Danish crew, in a time that was six seconds faster than their heat time in comparable conditions.
Rowing explained how the change came about and how they built on it for their petite final. “During the gap between the heat and the rep Geoff Baker had got the British women’s quad attempting some amazing outings. It was a desperate attempt to try and get some more pace out of the quad off the start. In the petite final the squad crew had nothing to lose by trying something different. The start was still the same; the quad got lost at the start. In previous races, when the rest settled, the British crew got dropped, this time it did not happen. Beverley Jones kept the rate higher than normal and the crew stayed up with the Danes at 500m. Into the final 500m the British girls had overtaken the Danes and were attacking the French who saw the attack and answered it. The race was interesting in that the British girls had broken free of their slow start problem and attacked more in the race than before.”
Consistent with comments it had published throughout the year, in its review of the Championships, Rowing magazine continued to question the quad’s rig, saying, “On looking at the rig of the quad scull, it would seem that some re-checking of current international rigs should be done by our top coaches. Their rig was totally unlike that of any of their World Championship opponents.”
Coxes in four-man boats
As can be seen in the video below, several of the Eastern bloc fours and quads used front loaders at these Championships. The British crews, like many others, were still using a traditional stern-coxed boat. The GB four can be seen briefly, adjusting their feet in their wooden Karlisch, at 0:49 – the only one of our four crews in this clip.