The accidental race

One of the first things I do when I go back and visit my family in Cork, Ireland, is go for a walk down the Marina, which is not really a marina but a long straight tree-lined stretch of the River Lee.

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The Marina evokes wonderful memories for me. When I was a child, my Dad would take me for walks there on Sunday mornings. And the Marina is where I learnt to row in 1980 at Lee Rowing Club and where I forged friendships that have held up to this day despite the 12,000-mile distance and long periods without contact.

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Lee Rowing Club, where I learnt to row

On my latest trip back, on a cool autumn day in October, I packed my zootie in a small bag and strode out from my family home, saluting neighbours who all gave me the usual welcome home refrain: “You brought the weather with you!”. It wasn’t raining.

I had arranged with Lee’s club captain, Stewart, to borrow a boat for ‘a bit of a paddle’. He had suggested that I come around 10.30 am because the Cork Sculling Ladder was on and by that time most scullers would have finished, what with the tide turning at 10.40 am.

As I strolled along the riverbank, I was blown away by the number of scullers competing in the ladder, especially junior girls. I think back to the 1980s when we had one women’s crew at Lee—a novice coxed four. Sweep rowing was the thing then.

And here now were scores of girls, all in single sculls, showing not a shred of anxiety on a morning that was gradually becoming more and more blustery. It was truly a joy to see.

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Cork Sculling Ladder 2015 in action

I bumped into a few club mates from the 80s who are now coaching at the club. The President, Teresita, it turns out, was an old classmate. Yap yap yap.

Suddenly it was 10.30 am and Teresita announced it was time for me to get on the water. The river now looked much less inviting as the wind whipped up against the changing tide. I dithered. A cup of tea and a little reminiscing seemed a much more attractive prospect. Was there a way out of this without losing face?

Not with Teresita. She was on a mission. I reluctantly changed into my gear and as I emerged she presented me with a bow number. Are you kidding me?

‘Go on. You’ll be grand’, she said. ‘I’m not racing’, I said.

Before you could say ‘sock up’, I was bundled into a boat that had just come in to the flash new pontoon (wet, muddy feet are a thing of the past). Rigging adjustments? The young lad who stepped out of the boat took one look at me and said, ‘You’re about the same height as me. You’ll be grand.’

As they mercilessly pushed me off, I felt small and vulnerable and a little scared. But deep down I knew it had to be done. On this holiday, I had rowed in Galway, I had rowed in Dublin. I had to go for the trifecta. And, after all, Cork was my home town.

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Feeling small, vulnerable and a little scared

‘Where’s the start?’, I shouted to anyone who was listening on the shore. ‘Down by Cork Boat Club’, a voice said. ‘You’ll see two men on the bank.’ Grand.

I headed off tentatively, at half slide for a while, trying to shake off the wobbles and pretend that the water was flat. I decided my goal was to stay in the boat. No heroics.

In the stiff head wind, it took me ages to reach Cork Boat Club, locate the 2 men, and turn around the moored boats.

‘Off you go’, they said. ‘Keep that line and you’ll be grand.’ Grand.

I think the course is about 1600 metres. I paddled along, rating about 18, sloppy in the tail wind.

About halfway, a familiar voice called bemusedly from the bank, ‘Hey Mary, are you racing now?’

‘Apparently’, I replied.

As I passed the club, I heard many roars of ‘C’mon Mary!’ from, presumably, complete strangers. How nice was that?

I drifted across the finish line at Shandon Boat Club, still in the boat. Mission accomplished. I was indeed grand.

Some weeks later, back on Aussie turf, I got an email with the results of the Cork Sculling Ladder. My cruising time of 10’06” has put me in position 171 on the ladder.

Even more hilarious, I am now the section leader for the Women’s Masters D and E sections. This is what happens when you are the only candidate!

Cork masters rowers, where are you? From what I can see, of the 181 entries, only 14 were masters  and, of these, only 4 were women. Come on girls, get your butts out there.

According to the rules, I am obliged to race anyone below me on the ladder who cares to challenge me, or I forfeit my position to them. It’s a long trip back to take up the challenge.

But maybe I’ll return next year and have a proper crack at it.

Now, what I’d really like to do is start a sculling ladder here on the Sunshine Coast. It’d be… grand.

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Lee crews of 1981, including THE women’s novice 4+
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