1979 World Rowing Championships

The 1979 World Rowing Championships took place on Lake Bled in what was then Yugoslavia from 30 August to 9 September.

They attracted the largest entry in the women’s events since these had been introduced in 1974, with 78 crews from 22 countries competing. These included Japan for the first time, which was represented by a single sculler.

International women’s racing continued to be over 1,000m as it had been since 1951.

Setting the scene

From the time that international women’s rowing started in the 1950s, and at least until full Lottery funding was secured in 1997, there has been a cyclical pattern to GB women’s rowing both in terms of numbers of crews and the management energy behind the squad.

The previous year had seen a low point in that cycle with no one in overall charge for the previous two seasons, and only a double being sent to the Championships (albeit partly because they were in faraway New Zealand). Leaving aside the question of whether other crews should have been sent too, there was certainly a need to increase the size of the team again, especially with the next Olympic Games now only two years away.

With the Championships back in Europe, at least the logistics of this were manageable. Domestic rowing also started benefiting from what the Almanack described as, “The surge of interest shown by women to take up rowing,” explaining that, “We appear to be at the start of a period of rapid growth in the number of women who participate at club level, as well as at national level. This is a direct consequence of the three-year sponsorship entered into by BHS [British Home Stores] in 1978. At that time BHS declared that their main aim was to ‘put women’s rowing on the map at both international and club levels.'” It added, “Clubs up and down the country have co-operated with local branches of BHS to publicise the sport of rowing and to recruit new members.”

Another important new impetus was that, Dan Topolski, the architect of Oxford’s Boat Race revival, was appointed Women’s National Squad Co-Ordinator and Coach.

While all of this was genuine good news, Dan wasn’t devoting his time solely to the women’s squad as he was still coaching Oxford too. And, of course, it takes time for new oarswomen at grass roots level to develop to the standard where they could bolster the squad, and as a result there were only three rowers in the 1979 team who hadn’t already competed at at World Championships, and two of them had raced with squad crews at early-season international regattas the previous year.

But this is getting ahead of the story, which starts with a completely new approach to selection.

1979 Women’s Selection

The Selectors

Don Somner

Chair of Selectors Don Somner. (Photo: Don Somner’s personal collection.)

Penny Chuter, who was by now ARA Senior National Coach,  asked Don Somner, coach of the GB women’s double in 1977 and 1978, if he would take on the volunteer role of Chairman of Selectors, both because he clearly had the right skills for the job but also because he was a man. Since British women had started rowing internationally in 1951, their selection had always been a matter for other women, at first the separate Women’s Amateur Rowing Association and then, after the merger of the WARA with the ARA in 1963, by a Women’s Selection Board.

Penny’s thinking, however, was that women’s rowing had enough of a battle trying to get the funding and resources it needed without this work being led by a woman who would also be struggling to be taken seriously by the ‘suits’. With a man in charge, at least the fight was limited to a single front.

The other Selectors were former internationals Liz Lorrimer and Chris Aistrop, both of whom had been Selectors for the previous two years when Liz had been Chair.

Selection policy

Don soon issued Selection Policy Statement which set out a structure for women’s international rowing that offered a middle way between the single-location squad that was in place when Penny Chuter was in charge from 1974-1976 (although in 1974 there was a Midlands-based double in addition to the London group) and the looser arrangements in 1977-1978.

The key points of his new vision were that ONLY squad crews would be eligible for selection for the World Championships BUT (and this was a point initially misinterpreted by Rowing magazine despite the editor knowing him well), there would be, “No rigid rules about who should be allowed in or thrown out at any time.” He continued, “Anyone of sufficient ability and enthusiasm can join the squad, which is there to help provide the correct situation for them to realise their potential.” He made it clear that the structure was designed to produce for future years, even beyond the 1980 Olympics, and not just for the current season.

Critically, there was no need for rowers to be based at Hammersmith and, writing in the March 1979 issue of Rowing magazine, he pointed out that there were squad members training in York, Bristol, Weybridge and Putney as well as out of the ARA, although he admitted that, “The only group within the squad who can continuously try new combinations… are the group at Hammersmith.”

He also emphasised that he was keen for the squad to be as large as possible, writing, “People are only likely to try for international crews and selection if they can see something successful coming out of it, and a reasonable opportunity to get in a crew. The fewer girls to get selected, the fewer will try in subsequent years.” As he put it later, one of the main changes was that they were no longer trying to find reasons NOT to send crews, and one aspect of this was getting rid of the ‘standard times’ which crews had previously had to make ( at least in theory) before they could be selected.

His comment that, “There is no obvious single emerging,” is interesting because Beryl Mitchell was focusing on being a single sculler by then. More on this in due course.

Training and assessment

Nottingham weekend (25 November 1978)

This first squad weekend of the year involved an awful lot of 1,500m pieces done in pairs and singles and the odd double, as well as fours from Oxford University and Weybridge Ladies RC. There was also a 3k run. At least 39 rowers were involved including many attending this type of event for the first time. So far, so to plan.

Tough times

As the new year began, Britain was gripped by the oldest winter for 16 years and also the political unrest of what became known as the Winter of Discontent which saw widespread public sector strikes in protest at minimal pay rises that had been designed to curb inflation. The GB women’s squad, meanwhile, were gripped by flu.

Dan’s approach to land training

Dan seems only to have taken up his appointment around Christmas 1978, so there was already a routine of evening land training sessions in place when he arrived. These took place at a school in Paddington where international Lin Clark worked. Squad member Liz Paton remembers how he was not at all impressed with some of them initially:

Dan came along to our session at the gym, and quickly enquired what we were doing as we were jumping up and down in the corner waving our arms around. We explained we were skipping but we didn’t have a rope, and then he also asked us what we were doing when we were kneeling down on the ground moving our bodies up and down and we said, “Those were press ups!” and he just said, “They are NOT press-ups,” so we had to learn how to do press ups properly. So Dan was quite interesting and a bit of a rude awakening and I think the amount of work we did definitely grew with Dan’s arrival.

This is understating it. Considerably, although Sue Handscomb points out that, as someone who had been training with the squad for longer, she always did ‘proper’ press ups from her toes.

Writing in the Guardian in late February, Chris Dodd reported that, “[Dan] said bluntly at the beginning of the year that he proposed to bludgeon the women as hard in training as the men’s squad is pushed.” Nicola Boyes says he certainly did; “I think he felt we were perhaps ladylike in our approach, and I’m sure he felt that kick up the backside as we didn’t understand what real competition was like. And I think that was probably relatively true. Certainly when I raced as a student at Cambridge, yes, you raced, but you didn’t race with a killer instinct. And Dan believed in the killer instinct. ”

Rosie Clugston explains one way that Dan’s approach was manifested:

He decided that the women didn’t know how to train so EVERYTHING was competitive. So we’d go to the gym and you’d do a run, but it was a timed run. And then you’d do circuits and they were timed circuits, and then you’d do weights and they were timed weights. And another night you’d do an ergo and then you’d do another run, and everything was timed because he felt he needed to make us more competitive, and actually in the end I think it ground us down. And for me, I was quite fast at the circuits and so generally I went off number 1 and that put huge pressure on me to remain number 1.

One method Dan sometimes used to check how hard they his crews were working on the water in training was to row in them himself. But he also made it clear that even achieving the levels of intensity he was looking for was not really enough as they were fighting an uneven battle for because most of them were much smaller than their Eastern bloc opposition.

“Topolski optimistically forecasts three crews in finals at the World Championships in September [remember this for later – Ed.], Chris Dodd wrote in the February article, “But he also wants bigger girls… He is going after highly motivated tall girls in other sports… [who] think they may not make national level… Given the obvious keenness and competition of the present squad of 40 or so, what do they think of their coach’s impending recruitment campaign by poster and local radio? ‘They hate me for it’, Topolski says, ‘But it makes them work even harder.'”

2 eights training at Walton in 1979

The squad training in eights at Walton in early 1979 (the crew on the left is using equipment from St George’s College where Chair of Selectors Don Somner coached). (Photo © John Shore.)

Jean Genchi remembers that Dan was like “a breath of fresh air” as a coach compared with previous years. “He had a system, he’d done a lot of coaching at Oxford, although that race is in April and we had to race on to August, which is a different ball game, which I think he found out!,” she says, adding that she felt that she was fitter in 1979 than any other year she was in squad. The six or eight sets of 30 burpees after outings in Hammersmith that she remembers certainly had something to do with this.

Meanwhile in Kingston: Astrid and Pauline’s third year as a double

After two hard years working with Don Somner, during which the double was the mainstay of the GB women’s rowing team, the crew had a change of coach. “Don needed to retire because he wanted to put some time in with his family,” Astrid Ayling explains, and the fact that he was no longer coaching a GB crew meant he felt he was able to take on the Chair of Selectors role.

Their new coach was Carl Douglas, who was already well known to the crew, and had built the boat they’d used – and loved – at the 1978 World Championships.

The well-established crew continued to train on their own at Kingston RC. As the summer racing season approached, Carl swapped the duo around, putting Pauline in the stroke seat and moving Astrid to bow. This change turned out to be less successful in practice than it might have seemed on paper, but the crew continued to row that way round for the rest of the year.

Beryl’s first season as a single sculler

Although Beryl had won novice singles at Lea Autumn in 1975, in terms of her squad participation, she’d remained firmly a sweep rower through the 1976-1978 seasons.

That said, at some point after the 1976 Olympics when Penny Chuter was no longer running the whole women’s squad but was coaching Beryl and Lin in their pair, which they raced for the next two seasons, she suggested to them that it would benefit them to learn to scull properly. “I said, ‘If you want to do an extra early morning session once a week we’ll go out as three single scullers and I’ll teach you to scull from my boat.  And your first target is to beat me and that won’t be too difficult,'” Penny recalls, adding, “It did take them a while, even though I wasn’t fit!”

“I think that put the idea in Beryl’s head that at some point she might develop her sculling,” Penny says.

A piece published in The Observer on 19 July 1981 revealed at least part of her reasoning for switching to the single scull, “I’m not by nature a loner. I enjoy company,” she was quoted as saying, “But if I can’t achieve what I want with someone else, I’ll go it alone.”

She decided to switch to the single scull for the 1979 season, and fairly firmly resisted all of Dan Topolski’s attempts to involve her in the sweep squad. She was coached by Bob Wilson from Maidenhead RC.

Winter racing for the Hammersmith group

Henley Fours Head (24 February 1979)

A Civil Service/TTRC/Borough Road/Thames squad composite was the fastest women’s coxed four at this event, which was raced in the afternoon following a normal Saturday morning’s training.

Reading Head (3 March)

Although Dan was ultimately totally unsuccessful in trying to persuade Beryl to row with the sweep squad, she did race in an eight at Reading Head.

GB women' eight at Reading Head 1979

From left: Cox as yet unidentified, Bev Jones, Clare Grove, Rosie Clugston, Sue Handscomb, Liz Paton, Steph Price, Nicola Boyes, Beryl Mitchell. (Photo: Sue McNuff’s personal collection.)

Doesn’t everyone look like they’re having a great time? No, you’re right, they’re not.

The Women’s Eights Head and Kingston Head (10 March 1979)

In a piece of most unfortunate calendar co-ordination, the Women’s Eights Head took place on the same day as Kingston Head. Separate women’s squad crews raced successfully in wet conditions at both.

The Women’s Rowing Committee Eights Head (as it was then officially called) was won in a new record time by a Thames/Nottingham/Civil Service/Stuart Ladies combination while the winners at Kingston were a Thames Tradesmen/Borough Road composite.

GB women's eight around March 1979

The WEHORR crew, from bottom of picture: cox not identified, Gill Webb, Liz Paton, Steph Price, Nicola Boyes, Jane Curry, Julia Corbin, Bernadette Casey (probably), Deborah Bradley (probably). (Photo: Gill Parker’s personal collection.)

1979 women's Head winners

The Women’s Head crew after the race. (Photo: Gill Parker’s personal collection.)

From left: Gill Webb and Liz Paton look pretty happy with a job well done. (Photo: Gill Parker’s personal collection.)

Scullers Head (7 April 1979)

Quite a few of the squad raced in this and it’s a measure of how far Beryl later progressed as a sculler that she was only the fourth woman home despite her many years’ experience of steering the Tideway in a pair, and excellent fitness.

Beverley Jones won the women’s pennant, followed by:
Rosie Clugston (+5 sec)
Stephanie Price (+10 sec)
Beryl Mitchell (+11 sec)
Jane Curry (+28 sec)
Bernadette Casey (+31 sec)
Julia Corbin (+40 sec)

Gill Webb, Clare Bayles, Lin Clark, Jean Genchi, Liz Paton, Judy McCann and Nicola Boyes also competed.

Nottingham assessment weekend (13-15 April 1979 – Easter weekend)

The main focus of this Easter weekend assessment was a set of three 1k pieces on the Saturday. The idea was that pre-set crews would row all of the pieces without any changes and each was given a target time that took into account rating suitable for the time of year (lower than would be expected at the World Championships in August).

According to Rowing magazine’s report of the trials, Dan was refusing to say, “Whether the eight or the four will be the main boat,” although the overall line-ups for these pieces clearly had the eight as the top crew:

Eight

B: Gill Webb (Stuart Ladies RC)
2: Lin Clark (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
3: Stephanie Price (Thames RC)
4: Liz Paton (Civil Services Ladies RC)
5: Sue Handscomb (Borough Road College RC)
6: Rosie Clugston (Borough Road College RC)
7: Clare Bayles (Thames Tradesmen’s RC)
S: Beverley Jones (Borough Road College RC)
Cox: Nicky Mason (Thames RC)

Coxed fours

B: Jane Curry (Thames RC)
2: Yvonne Earl (TTRC)
3: Nicola Boyes (CSLRC)
S: Jean Genchi (TTRC)
Cox: Nicky Zarach (Kingston RC)
B: Bernadette Casey (Thames RC)
2: Julia Corbin (CSLRC)
3: Judy McCann (CSLRC)
S: Jane Sturdy (York City RC)
Cox: Barbara Handscomb (TTRC)

Double scull

Astrid Ayling (Kingston RC)
Pauline Hart (Kingston RC)

Pairs

Janet Unwin (York City RC)
Gill Wilkinson (York City RC)
Bernadette Casey (Thames RC)
Julia Corbin (CSLRC)

Bernadette and Julia only raced the last piece as a pair as by then it had become clear that their four was considerably off the pace of the first four. 

The practicalities of having squad members based in many different parts of the country had, of course, kicked in by this time and there was no viable option for Janet and Gill from York to do anything other than a small boat together.

Single scull

Beryl Mitchell (TTRC)

Women's coxed four at trials 1979

The four at the trials. From left: Jane Curry, Nicola Boyes, Yvonne Earl, Jean Genchi, Nicky Zarach (cox). (Photo: Rowing magazine)

Outcome

Once the pieces were completed, the rowers from the eight and the first coxed four, “Did some intensive trials in fours which made it plain that nothing is finally decided as those in the four were able to ‘beat’ those in the eight in seat racing,” Rowing magazine reported, adding, “The competition seems to be very close for the top crew and this appears to be raising the overall standard, judging by the racing in these trials.”

At the end of the weekend Chair of Selectors Don Somner issued a typically positive statement which summarised the squad’s position and stated that with the exception of the pairs, who would be trialled further:

The overall picture is that there is a basis for a large and strong team for the European regattas and from this the Selectors hope that sufficient progress will be made so that a large team will be possible for the World Rowing Championships…

There may be some changes based on seat racing and further trials, however the basic combinations will probably remain very similar to those racing in the assessments. It is also possible that a different eight/four will race at certain early regattas but this will not affect the overall composition of the team at these regattas.

Although only the eight and the double had achieved the “expected time for this stage of training,” they would be joined by at at least one four, at least one pair, and Beryl in the single scull for Mannheim and Salzgitter regattas, after which further decisions would be made.

Readers who know what Beryl went on to achieve in her single (GB’s first women’s Women’s Championship medal just two years later), will be amused that the Statement said, “The Selectors feel that should she continue in the single she has the potential to reach the required standard.”

Early season regattas

What actually happened in terms of the sweep group, was almost totally different in terms of who raced in what boats. But before we get on to all that, four of the squad went to Ghent.

Ghent (11-12 May 1979)

Rosie Clugston recalls, “Having Dan around was never boring. So that first year that he took four of us to Ghent regatta with the Oxford University men he was still coaching at the same time as he was coaching us that year. It was Liz [Paton], Sue [Handscomb], Beverley [Jones] and me, and on the first day we did a coxed four and the next day we jumped into a 4x+ together and we won the quad as well. It obviously wasn’t great opposition or anything, but it was really quite an experience to pull off that double win.”

While Rosie, Sue and Beverley were all experienced scullers, having been in the GB quad together for the previous two seasons, Liz – by her own admission – distinctly preferred one blade to two. “I was put in the two seat and told to not do anything dramatic. It worked!,” she remembers, adding that she also drove the whole crew out there in her Renault 5.

Mannheim (19-20 May 1979)

Two different versions of the eight and the four were raced, neither of which was the exact crews that had done the Easter trials:

Four

Saturday: Lin, Yvonne, Gill, Jane, Nicky Mason (cox)
Sunday: Liz, Sue, Steph, Jean, Nicky Zarach (cox)

The Saturday crew was fifth, finishing 18.6 seconds behind the Russian winners. On the Sunday, the British crew was fourth, 18.2 seconds behind the Russian winners.

Eight

Saturday: Bev, Clare, Rosie, Sue, Liz, Steph, Nicola, Jean, Nicky Zarach (cox)
Sunday: Bev, Clare, Rosie, Lin, Yvonne, Gill, Nicola, Jane, Nicky Mason (cox)
Names in bold are the ones which changed between days.

They finished second behind a Russian crew on both days, 3.7 seconds down on first day (in a time of 3.02) and 4.8 seconds on the second (in 3.10) when the Russians were 6.6 seconds slower. Writing about the Saturday race, probably in The Guardian, Geoffrey Page said, “The girls [squad] had, alas, a rather depressing day until the eight, coached by Dan Topolski, stormed up the course to produce what must have been a best-ever performance by a British Women’s Eight.”

Gill Webb remembers all the swapping around. “The eight was going to be the first boat and Dan was looking at the bigger girls, so those of us us who were under 5’9” or whatever ended up in the four. But when we went to Mannheim regatta, on the first day they raced the big eight and on the second day they put us from the four into the eight and put the biggest four, into a coxed four. And the outcome of that was that the coxed four didn’t go any better with big girls in it. So it actually showed that we moved the boat better but he was still insistent on having the big ones in the eight.”

Dan’s decision to make the eight the top sweep boat involved a slightly convoluted piece of logic to do with the size of the crew, as Liz Paton remembers it. “He had this idea that because a coxed four is such a big, heavy boat, you needed really big, good people which we didn’t have. But he thought we could get away with being relatively lightweight in the eight.”

Other  crews

In the end, both of the two pairs which did pieces at the Easter trials raced at Mannheim, as did the other pair from erstwhile “second” four:

  • Gill Wilkinson and Janet Unwin (both YCRC).
  • Bernadette Casey (Thames) and Julia Corbin (CSLRC).
  • Judy McCann (CSLRC) and Jane Sturdy (YCRC).

None of them reached the final on either day. Beryl also failed to qualify for either final in the single scull and she returned home “totally dejected,” according to Rowing magazine.

Salzgitter (2-3 June 1979)

Just two weeks after Mannheim, Beryl turned this round and won on both days at Salzgitter, sculling in a different boat. On the Saturday she beat a field of nine which included two West Germans who went on to do the double at the World Championships that year. The Guardian‘s rowing correspondent Geoffrey Page wrote, “Beryl Mitchell… really came good after a disappointing Mannheim. Second in her heat of the single sculls, she made no mistake in the final and looked to have improve tremendously over the last fortnight. This win was just what she needed at this stage of the season.”

The eight and the four once again changed composition between the two days, with the same crews that raced at Mannheim competing here.

This time the eight won on both days in a two-boat race against the West German national crew – a useful comparison. The slightly larger GB eight won by 5.4 seconds on the Saturday, which Geoffrey Page, writing probably in The Guardian, described as “Not unexpected given their Mannheim performance.”

The slightly smaller eight was 4.1 seconds clear on the Sunday – very similar results to those at Mannheim.

1979 Salzgitter medal

Nicola Boyes’ Salzgitter medal. (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.)

The smaller coxed four came fourth on the Saturday, eight seconds behind the winning West German national crew. The larger GB crew was second on the Sunday, six seconds behind the same West Germans.

The GB junior crew from Weybridge Ladies RC also raced, finishing five seconds behind the senior crew the first day and eight seconds back on the second.

The double won on the Saturday. Geoffrey Page reported, “Pauline Hart and Astrid Ayling came through a good Polish double with a spirited second-half burst, to win on their [first] appearance this season.” However, they could only manage third on the Sunday in another well-supported event, and an unidentified newspaper clip said, “Early casualties were the women’s double sculls who looked tired after their hard-earned success on Saturday.”

The two faster GB pairs also raced with Gill Wilkinson and Janet Unwin finishing third on both days, four seconds ahead of Bernadette Casey and Julia Corbin, and one second ahead of them on the Sunday.

Ratzeburg (16-17 June 1979)

Ratzeburg regatta saw much stiffer competition in the women’s events with entries from Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Russia as well as West Germany again, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Dan had finally settled on the slightly larger version of the eight and the same crew raced each day. However, as Rowing magazine put it, on the Saturday they, “Suffered a setback when they were beaten by crews who they had already beaten.” This included the West German eight they’d defeated fairly comfortably twice in Salzgitter, and a Dutch national crew. Rowing suggested, “This hiccough in results could have been caused by the absence of Topolski during the preparation for this regatta.”

On the Sunday, according to an unidentified newspaper clip, “The women’s eight redeemed themselves after their defeat on Saturday with a narrow win… In a desperately close finish they just held on to a lead of a few feet at the line.”

ARA Club News described this as, “The first time a British women’s eight has won abroad,” [the author must have missed the Salzgitter results – Ed.], continuing rather topically that, “Britain may have one iron lady at Westminster [Margaret Thatcher having become Prime Minister], but it obviously has another 19 further up river at Hammersmith.”

1979 Ratzeburg regatta medal

Nicola Boyes’ Ratzeburg medal. (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.)

The unidentified newspaper clip also wrote, “Beryl Mitchell, another vastly improved performer, again impressed in the women’s single sculls with two good wins over strong opponents.”

With the eight now selected, the coxed four was too but Bernadette Casey had been brought in from the second pair to replace Jane Curry. They came second each day out of three entries.

Although disappointed not to have been in the eight, looking back on it now, Gill Webb says, “I wasn’t probably at my best that year. I’d just started work teaching and trying to teach all day in Bethnal Green in the east end of London and then cross London to train muddled my brain. And as a teacher as well you got ill a lot because you get kids’ bugs. I was frequently ill, saying to Dan, ‘I can’t get to training, I’m too ill,’ so I struggled that year. I kept doing as much training as I could, obviously, and I ended up in the bow seat of that four.”

Being in the four, however, worked very well for her, as she really enjoyed being coached by Tim Bramfitt. “He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. Very in tune with how the athletes felt. Very good technical coach. Very good at building up your confidence, and that sort of thing, and that was important because we were the second boat. He was very calm, I think he was good for us that year, he was nurturing. He’s a very good coach. He just said to us, ‘Put your blade in, push it through, bring it out again, don’t worry about it.”

She continues, “Dan used to say, ‘Harder, faster, deeper,’ that was his coaching point. I didn’t get what he wanted. I felt he wanted you to basically rip the blade through the water, and that’s not how you row, so once we were in the four, it took the pressure off because he wasn’t coaching me any more.”

Jane and Julia Corbin raced a coxless pair on the Saturday, while the York City pair raced on the Sunday [was only one boat taken? – Ed]. Neither crew’s results seem to have been noteworthy.

The double came second on both days behind the West Germans in difficult conditions which meant that even the winners’ times were a long way off the course record of 3.28 which Astrid Ayling had set back in 1975 when she was still representing West Germany and rowing with Regine Adam.

ARA Club News summed up the Ratzeburg results by saying, “Never before has so much been achieved by British oarswomen at this level in a season, let alone at a single regatta.”

NIR (30 June-1 July 1979)

As usual, NIR was more international by name than by nature with only a handful of Irish crews in the women’s events to supplement the otherwise domestic club entry.

The GB squad eight didn’t race on the first day, leaving an ARA development crew from OUWBC/Bristol/CUWBC/CSLRC/York City to win by a whopping eleven seconds over Queen’s University, Belfast. The main squad eight then came out on the Sunday, beating the development crew by nine seconds.

1979 NIR medal

Nicola Boyes’ medal from NIR. (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.)

The GB coxed four won easily on both days, finishing eight and then 11 seconds clear of a Thames Tradesmen’s crew.

In the double, Pauline and Astrid won by nearly half a minute over a British club crew, the only other entry, on the Saturday. There seems not to have been an event on the Sunday.

Entries were also thin on the ground [or is that water? – Ed] in the single sculls which Beryl won very comfortably over the only other competitor, Lesley Titterton from Derby on the Saturday. On the Sunday she won again although challenged by an Irish international who finished five seconds behind her and ahead of Titterton.

A CSLRC/Thames crew which was probably Julia and Jane won the coxless pairs by ten seconds over York City (names not given) on the Saturday.

Lucerne (14-15 July 1979)

The opposition was typically challenging at Lucerne with most of the Eastern Bloc present, although Romania and the USA weren’t there. This was a concern for the eight given that both countries usually entered the category, and the GB crew could only come sixth each day out of the seven entries that were there.

The coxed four was also sixth out of seven on both days in the absence of Romania and the USA.

The team’s best performance by far was Beryl in the single scull who finished third out of sixteen on the Saturday and second on the Sunday, after leading the eventual East German winner for part of the course. Impressively, this was despite using a borrowed boat, although it was of a “similar make” to the one she’d been using since after Mannheim.

The double finished fifth on both days.

Julia Corbin and Jane Curry raced the coxless pairs but didn’t reach either final from a field of 13 crews.

National Championships (20-21 July 1979)

In its eighth year, the National Rowing Championships included women’s eights for the first time in 1979. Not surprisingly the squad eight won this by a comfortable six seconds over the ARA second crew who themselves finished a cool 13 seconds clear of third-placed Nottingham BC.

1979 National Championships - W8 gold

Nicola Boyes’ gold medal from the first Women’s Eights event at the National Championships. (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.)

The squad coxed four also won but only by three seconds, having been led for much of the race by the excellent junior crew from Weybridge Ladies which had raced at Salzgitter.

Crews very close at Nottingham

The Weybridge juniors (lane 4) lead the GB senior crew (lane 2) by about two feet in the last quarter of the race. (Photo: Jane Cross’s personal collection.)

In the double, Astrid and Pauline, “Were supreme, finishing six lengths [17 seconds] ahead of the silver medal winners,” as Rowing magazine put it. They then also won the coxed quads with Lin and Beryl (as they had in 1977) by an even more monstrous 32 seconds.  Britain really hadn’t embraced women’s crew sculling at club level at all.

Beryl was “convincing winner” (Rowing again) of the single sculls by 15 seconds from Lesley Titterton of Derby again with 1974-75 international Jackie Darling third and Bev Jones [stroke of the eight! – Ed] sixth.

Finally, the squad coxless pair of Julia Corbin and Jane Curry won their two-boat race against York City.

Essen (2-3 June 1979)

Beryl took delivery of yet another sculling boat – a Stampfli – here, but didn’t make the final, doubtless hindered by a lack of time to rig it properly.

Selection

After Nat Champs, the following crews were confirmed as having been selected to go to the World Championships:

Eight

B: Jean Genchi (TTRC)
2: Nicola Boyes (CSLRC)
3: Stephanie Price (Thames RC)
4: Liz Paton (CSLRC)
5: Sue Handscomb (Borough Road College RC)
6: Rosie Clugston (Borough Road College RC)
7: Clare Bayles (TTRC)
S: Beverley Jones (Borough Road College RC)
Cox: Nicky Zarach (Kingston)
Coach: Dan Topolski

Coxed four

B: Yvonne Earl (TTRC)
2: Bernadette Casey (Thames RC)
3: Lin Clark (TTRC)
S: Gill Webb (Stuart Ladies RC)
Cox: Nicky Mason (Thames RC)
Coach: Tim Bramfitt

Double Scull (Kingston RC) Single Scull (TTRC)
Bow: Astrid Ayling
Stroke: Pauline Hart
Coach: Carl Douglas
Beryl Mitchell
Coach: Bob Wilson

Out of the 17 competitors, only five were not already internationals: Nicola Boyes, Liz Paton, Bernadette Casey and both coxes, and of these, Liz, Nicola and cox Nicky Zarach had raced internationally at early season regattas in 1978, so the only truly new oarswoman was Bernadette Casey. Building up a squad can be a long process.

Training camp in Varese

Both the women’s and men’s squads went to Varese for a ten-day training camp immediately before heading to Bled for the Championships.

One of the reasons for the choice of Italy for a training camp was so that everyone could get acclimatised to southern European heat. This wasn’t entirely successful as it rained for first three days, but after that it warmed up and this proved useful as the temperature in Bled during the Championships was mostly in the 90s (Farenheit, or over 30 degrees Celsius).

“We had a really good training camp in Varese,” Gill Webb remembers. “We stayed in a really good hotel in the town and the men stayed in the theological centre up on the hill. And we got fed really well.”

1979-waiting to go training in Varese

Members of the women’s squad waiting to go to the lake during their training camp in Varese. (Photo: Sue McNuff’s personal collection.)

Sue Handscomb remembers that the group had done some acclimiatisation training while they were still in the UK too., that was a typical example of Dan’s attention to detail in all aspects of what they were doing. “We were sent to some military establishment where they had a heat chamber – I think it was in Farnborough – and we’d go in, in our little bikinis, and we’d have to do an hour’s step ups in the heat. They monitored our temperatures if you got too hot you had to sit down. I always had to sit down. You were weighed when you went in and then weighed again when you went out so they could tell how dehydrated you were.”

At the Championships

Apart from the heat, the conditions at the Championships were good, with the water mostly calm (apart from when tourist launches behaved inconsiderately and an occasional tailwind), and the lanes fair.

Lake Bled

The rowing course at Lake Bled during the World Masters Rowing Championships in 2017, which used the second half of the course for 1,000m racing as did the women’s races in 1979. (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.)

Double scull (7th out of 15)

In its preview of the Championships, Rowing magazine wrote, “Carl Douglas has trained his girls really hard this season and consistent results have been achieved. Although disappointed with their fifth place in Lucerne, improvement has always been made by this double (now together for the third season) during the final stage of preparation… A final place is a possibility.”

The question was, could they improve on the fifth and seventh places they’d achieved at the last two World Championships?

“They looked to be rowing comfortably in their first round heat, where they finished third behind Romania and the Soviet Union, and moved directly to the semi-final,” Jumbo Edwards wrote in Rowing magazine. But, he went on, “Their semi-final draw looked formidable, with Romania, Bulgaria and the USA.  The British crew had to finish in the first three and went off very strongly, lying in third place at half way. The American girls were well down on them at this stage but mounted an attack at 500m. As the crews approached the finish the Romanian and Bulgarian crews were home and dry, but the race was on for third place. The British crew were unable to hold off the Americans.”

He concluded, “They were bitterly disappointed at not reaching the final, but their misery was doubled when the times of the slower semi-final appeared. The British girls time would have given them second place in the other heat, and a place in the final.”

“The double scullers Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart, seemed to throw away their chance yesterday [in the repechage],” wrote Geoffrey Page, probably in the Telegraph. Agreeing with Jumbo’s analysis, he went on, “Lying third at halfway, they were sculled down surprisingly easily by the Americans. They can count themselves unlucky though, since their fourth place time would have seen them through in second place in the other semi-final.” Desmond Hill, probably writing in the Telegraph, put the GB double’s lead over the Americans at half way as two seconds.

As Pauline remembers it, they had not rowed close to their best in the semi, and Astrid “had to be talked into doing the petite final,” as she was so upset. But race it they did, “And won, handily,” Pauline adds. According to Jumbo they were in third place at the half way point, behind Czechoslovakia and Canada, but rowed them down in the second half of the race to win by over a length and a half or three seconds.

So the answer to the question of whether they could improve on their previous results was no, although with the standard of women’s rowing worldwide moving on all the time, the fact that they had maintained seventh position for two years running suggests that they had actually got faster.

Despite their very considerable ability as oarswomen, the double’s third season together had been less harmonious than the previous ones for various reasons. “I think there was a bit of friction in terms of coaching methods and technique,” Astrid recalls. “Carl was fantastic at boat design but he was quite extreme in his views at the time and the training methods and technique didn’t really work for us. It wasn’t a happy camp.” In their report on the Championships for the Almanack, Mike Sweeney and Maureen Thompson wrote, “Perhaps with a little good fortune and a happier season they might have done better. they are still our most successful women’s crew.” However, this turned out to be the last time they raced together.

Eight (9th out of 9)

“A final place with the right draw is still a possibility but Dan Topolski will have to call on all his international experience to keep his girls in with a chance,” wrote the unidentified author of Rowing magazine’s Championships preview.

More bluntly, Geoffrey Page wrote, probably in the Telegraph, that “The women’s eight had a number of successes abroad early on but came badly unstuck at Lucerne. I doubt if they were as bad as they seemed there, but hopes of a medal must be receding now.”

Women's eight on Lake Bled

The women’s eight training in Bled. (Photo: Jean Genchi’s personal collection.)

The first round of the eights saw two heats, with four crews in one and five in the other, and just one crew from each qualifying directly for the final. Britain was drawn against the USA, Canada and the West German crew which they’d beaten twice and lost to once. the Americans took the qualifying place comfortably.

The remaining seven boats were split into two repechages with two from each to go through to the final. The GB crew was in the smaller, three-boat rep against Romania and Bulgaria. Romania took a clear, early lead but the British eight’s powerful start put it just a second down on Bulgaria at the half way point. They were unable to claw this back, though, and Bulgaria eventually took the second qualifying position by a length.

“All of the crew felt they could have beaten Bulgaria,” Jumbo Edwards wrote in Rowing, “And, not surprisingly, there were some disappointed faces at the end of the race. Unfortunately the girls seemed to have lost their aggression when they raced the Netherlands and West Germany in Sunday’s petite final. Morale was still low after Saturday’s race and a tired-looking British eight came home in last place.”

Summing up, Edwards wrote, “Dan Topolski… had set out to put his best girls in an eight. It has been many years since Britain was producing a world-class eight, and the sight of  British women’s eight winning at European regattas was applauded.”

“Bled was an absolutely beautiful place,” Liz Paton remembers. “It was sad that we didn’t do that well. Dan was very good at keeping our morale up but we clearly were outclassed.”

For Nicola, her main memory was of confusion caused by the natural shape of the lake, which was so different from the rectangular, man-made course on which the usually rowed. “I never could orientate myself on the lake because I have no sense of direction,” she says. “It was always a complete mystery where we were going and how our coxes knew.” [ahem, middle of the boat rower… – Ed (cox).]

1979 GB women's eight

The 1979 GB women’s eight. Back row from left: Stephanie Price, Dan Topolski, Liz Paton. 
Front row from left: Rosie Clugston, Clare Bayles, Beverley Jones, Sue Handscomb, Jean Genchi, Nicola Boyes. Very front: Nicky Zarach. (Photo: Rosie Mayglothling’s personal collection.)

Coxed four (10th out of 13)

Before the Championships, Rowing magazine’s positive spin on the coxed four’s chances was that they had, “Faced tough opposition from the start, and a final place could be achieved with a favourable draw.” Writing after the event, Jumbo Edwards more realistic view was, “Judging from their performances at European regattas earlier in the season they were looking for a good place in the small final,” which was more or less what they did.

The first round involved three heats with three crews from each going through to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, the British four just failed to achieve the required third place, finishing fourth, just 0.17 sec behind Poland. Romania and Canada were out in front.

However, the GB crew then secured a semi-final place relatively easily via their repechage from which only one crew needed to be eliminated, and China very clearly took that spot.. The British four were pleased to come second, beating Czechoslovakia.

Jumbo Edwards described what happened next. “In the semi-finals, Britain had no chance of qualifying for the grand final and finished fifth… but were looking forward to the Petite Final and a rematch with Poland. In this race an aggressive start by the British girls kept them ahead of Poland but well down on the leading crews. They stayed ahead of Poland and went past Czechoslovakia at 800m, to finish tenth overall.”

“Having to do four races over four days was very HARD!,” Gill Webb remembers. “But coming tenth that year wasn’t bad for how fast we were actually going. Overall I enjoyed that. It was a good regatta.” She adds, “It was the first time we had a front-loader coxed four. It was a wooden Donoratico.”

Single scull (13th out of 18)

“After deciding to move into the sculling boat, she had achieved some amazing results,” Jumbo Edwards wrote in Rowing magazine after the Championships. “Convincing victories at Salzgitter and Ratzeburg had been followed by a marvellous silver medal in Lucerne, where she put herself among the medal prospects for Bled. Boat problems at Essen had caused her failure to reach the final there but everyone had high hopes for Beryl in Yugoslavia.”

She had a tough first round draw, from which only the winner would progress directly to the semi-finals, and this, Jumbo said, “Made her decide to concentrate her efforts on qualifying through the repechage. She sculled hard to 500m where she was lying in fourth position and then eased off to finish fifth [out of six]. As a result of her low position in the heat she was drawn against tough opposition from other heats.”

Two women scullers racing.

Beryl (lane 2) in the closing stages of her repechage. (Photo: Jean Genchi’s personal collection.)

Her five-boat repechage saw her up against scullers from Russia, the Netherlands, Canada, and Ireland with three to qualify for the semis. “Looking far from comfortable, she passed 500m in fourth position,” according to Edwards. “The British girl [actually a woman of 29 – Ed.] tried to get back on terms with the third-placed Canadian sculler, but she crossed the line in fourth place and was eliminated from the competition. Her time of 3.44-01 was faster than the winners of the other two repechages, a harsh piece of bad luck but she was punished for playing for position in that first round heat.”

“Had she been in either of the other two repechages, she would have qualified in first place [on times] and, on the Grand Final times, there is a possibility that she would have been at least in fifth place,” according to the Almanack.

Writing probably in The Telepgraph, Geoffrey Page said, “She came here as the best bet for a medal, but has been nowhere near her best,” adding that, “[She] looked as though she had raced too often this summer. Her time will come.”

Rowing roundup

The post-Championships report in the Almanack proclaimed that our, “Women’s crew are gradually closing the gap on the rest of the world,” although the basis for this statement is unclear. In fact, while Desmond Hill pointed out quite correctly that, “Of the 36 women’s finalists, the Eastern block supplied 25 and took all but two of the medals,” and that, “The Communist countries’ domination of the women’s events reached its peak last week and must cause concern not only to Western coaches but to FISA itself, who are trying hard to improve rowing’s image as a spectator sport,” the various British entries were beaten by Western crews from, variously, Australia, the USA, Canada, West Germany, the Netherlands and France. It wasn’t all down to ‘professional’ athletes and performance enhancing drugs (and, in fact, the East Germans’ dominance over other Eastern bloc countries shows that their system was critical to their success).

In an article by Chris Dodd published in The Guardian in February, Dan Topolski had boldly predicted three crews in the finals at the World Championships. In a roundup of the state of women’s rowing published in the Almanack, 1960s GB international Pauline Churcher, who was Chair of the Women’s Rowing Committee, said that Dan Topolski’s, “Declared aim was to give as many women as possible the chance to taste international competition and thus provide a much larger pool of talent from which to form crews to compete in the next Olympics.” [This is the point where it’s worth remembering that only one of the 1979 rowers had not previously competed at least at early season international regattas before – Ed.]

There was a lot to do before the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Around the Championships

Food

After being so well catered for at their training camp in Varese, Gill Webb remembers that it was a struggle to get enough to eat when they were actually at the Championships. “The coxed fours always raced at 1pm every day, it was the first race in the afternoon, so we didn’t get lunch in the hotel. We got breakfast, which was just a tourist menu – it wasn’t an athlete’s breakfast but you could fill up with bread, and then they would give us a packed lunch which was two hard bits of bread with ham or cheese in. And then a piece of fruit. That’s not enough! I lost a kilo a day. And when we went out for the small final, the boating umpire kept asking me for my ticket. ‘Ticket?,’ I said. ‘Ticket?’ He thought I was the cox because I’d lost so much weight because we couldn’t get enough to eat! It was alright for the men’s lightweights, but I don’t know what happened to the heavyweights. We moved out of the hotel and they moved in as they raced the second week of the Championships. Goodness knows how they got enough to eat.”

Practical jokes

As the men’s lightweights’ racing took place at the same time as the women’s events, these two British teams were accommodated in the same hotel in Bled, the Hotel Jelovica, which the team referred to as the ‘Jolly Vicar.’

Some of the GB men’s lightweights started irritating Gill, Beryl and Lin Clark, who shared a room and were good friends. Fed up with the men climbing round the balconies into their rooms to spot them in their underwear or less, the three women took their revenge, sewing up not only the bottoms of their pyjamas while they were out, but also their racing shorts, which they didn’t find until they got to the course to race and went to get changed. “It was their fault if they didn’t do well as a result,” Gill says. The lightweight eight was fifth, the coxless four won, and the double was ninth.

Meanwhile away from the team hotel, Nicola Boyes’ younger brother got in a scrape with the New Zealand men’s team. “My mother came out Bled with him in her camper van,” she remembers. He was a bit of a maverick slightly and will always get into trouble, so he finished up hanging out with the Kiwi team for some reason, even though he was only about ten. They must have taken him on as a baby mascot for the night or something, so they blacked him with shoe polish! But they returned him safely to my mother afterwards. I never saw this because I was busy rowing and not allowing my family anywhere near me but I heard these stories afterwards!”

The GB Junior Women’s Team

1979 saw women’s crews at the FISA Junior Championships for the second year, and the GB team included three boats, up from just the pair that raced in 1978. As is FISA’s usual practice, the Championships were held in Moscow, the venue for the following year’s Olympic Games, which provided an opportunity to test out the facilities. Kate Panter remembers being shocked to see women working with pickaxes on parts of the site that were still under construction; communist gender equality in action.

The coxed four  was a club unit from Weybridge Ladies RC, comprising Jane Cross (stroke), Belinda Holmes, Kate Panter, Jo Toch, and cox Andrea Jones, and coached by John Biddle.

5 girls by their boat Amy Gentry OBE

The 1979 GB Junior Women’s 4+. From left: Kate Panter, Jo Toch, Jane Cross, Andrea Jones, Belinda Holmes. (Photo: Jane Cross’s personal collection.)

There was also a composite double scull of Katie Ball (Broxbourne RC) and Caroline Casey (Thames RC), coached by Ray Woods, with Alexa Forbes from Nottingham RC, who had been in the GB double the previous year, being selected as the single sculler. 

Unfortunately, Katie was taken ill on the journey to the Championships in Moscow and was unable to compete, so Alexa took her seat rather than racing in the single so everyone got a race.

The four finished eighth out of nine and the double was ninth out of ten.

All seven rowers would go on to represent GB at senior level.

← Back to 1978 | On to 1980 →