The 1978 World Rowing Championships took place on Lake Karapiro in New Zealand’s North Island, from 1-5 November.
52 women’s crews from 17 countries took part. Although this was only one fewer country than the previous years, it was the lowest number of crews entered since the Worlds had started including women’s events in 1974. This is hardly surprising, given how far away it was for the majority of coJempeting nations which were European. As a result of the high cost per athlete of attending, many countries – including GB – sent much smaller teams than usual. It was not a year for ‘development’ boats or for any crew not proven to be a serious contender, at least, not actually at the Championships anyway.
In the end, the British women’s ‘team’ in 1978 comprised only a single boat – the double scull of Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart. But this bald fact belies a quite complex path to selection for the Championships that year, involving a challenger crew, a medical emergency, and a greater level of financial uncertainty for the GB rowing team than ever before.
More about the money
There were multiple financial challenges facing the entire GB team in the 1978 season:
- The sheer cost of transporting boats to the other side of the world.
- The fact that the long journey meant that a longer pre-Championships training camp was needed so that the athletes could get over the effects of jet lag. A rule of thumb is that it takes a day to compensate for each hour of time zone change. New Zealand is 13 hours ahead of the UK.
- The late date* of the Championships meant that the period of spending on the squad was longer than usual. Although training subsidies such as travel were low per person, these still added up.
- Following changes in the Amateur Rowing Association’s financial structure, this would be the first season in which international rowing would be entirely paid for by sponsorship and by Sports Council and Sports Aid Foundation funding. Club affiliation fees would no longer contribute to the funding of the GB team.
- Inflation was over 8% (compared with under 2% today) which meant that funding allocated at the beginning of the year bought less towards the end of the year, when the bulk of expenditure was incurred.
According to Rowing magazine, it was estimated that the cost of sending each individual to the Worlds would be over £1,000. For context, at that time a teacher’s average salary was £4,560 and the average house price was £13,820.
The accounts for previous season show training costs and expenditure on sending the team to the early season European regattas of £95,709. In comparison, the costs for the 1978 year including the Championships in Karapiro were £142,395, an increase of nearly 70%. Admittedly this includes the separate World Lightweight Championships in Copenhagen, but the costs for the trip down under alone were £58, 215.
* The later-than-usual date was to increase the chance of the weather being good because early November was firmly in spring. Whenever the World Championships are in New Zealand or Australia (the only countries in the southern hemisphere to have hosted them), they’re held later.
Early in 1978, British Home Stores announced a three year sponsorship package of £11,000 a year which would support the GB women’s team through the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This was a major extension of a deal which Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell had originally secured for themselves two years earlier. An interesting additional element of BHS’s involvement was that they would promote the sport in all of their stores in towns that had a rowing club. [If you took up rowing as a result of this, or even remember this advertising, get in touch! – Ed.]
However, as Rowing magazine was quick to point out, while external sponsorship is highly welcome, it brings with it a risk of being withdrawn if expected results are not forthcoming or some unexpected event occurs.
The magazine went on, “Finance could play a large part in restricting the size of a team to New Zealand. Standard times, we predict, are likely to require almost medal performance by present standards [recognising that improvement is required each year just to stand still] before plane tickets are issued.” Hold this thought as it will become relevant later on.
Training and assessment (mostly the latter)
October training weekend in Nottingham
The season began with a training weekend in October 1977, organised by the volunteers of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council, primarily aimed at ‘new faces’. This was mentioned in the September/October issue of Rowing magazine, which also stated that new standard times for the season had been announced and would be published in the next issue of Rowing. Unfortunately (from the point of view of this narrative), they never were.
One of the new faces was Civil Service Ladies RC member Liz Paton who had only been rowing for about a year but, crucially, was tall.
“I was pretty clueless at that point,” she remembers, “But Penny Chuter [who was one of the national coaches running the event] didn’t immediately threaten to throw me out, and she said. ‘Let’s have six weeks of you doing proper training – I’ll give you a programme, you can do the training with the others, you can come to the gym in Paddington, and you can do the work with them and see what happens.’ And of course after six weeks it was a very different situation, I was getting in boats and doing OK, and it was a bit of a surprise.”
November assessment weekend in Nottingham
This was not well-attended. Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart weren’t there although they were scheduled to go to the men’s trials on 19-20 November; and Clare Bayles (née Grove) and Gill Bond were absent through injury.
An unidentified correspondent writing for the Sunday Times, observed that these trials, “Clearly revealed the need to find some new talent, and above all some girls who start with the weight and physique without which international success must be a forlorn hope.”
The results for the Saturday show a dispiritingly spread out pairs race, but quite good competition in two heats of single sculls:
- Alexa Forbes and Deborah Bradley, juniors from Nottingham RC (8.44)
- Jean Genchi (née Guppy) and Julia Corbin (8.52)
- Chris Grimes and Liz Paton (9.02)
- Yvonne Earl and J Valentine (9.44)
- Sue Handscomb (4.13)
- Beryl Mitchell (4.19)
- Rosie Clugston (4.20)
- Bernadette Casey (4.22)
- Fiona Harvey (4.30)
- Catti Moss (4.37)
1. Lin Clark (4.25)
2.= Jane Curry and Gill Webb (both 4.30)
4. Birgith Sims (4.41)
According to the report of the year in the Almanack, following the October and November trials, “A squad of 12 girls commenced training for rowing plus seven girls training for sculling with the men’s squad.”
It’s not entirely clear exactly who the 12 and the seven were, though, but it seems likely that it was the senior pairs who came second and third at the November trial, Yvonne Earl from the fourth-placed pair, Clare Bayles and Gill Bond, Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell, and also Gill Webb, Nicola Boyes and Jane Curry whose names have not figured in reports so far.
The sculling group will have included Sue Handscomb and Rosie Clugston (even though they considered themselves rowers rather than sculls despite having been in the quad for the 1977 World Championships), and probably their past and future crew mates Stephanie Price and Beverley Jones too but it’s hard to say who else was considered part of it. Bernadette Casey was coached by her father Noel at Thames, alongside her sister Caroline, and the Astrid Ayling/Pauline Hart double didn’t train with the men’s sculling group.
The ‘ready-made’ crews
Although Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell had gone to the November trials in singles, they were doing most of their training in the pair which had been their unit since the 1976 Olympics. They trained on the Tideway out of the ARA and were coached before by Penny Chuter in her spare time (this was not one of her duties as a National Coach).
This was entirely in accord with how the squad worked at that time.
Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart also remained in their established double scull (which they had raced at the 1977 Wold Championships) coached by Don Somner at Kingston RC.
Don remembers, “After the World Championships in 1977 we had a bit of a break and then Astrid and Pauline more or less said, ‘The only way we’re going to get faster is to do what the East Germans and everyone else is doing and that’s have two outings every day.’ And I said, ‘There’s no way I can do that,’ but we went for two mornings a week and eventually I think three, which meant getting up at 6am. Then I had to pick up Pauline from the station and then get to the rowing club, be on the water soon after 7am, do and hour’s sculling, and it was very good sculling actually because we didn’t do any work at that time of the day, we just did nice, gentle paddling and getting together.”
Nottingham assessment weekend (4-5 March 1978)
The aim of this assessment for the sweep group, as reported by Rowing magazine, was, “To identify the best six oarswomen on whom available resources could be concentrated in the summer season.” These six would apparently be in addition to Lin and Beryl in the pair, who were unable to attend because of illness.
In a taste of the debate to come, Rowing adds, “The Selectors have decided to limit the size of the squad at the time,” which basically meant that there wasn’t an eight. “There was no expectation of getting an eight together by then,” Liz Paton remembers, “It was going to be a pair, a coxed quad, and double with Astrid and Pauline. And the coxed four was what I was aiming at.”
Liz achieved her goal. After a lot of 500m and 1k pieces, the six chosen were announced and grouped into two provisional crews:
Gill Webb, Nicola Boyes, Liz Paton, Jane Curry, with cox Nicky Zarach (aged 14).
Jean Genchi and Julia Corbin.
Of these, Gill had represented GB twice (including at the 1976 Olympics), and Jean and Nicola had once.
According to a statement in Rowing from Chair of Selectors Liz Lorrimer, “The remaining squad members were invited to continue keep training, principally n sculling boats under the overall direction of Mike Spracklen [men’s sculling squad coach] until the April Assessment Weekend when the final selections for the summer will be made. Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell will also be assessed by the Selectors at this weekend.
The ‘challenger’ four
Jean and Julia’s pair was obviously in a fairly difficult situation from the moment it was announced, given that Lin and Beryl were already training in a pair and had represented GB for the previous two years in that boat class. They were given the option of continuing in the squad as a ‘spare pair’ which might have meant they raced as a second GB crew at some of the early season international regattas. Feeling that the selection of the four was not being made purely on boat-moving ability, Jean turned this offer down and instead joined up with three other former internationals who had not been selected – Clare Bayles (née Grove), Yvonne Earl, Chris Grimes – to form a separate four. Clare explains, “We actually set up a four against the squad four. We couldn’t get a boat so we went up to Thames Tradesmen and they gave us a boat and as a result we changed our membership to TTRC.” They were coached by Tim Bramfitt.
Nottingham training weekend (11-12 March 1978)
The battle of the fours: Round 1
The two fours first raced each other at an ARA training weekend for senior and junior squad and non-squad crews. 1978 was the first year in which junior women were to be included in the FISA Youth Championships (what’s now called the World Rowing Junior Championships).
According to results published in Rowing magazine, the ARA squad crew won the first 1k piece on the Saturday by 14 seconds over the GB junior women’s crew from Abingdon RC. TTRC crew recorded a verdict of ‘Not rowed out’.
The ARA also won the second piece, but this time TTRC finished in second place, just 2.5 seconds behind. The Abingdon juniors were third, 16 seconds behind the ARA.
In a final piece on the Sunday, the ARA crew was once again the fastest coxed four, but this time only by 0.4 seconds.
At the end of the weekend it was (leaving the race TTRC didn’t complete out of it) 2-0 to the ARA crew, but they certainly weren’t conclusively faster.
In other years, with the Worlds not quite so far away, a logical the outcome of these close results might have been to do an eight instead. But as Liz Paton remembers, “There was no expectation of getting an eight together at that point. The other four would constantly come out and try and beat us and they were very close, so we possibly should have put together an eight, but we did always beat them so we were allowed to go to the international regattas as the ARA crew.”
The Kingston RC double scull of Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart were comfortably the fastest double in all their races, although the only other doubles there two crews from Leicester RC and Thames RC.
Similarly, the Civil Service LRC/St George’s LRC pair of Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell only had a limited amount of opposition, but they nevertheless won easily over the junior pair of Alexa Forbes and Deborah Bradley from Nottingham BC, and Julia Corbin of CSLRC who was now rowing with Gill Bond of Stuart Ladies RC.
The final 1k piece on the Sunday provided some interesting information about the relative speeds of the various squad crews by combining of different boat classes within heats, which led to the double, quad and both fours racing each other directly. Although the quad proved fastest, it was only just over two seconds ahead of the double, and only three seconds ahead of the fours. At the world Championships the previous year, the gold medallist quad was six seconds faster than the gold medal double and 10 seconds ahead of the gold medal four. At the Olympics in 1976, the relative differences were 15 seconds and 16 seconds. The main inference from this was that our quad wasn’t quick, a fact of which they were well aware.
Final Nottingham assessment (1 April 1978)
“The British women’s rowing team will again be led by the Hart-Ayling double, and the Mitchell-Clark coxless pair,” wrote Richard Burnell in an unidentified newspaper clipping, probably from The Times. “This was very clear in yesterday’s assessment trials at Nottingham…. There is only one quad in contention, and they opened well by beating a Cambridge University women’s eight, but looked less impressive in their second race. All the crews raced twice over 1,000m (which was still the international race distance for women as it had been since women’s racing was introduced by FISA in 1951). The [junior] Casey sisters, Bernadette and Caroline, were first and second in the morning series of the single sculls, but in the afternoon the honour went to Sue Handscomb, who was also sculling in the quad.”
The battle of the fours: Round 2
On this, Burnell wrote, “The ARA coxed four, a new combination stroked by Gillian Webb, who rowed in the Montreal Olympics, were hard pressed by Thames Tradesmen.” Unfortunately no actual times have been tracked down or number of races recorded, but the implication is that the score was now at least 3-0 to the ARA crew.
Official selection for early regattas
The following crews were selected to go to the early-season European international regattas ‘with ARA support’, although the announcement in Rowing magazine highlighted that only those marked * below were sponsored by British Home Stores. The Thames Tradesmen’s coxed four attended these at their own expense.
ARA National Squad*: Gill Webb (Stuart Ladies RC), Nicola Boyes (Civil Service Ladies RC), Liz Paton (Civil Service Ladies RC), Jane Curry (Thames RC), cox Nicky Zarach (Guildford RC). Coach Martin Pratt.
It’s worth noting that the openweight men also had second, non-ARA crews boats (a coxed four and a single sculler) included in the list of those sanctioned to attend the European regattas. There was clearly general strategy to give up-and-coming rowers opportunities to gain experience in international competition, even if the team at the Championships themselves was always going to be smaller than usual.
ARA Sculling Squad – Kingston RC*: Astrid Ayling, Pauline Hart. Coach Don Somner.
ARA National Squad – Thames Tradesmen’s RC*: Lin Clark, Beryl Mitchell. Coach Penny Chuter. [Beryl had previously rowed for St George’s Ladies RC but in 1978 it didn’t have a home and so they had both switched clubs to TTRC.]
Single scull (that never happened)
Following her success in the singles trials in which she’d achieved the standard time required to be sent to early season regattas, and her winning the women’s pennant at the Scullers Head at the beginning of April (neither Astrid nor Pauline competed), Sue Handscomb remembers, “Although I was in the quad, I asked if I could also race the first regatta in my single. Jim Clark [one of the men’s squad] encouraged me, actually, because I was the fastest sculler in the quad. So the quad was really cross with me, understandably, from a self-centred point of view! I was due to race at Mannheim, but I then got glandular fever and didn’t get the chance.”
Fortunately Sue’s illness was diagnosed very quickly which allowed her to recover unusually fast. Nevertheless she recalls being off training for three full weeks and, “In my first venture out in my sculling boat after that I remember even getting to front stops seemed an absolute shock to the system!” She adds, “While I was off, Steph rang me to ask if I still wanted to go ahead and race the single and I realised I needed to make the choice as it was unfair to the rest of the quad. As I knew I was in no shape at that moment to make a single go fast, I agreed to pull out of the single and stick with the quad.”
Junior coxed four
Abingdon RC: Margaret Fudge, Carolyn Hawes, Karen Wesson, K Clark, cox Sarah Allington. Coach: Arthur Trusswell. [Rowing magazine actually lists Sarah Allington as a rower, omits Miss Clark and doesn’t name a cox, but from the Almanack it’s clear that Sarah was a cox – Ed.]
Nottingham RC: Alexa Forbes, Deborah Bradley. Coach Freddy Brookes.
Early season regattas
Mannheim (13-14 May)
Only the pair and the two fours went to Mannheim, along with the junior coxed four from Abingdon and the Nottingham junior pair. The quad was out of action because of Sue Handscomb being ill, and the double wasn’t entered either.
Regrettably, there was only one crew of serious opposition for the GB crew. Rowing magazine reported, “Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell finished second both days behind the Bulgarian pair. Their margin was nine seconds on Saturday when the Nottingham juniors finished third of the three entries. Sunday and a good solid row brought them to just over a length down on the top class pair. The Nottingham youngsters were 23 seconds behind the Thames Tradesmen’s combination [Lin and Beryl].”
The battle of the fours: Round 3
The ARA crew was third on both days, with the TTRC crew finishing behind them each time, or as Rowing put it, using language that wasn’t entirely helpful given the already difficult situation, “The coxed four races showed that the ARA crew of ‘selected’ girls was four seconds faster on both days than the ‘rejected’ girls from TTRC… The ARA four was 11 and eight seconds down on the victorious Bulgarian and USSR crews.”
So 4-0, if you’re counting, to the ARA crew.
The Abingdon juniors were sixth on both days, apparently out of six.
Salzgitter (27-28 May)
The double won on the Saturday from a field of five, in a time of 3’33.44″. The following day they were quicker, clocking 3’26.93″, but could only finish second – after a false start – in a field of four behind a West German crew that they had beaten by four seconds in Saturday’s race.
Coach Don Somner noted, “Reasonable to 500m, bad second 500m.”
The pair also won on the both days in carbon copy races which saw them finishing 12 seconds clear of the Nottingham juniors on the Saturday and 13 seconds on the Sunday three-boat straight finals. Lin and Beryl’s best time in these two races was 3’45.28″.
The quad came second on the Saturday in a four-boat race, finishing in 3’32.36″, some seven seconds behind a German crew containing the double that Pauline and Astrid had beaten earlier. The same four crews raced on the Sunday with the same result for the first two. The GB quad’s time was 3’25.77″.
The ARA coxed four came second out of three on both days, their best time being 3’32.97″. The TTRC four was not there.
Unfortunately no photos have come to light of the four racing, or even rowing, although they feature in several pictures of general messing around afterwards which appear to have involved a deal more sunbathing that would be done nowadays.
[In case you were wondering, the sunbathing photos are not going to be shared in the public domain – Ed.]
Ratzeburg (9-11 June)
The pair won again, but there are no further details.
The ARA four also raced but no documentary evidence has emerged of the double, quad or the TTRC four competing there, though they may have done so.
The ARA four’s progress came to an abrupt halt a few days before their next regatta, Nottinghamshire International, when Nicola developed appendicitis. As she was a trainee doctor, she self-diagnosed this, and Liz Paton remembers being in awe that as it was the evening by the time she’d decided this is what it was, “She decided not to call anybody until the morning because she didn’t want the night staff looking at her and she waited until the next day to go to A&E!”
Nicola started rowing again three weeks later, but it was a serious setback.
Nottinghamshire International (24-25 June)
Entries were rather thin at NIR, and headwind conditions meant that this was not the occasion to try and achieve standard times.
Astrid and Pauline won on the Saturday over four British crews. There was no event on the Sunday.
Lin and Beryl won by six seconds from the Nottingham juniors, with Gill Bond and Julia Corbin in third, three seconds further back in an entry of six. The ARA pair won a two-boat race against a club crew from York City RC on the Sunday.
With Nicola out, the ARA four wasn’t racing, so Jane Curry raced in the single sculls on the first day but was beaten by an Irish woman and the junior sculler Bernadette Casey. Bernadette also came third on the Sunday behind a French sculler and the same Irish woman. Entries at NIR were generally thin, but it’s unclear whether there were more than three scullers there.
The GB crew came second to France on both days by six seconds on the Saturday and eight on the Sunday. On the first day a Civil Service Ladies RC finished third and last, a very considerable way down. Only two crews raced on the Sunday.
The TTRC crew won by 19 seconds on the first day and 14 seconds on the second. Although seven boats raced on the Saturday and six on the Sunday, the rest of the opposition was apparently mostly just club-level crews.
As Clare Bayles remembers it, “We had been coming nearer and nearer to them at each regatta and we were one second behind going into NIR. We were convinced that this was it – we were going to beat them this time! But then Nicola Boyes got appendicitis, so we were a bit fed up.”
Interlude: The creation of another pair
While Jane Curry was sculling, Gill Webb had been teaching the highly inexperienced Liz Paton the fine art of rowing a pair.
Despite the stresses, Gill was able to laugh at the situation. Liz remembers getting into the boat to train one day and turning round when she was ready to push off, only to find Gill wearing swimming hat and goggles. “It was because I splashed her quite a bit, I gather. Outrageous accusation! Actually, I have a feeling I probably did. She rowed at bow because she was much more experienced than me so she could steer, talk me through a race, basically she stroked it from bow. All I had to do was sit there and pull.”
In one of the greatest understatements in rowing ever, she continues, “So the first time we ever rowed at a proper regatta was at Lucerne International regatta, which was quite an eye opener.”
Lucerne (8-9 July)
Dubbed the “unofficial European Championships,” according to Rowing magazine, the GB women at last had the chance to race at an international regatta with a substantial and top-quality entry.
This proved challenging in the main. Conditions were also not conducive to making standard times.
After having to go through a preliminary round to qualify for the final, the double came a creditable third on the Saturday and fifth on the Sunday, eight and nine seconds off the winners respectively. Their best time was 3’35.33″.
Lin and Beryl came fifth on both days in the pair, finishing 13 and then 10 seconds behind the winners in seven-boat straight finals. Their best time was 3’52.18″. Impressively, despite this being Liz’s first ever race in a pair, she and Gill were five seconds behind Lin and Beryl on the first day and 0.06 seconds behind them on the Sunday.
The TTRC four came sixth on both days, while the quad and Jane Curry in her single also raced but both failed to make either of the finals.
National Championships (14-16 July)
With selection for the women’s team for the Worlds still not announced at the time of the National Championships, and whole issue of the fours still up in the air, the National Championships were clearly particularly important for all of the athletes still hoping to go to New Zealand. As usual, there was a fair amount of doubling up, particularly by the scullers.
Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart romped home in the doubles, winning by a cool 11 seconds which meant that Pauline’s legs still had plenty in them to win the single sculls from a healthy field of 14 entries although this lacked Astrid Ayling who had decided not to defend the singles title she’d won the previous year. Sue Handscomb from the quad was second, five seconds behind Pauline, and Rosie Clugston, also from the quad, finished third, three seconds behind Sue. The other two members of the quad, Stephanie Price and Beverley Jones, were fourth and sixth, with young Bernadette Casey finishing between them.
The quad also won by 11 seconds.
In the pairs, Lin and Beryl won (this was Lin’s fourth title in the boat class) but they were pushed hard by the accidental duo of Liz and Gill, who finished less than two seconds behind them, all of which the more experienced combination had taken in the first half of the race. Remember this result for when we get on to final selection…
The fours also had a healthy entry – some 12 crews – and was won by the TTRC crew, coxed by Zena Kitching, who finished a full ten seconds ahead of a Civil Service Ladies crew containing Nicola Boyes (still working her way back to full fitness after her appendicitis), along with Jackie Darling and Maggie Phillips, both of whom had been in the GB team in 1974 and 1975, and – according to the programme – Barbara Jones, coxed by Wendy Stewart.
It’s therefore unclear in what boat Jane won her silver, as the programme says that the Civil Service crew that took the silver in the quads was Jackie, Maggie, Catti Moss and Sara Waters, again coxed by Wendy Stewart. A likely explanation is that she was subbed into either the quad or the four.
The TTRC crew was frustrated that the GB crew didn’t race them in the fours, given that Nicola was medically fit to race by then.
In 1978, selection for the World Championships still relied on a crew having achieved a specified standard time in advance, either at an International regatta or at an official trial. However weather conditions didn’t make this as exact a science as it was intended to be. Rowing is, as we all know, an outdoor sport.
The report on Women’s Rowing for the year in the Almanack mentioned that, “Conditions [at the International regattas] were slower than usual, so crews had few chances to attain the standard times set for the year.” In addition, Rowing magazine noted that, “It is well known that the women’s standard times were in comparison harder than their male counterparts’.” Combined with the whole business of the two fours and Nicola Boyes being ill, these factors made the final decisions extremely difficult, and some of those around at the time are still unsure to this day what the right course of action should have been.
But before we go into all of that, though, the double was unequivocally selected because it had made its standard time, and this had been announced just after Lucerne.
Equally simply, there was no chance that the quad was going to go.
The decisions about whether a four and/or a pair should be sent were not so clear cut and also possibly more related than might have been expected. To recap on the facts:
- The ARA four had beaten the challenger four from TTRC on at least five occasions, but only by a small amount on several of these, the last of which was in mid-May.
- The ARA four had then had a setback when Nicola Boyes had appendicitis, and it hadn’t raced since Ratzeburg (and had therefore missed important race practice, as well as opportunities to achieve a standard time).
- Nicola was back, but her fitness must have been diminished by her time off.
- Lin and Beryl in the pair had been pushed hard at Lucerne and the National Championships by the much less experienced (as a crew, and as a rower in Liz’s case) pair from the ARA four of Gill and Liz.
- None of the fours or pairs had made the standard times for their boat classes.
- As the Women’s Rowing report in the Almanack noted, “Conditions were slower than usual [at early season regattas], so crews had few chances to attain the standard times set for the year. [Which, of course, perfectly demonstrates the inherent flaw in using standard times as the sole selection criterion, particularly when there is no wind adjustment – Ed.]
- Finances were extremely tight.
The decision was, of course, that no one was selected for either boat.
But as with so many apparently clear facts this year, there was more to it than that, and the Selectors actually tried really hard to have a second crew make the team by achieving the standard time, not least because sponsors British Home Stores, “Were a little surprised that after providing £30,000 sponsorship involvement for three years up to 1980 only the Kingston ladies double is making the trip to New Zealand with the much larger men’s team,” as Rowing put it.
The Selectors’ search for a faster four started at NIR when they had asked Clare Bayles (from the TTRC four) if she would like to take Nicola’s place in the ARA four. She turned the offer down. “I just thought that was completely wrong,” she explains. “I felt I should have been in the four in the first place based on my results at trials, and that to abandon the people who had stood by me all the way through the season wasn’t the right thing to do, so I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ And then I found out afterwards that they’d also approached other people and everybody had said, ‘No.'”
The Selectors also approached some of the members of the quad. Sue Handscomb recalls that there was a trial, probably at Thorpe Park, to explore whether any changes to the line up in the four would make it go faster. “It was actually boycotted by most of the people, so those that turned up weren’t going to make the boat go fast enough. The boycott wasn’t led by me, but I did go along with it. To be honest, by then I had got over the disappointment of not being selected to go to New Zealand and had a place at college which was starting in September, so in a way it was easier if I didn’t go.” Another reason why there was never a four that made the standard times, she suggests, may have been the persistence that GB must have a quad, which meant that she and Rosie were labelled as scullers because they could scull and weren’t considered for the four even though they felt they were better rowers than scullers.
Either shortly before or soon after this session at Thorpe Park, the Selectors gave the original ARA four a final chance to make the standard time. As Rowing magazine explained, “Since… Lucerne, a succession of trial races, and suggestion of further trial has been put to the women’s squad four and pair… At a trial race held… over 1,000m at Holme Pierrepont the women’s squad crew [the ARA four] rowed two races, one with the wind (+8 seconds outside standard time) and one against nearly half a minute outside.”
Gill Webb, who was stroking the four, remembers this all too well, “They took us all the way to Nottingham in a howling tailwind to see if we could do standard time and the tailwind then becomes detrimental because they adjust the standard time. So we didn’t do standard time. She adds, “I’m sure we could have achieved it if Nicola hadn’t have got ill. So I regretted that. It was a shame. I really wanted to do that one.”
The TTRC four was not allowed to take part. Clare Bayles reflects, “I suppose I learned then that if you go against a squad crew the only thing you can achieve is to make sure they don’t go either. They’re not going to pick you instead.” Which is a very perceptive analysis.
Nicola Boyes was pragmatic about not being selected. “Realistically I didn’t think we were fast enough anyway so I chilled out about it. I accepted that we had a standard to meet and we didn’t meet the standard. We were way off it, actually, not even nudging it.” Liz Paton was also relaxed about the decision as she felt that someone as inexperienced as her shouldn’t be going to a World Championships anyway and it also meant that she was also able to do some overseas fieldwork that summer which her job really required her to do.
It’s possible that Liz and Gill coming close to Lin and Beryl at Lucerne and Nat Champs, had much the same effect on the main ARA pair’s selection, albeit without any intention behind it.
Penny Chuter clearly remembers being asked by the Selectors whether the pair (whom she was coaching, you’ll remember) were fast enough to be sent. “I was asked a straightforward question, and I gave a straightforward answer,” she says, which was, “In truth they’re no better than last year, and they’re really right on the edge.” She heard later that one of the Selectors had told Lin and Beryl that she had recommended that they not be sent. “That wasn’t what I said,” she explains, adding that Lin and Beryl told her that they felt she had failed to fight for them as a coach should. Although she understands their point of view, as Penny points out, she was also one of the National Coaches and had a wider responsibility to the whole of GB rowing. “Lin and Beryl said it was my job to support them, but it was also my job to be transparent with the Selectors.” She’s in no doubt, though, that they would have been sent had the Championships been in Europe.
In an unidentified newspaper clip published nearly three weeks after Lucerne, probably for The Telegraph, and doubtless benefiting from hindsight following the announcement of the team for the Worlds, Desmond Hill was with Penny’s assessment, writing, “[Beryl Mitchell and Lin Clark have] been in the British women’s team for the last three summers and their pair was ninth in Amsterdam [the 1977 World Championships]. This year, however, for all their dedication it has never really prospered and failure in Lucerne destroyed their last chances of selection.”
According to Rowing magazine, “The women’s coxless pair did not trial [at the time trial in Nottingham], and did not at this time wish to participate in trials for a new four.” This may have been a missed opportunity both for Lin and Beryl themselves and GB women’s rowing more widely. Looking back on the whole situation now, Nicola says, “The pair going into the four would definitely have been the best option,” adding with self-effacing impartiality, that Gill and Liz would have been the two from the four that should have remained in it.
The Women’s Rowing report on the year in the Almanack, explained the outcome with the type of sugar-coating that had been customary when GB women started racing internationally in the mid-1950s, saying, “The difficulties involved in the late date of the Championships this year and the travelling distance made it impossible to send a larger squad.” This is clearly no more than an inadequate attempt to make everyone feel better because had it actually been the reason for only sending the double, it would have been said up-front that only one crew would be selected and there wouldn’t have been all of the last minute attempts to get another crew to make the standard time.
While the Selectors (who were all volunteers, remembers) may well have had some very insightful and balanced discussions behind closed doors, they certainly weren’t particularly good at presenting their reasoning to the athletes or the wider rowing community that left no one with reasonable grounds for feeling aggrieved. That said, Liz Lorrimer, who was Chair of Selectors, remembers, “It was fairly grim because basically the ARA didn’t want us to send anybody other than the double because the standard wasn’t high enough. And then when didn’t select anybody, we got into trouble for not sending people and giving them experience, and the suits rather melted into the background. But basically they hadn’t shown they were fast enough anyway.”
The previous September, if you recall, Rowing magazine had predicted that, “Finance could play a large part in restricting the size of a team to New Zealand. Standard times, we predict, are likely to require almost medal performance by present standards [recognising that improvement is required each year just to stand still] before plane tickets are issued.” It turned out to be spot on.
Other events (in which GB women did and didn’t compete)
Henley Royal Regatta
One summer evening in June 1978, Kingston RC’s Vice-Captain David Biddulph was sitting in the KRC bar, filling in the official Henley entry form when Astrid and Pauline came in after training. Noticing what he was doing, one of them said, “Hey, why don’t you enter us?!” They were, after all, as fast as many club men’s crews.
And so he did. The HRR entry form only asks for initials and surnames, and they were entered using their maiden names, so the form just showed A Hohl and P Bird. Surprisingly, given the encyclopaedic knowledge and fanatical attention to detail of the Henley Stewards, and the fact that Pauline’s maiden name was well known in rowing circles as she’d only changed it to Hart less than two years earlier, this wasn’t noticed until the printed list of entries was about to be published. Maybe the Stewards in question hadn’t really got their heads round the idea that there were now female members of what had long been a ‘men’s’ club.
David Biddulph remembers how it all came out:
In those days the HRR entries were published on a Friday lunchtime, so I treated myself to a day off work and went up to Henley to see who else had entered the various other events which KRC had entered, there being no website to find such information in those days, of course.
Some time after the entries would normally have been on the noticeboard they still weren’t, so I poked my head round the door of the office to enquire whether the entry list was available, and a Steward barked back that they weren’t.
It turned out that HRR had been phoning me up at work all that morning to query the entry, but of course I wasn’t there. Eventually they had managed to contact the KRC Captain, Gus Gait, and he admitted the offence. The entry list had to be reprinted!
Apparently it had only been picked up when the press were given a preview of the entry list, and it was spotted by Richard Burnell, who wrote for The Times as well as being an HRR Steward.
Gus Gait was summoned to an uncomfortable meeting with Peter Coni (the Chairman of the Committee of Management of HRR), who threatened to throw out all the KRC entries. After Gus apologised, Peter allowed the other KRC entries to stand, and as it happened we won the Brit that year, with Gus in the crew. When he went up the steps to receive his medal, Peter told him that he was bl***y lucky to be there.
Although a famous one in the annals of Henley history, the incident has also been attributed with more significance than it deserves. “It was just a bit of fun, and there was no forethought to it,” Astrid explains, adding that it was certainly never intended to be a statement or “an attempt to force the issue” as Wikipedia puts it.
Home Countries International Regatta (29 July in Wales)
In the end, the TTRC four represented England at the Home Countries International Regatta coxed by Barbara Handscomb (Sue’s 14 year old younger sister who happened to be a pupil at the school where Clare Bayles taught). Sue Handscomb was the single sculler (Rosie Clugston went as her coach), and Gill Bond and Julia Corbin raced the pair – the first time this boat class had been included in the event. All three crews won.
FISA Junior Championships
The Nottingham pair of Deborah Bradley and Alexa Forbes, coached by Freddy Brookes, represented GB at the first FISA Junior Championships to include women, and finished seventh out of eight entries. The annual report on women’s rowing in the Almanack described the standard of competition as “frighteningly high,” in a depressingly quaint manner faintly reminiscent of 1950s commentary by the British Women’s ARA about senior international women’s rowing.
For the record, at this time this event was called the FISA Junior Championships rather than the World (Rowing) Junior Championships as they are now because FISA held that use of the word ‘World’ was inappropriate because there could only be one World Champion per boat/gender class (which was the gold medallist in the openweight senior category), a funny piece of semantics which it eventually got over in 1985 when they were renamed. The FISA Championships for Lightweights were originally so named for the same reason.
A bit about boats
One of the many eye-watering costs arising from the Championships being on the other side of the World from Europe was that of boat transportation.
In the case of the women’s double’s boat, a deal was done which scored a three-way win for all concerned. The boatbuilder Carl Douglas approached Don Somner and explained that he had a Kiwi friend who wanted to buy one of his double sculls. The plan was that Carl would built a superb purpose-built boat for Astrid and Pauline, who would have the use of it for free (a big win for them), it would be taken with the GB boats to New Zealand (saving the eventual buyer the shipping costs) and then collected by the friend after the Championships (saving the ARA the cost of bringing it back). “Everybody was aware!” says Don, adding, “The boat he built was lovely. It was the best boat, probably better than any of the plastic boats at the time.”
In the end, the other six (men’s) GB boats were actually sold off in New Zealand to avoid the cost of bringing them back. This strategy was adopted by several other European countries too, which meant that the number of boats involved rather flooded the fairly small New Zealand market and some subsidies had to be paid to the local boatbuilders in compensation.
Australia training camp
The British team flew to Sydney, Australia on 22 September for a long, four-week training camp that would give them enough time to get over their jet lag and also to re-peak after their long season by racing at a preliminary regatta in Australia before moving on to New Zealand.
Their boats were also flown out.
Training while working had obviously been hard during this particularly long season. “After the National Championships we’d had to go away and do steady state for a month or two,” the double’s coach Don Somner remembers. “All three of us were desperately tired because of the morning outings… we were trying to do the workload the Bulgarians and East Germans and the other Eastern bloc countries were doing, but of course they didn’t have any jobs to go to. So they wouldn’t have had a 7am outing, they would have had a 9am outing after breakfast, then had a break, and then they’d have gone and done their circuit training and stretched before lunch. So what we were doing was doomed in a way but you had no choice. So we were all getting at each other a bit.
But once they were in Australia, the team almost had too much spare time on their hands, and when you put a bunch of young people in a motel for several weeks, there are inevitably going to be what grandmothers at the time referred to as ‘high jinks,’ some of which will go too far and end in tears.
In one such incident, Astrid twisted her ankle badly and, “She was unable to do any training for about a week,” Don recalls.
On another occasion, the team cooled off with a water fight. “In the motel, Astrid and my room was directly above Jim Clark and John Roberts’ room. And during the water fight we were leaning over the balcony trying to pour water down on Jim and John but they were pointing above us, and we were too slow to realise that somebody else had run up the stairs with a bucket of water, and the next thing we knew was, ‘Sploosh!’ over our heads, which was quite funny.
Not enough beer
Penny Chuter, who was there coaching the men’s pair, remembers an amusing incident in the bar at Sydney RC after their first training session. “We’d all had a very light easy outing because they’d still got jet lag and we were only just getting used to the heat. And because it was still a long time till the Championships, we had an agreement that people were allowed one pint of beer a day because if you start telling people that they can’t do things, they rebel. We went into the bar and I said to Astrid and Pauline, ‘I’ll buy the first round,’ so I asked the barman for three of their large tankards of lager. He looked at me and said, ‘We don’t serve tankards to women, Madam.’ So Jim Clark (from the men’s pair that Penny was coaching) thumped the table and said, ‘You do to this one!’ And the barman went away shaking and came back with the beers.”
And too much
While they were there, Pauline remembers, “There were some cracking parties at Sydney Rowing Club and a few drinks were taken,” particularly by the coaches. One of them, she recalls, who shall remain nameless, “Fell in with a particularly hard-drinking crowd that he felt he had to keep up with. And he was just dreadfully ill. When we got back to the motel we heard this awful noise like an animal dying and it was poor old [redacted] throwing up the gin and tonics. There was a t-shirt shop along the road and the next day his crew got t-shirts printed with ‘Plink, plink, fizz’ on the front which was very funny.”
T-shirt printing had long been a form of entertainment for the squad, and in this tradition, Don Somner was presented with one featuring a quote from an article in The Observer which the writer, who had come to watch the double in training, opened with the marvellous line, “At 7.30 on a weekday morning there is little to see on the water between Kingston and Hampton Court except two girls in a beautiful racing shell being pursued along the river by a squat little man on a bicycle.” Inevitably, Don’s new shirt said, “Squat little man on a bicycle.” Sadly, there appear not to be any photos of him wearing it.
“Training camps are funny things,” Astrid muses. “Everyone looks forward to it, as you’re just with your crew. But when you’re living together with other people as well as training twice a day, even though you’re in a group it can also be quite lonely as you always find that groups form. But I think we had no real problem.” She adds that some of her fondest memories of down time during training camp are of chilling out in the evening listening to Martin Cross playing the guitar and singing.
…but more importantly, rowing
The Paramatta River in Sydney where they were training was quite rough a lot of the time, so the whole team moved their boats up to Penrith (the venue for the rowing at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, about an hour’s drive from Sydney RC) in search of better water on the Nepean River.
They also raced at Penrith in the ‘New South Wales Centenary Regatta’ on 14-15 October, which was specifically designed to give various international teams training in Australia their first external racing opportunity since Lucerne in late July. Bizarrely, the August edition of Rowing magazine claimed that Britain was expected to bring a team of 15 women; maybe someone thought even at that late stage that a coxed four, pair and single would be selected?
On safer ground when reporting what had happened, Rowing commented, “Don Somner must have been very pleased with the girls’ showing at this pre-World Championship warm-up. Although the opposition was still only Australian, American and Canadian in origin, the latter two nations had finished ahead of the British girls in Amsterdam [at the Worlds in 1977]. Two second places were the end result, only one second behind the USA  bronze medallists and six seconds ahead of Canada.”
In his preview of the Championships for The Telegraph, Geoffrey Page chose to be cautionary in tone, writing, “The women are represented by Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart in the double sculls. Last year they became the first British women’s entry to reach an international championship final for eleven years. However, they did not do quite well enough in Australia to suggest that they can improve on last year’s fifth place.”
In a separate report, the GB men’s team spare, Hugh Matheson, who became the rowing correspondent for The Independent, also emphasised that the lack of Eastern bloc crews at the regatta meant they weren’t really any kind of indicator, commenting, “The British team had taken a firm grip on the international match, but not one was fooled into thinking the Karapiro Championships would be similarly untesting.”
And so the team moved on to Hamilton, New Zealand, the town nearest Lake Karapiro.
At the Championships
In his preview of the Championships for Rowing, Hugh Matheson put into words what Don and the double were well aware of; “This event [the women’s doubles] is always (like the men’s) heavily contested and to get to the final is the first aim. An improvement on last year’s fifth place is a possibility with a medal chance at the outside.”
About Lake Karapiro
Like Karapiro is actually a man-made lake, formed in 1974 by the damming of the Waikato river to form a reservoir for a hydro-electric power station.
It was first used for international rowing in 1950 when it hosted the Empire Games.
“It’s gorgeous, like Lucerne, and surrounded by gentle hills that are typical of New Zealand and very much like England,” Astrid says, and Don agrees, adding, “People used to say that Lucerne was God’s own rowing lake, but I think Karapiro could claim that. We had the most fabulous training there. The big problem was that I couldn’t actually go out with them.” On the plus side, because the lake was part of a river, there were 16 miles of water upstream available for training in addition to the lake itself, of which the 2k course was only a small part anyway.
Racing: First round heat
With ten entries in the women’s doubles, racing started with two heats of five, from which on would progress to the final and the remainder would go to one of two repechages.
“In the heat they drew the Bulgarian Olympic Champions, the Russians and the East Germans,” wrote Hugh Matheson in Rowing. He continued, “A poor first half left them in fifth place but their good aerobic fitness allowed them to pull back well in the second 500m and although they were fourth across the line they were close enough to the East Germans and Russians to realise that they were well in the class of the event.” They were also comfortably ahead of a French crew,
Given their draw, Astrid and Pauline had had little chance of securing that single qualifying spot for the final, so fourth place was as good as any, and Richard Burnell, writing in The Times, noted that their time, “Put them just on the margin of a possible place in the final from the repechage.”
The British crew’s draw for the rep put them up against East Germany again as well as Romania and Austria. Only the first two crews would qualify for the final.
At half way, East Germany had a reasonable lead of just under two seconds over Romania, with Astrid and Pauline in third, a further 1.25 seconds down. The Austrians were a long way back. In the second half of the race, the lead changed hands, but sadly the British crew remained in third place finishing 1.3 seconds behind the East Germans who were in turn 0.3 seconds behind Romania.
Leaving aside for a moment this dreadful disappointment for the GB double, this was an unusually substantial turnaround for the first two crews in the last part of the race. Don remembers the East Germans “doing something very strange” and winding down, although this can only have been in the final few metres. Word got around they had some kind of injury. In the final they were second at half way but finished last. It was mysterious, but remained unexplained.
Back to the GB result, as Hugh Matheson explained, “The repechage system is designed to protect the medallists and often the crews capable of fifth and sixth in the final find themselves excluded. Astrid and Pauline might well feel that this was their fate when they again finished overlapping the East Germans but out of the qualifiers.”
In a similar vein, Chris Dodd noted in The Guardian, that, “In the other repechage the Soviet Union [who were the eventual silver medallists] won in a slower time than that of the British girls.” His piece goes on, “‘We were beaten by the draw,’ said Mrs Hart. ‘It was a tremendous race and we have never got anywhere near the East Germans before,'” which is a good point but a rather more positive spin than Don recalls them feeling at the time. “We were absolutely gutted not have reached the final,” he says, and Chris Dodd’s piece in The Guardian is accompanied by a photo captioned, “Astrid Ayling (Britain) sobs in disappointment as she and Pauline Hart fail to reach the final.”
“I remember on finals day the conditions absolutely dreadful because it’s quite a windy course,” Pauline says, “And they actually had to delay the racing for about an hour because it was really rough and they thought it would probably improve a bit. But it didn’t improve so we just cracked on regardless.”
The GB crew won the small final by over four seconds from the French, putting them in seventh place overall. Their time of 4’04.24″ shows how bad the headwind must have been because they’d recorded times of sub 3’30 both in training and in the heat, and had done 3’30.33″ in the rep.
Interestingly, as the petite finale took place immediately before the grand final, the times for the two races can reasonably be compared, and Astrid and Pauline’s would have put them in the bronze medal position in the grand final ahead of the American crew that had beaten them at the regatta in Australia. Hugh Matheson commented that they were “in command of the rough water,” in the petite finale; it could well be that they were relatively better in bad conditions than those who had reached the final in calmer ones.
Don Somner probably sums it all up best when he says, “We had improved hugely since 1977, but so had everyone else and we were also just unlucky with the draw.”
The GB team manager Mike Sweeney described the regatta in Karapiro as, “The best ever World Rowing Championships,” in Rowing magazine, which also praised their “superb informality” and the fact that, “The greatest volume of crowds ever to watch a World Regatta [were a] great credit to the organisers.” These included 20,000 who watched the women’s finals.
Many of the team have commented that this video captures the atmosphere at the Championships really well, although unfortunately it doesn’t include any footage of the women’s double.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2017.