Race Report, Milford Haven Marathon Row, Saturday 20 August 2011

After one or two minor ‘hitches’ on the journey down, thankfully overcome without any lasting damage other than to Geoff’s psychological well-being, everyone arrived at Dale Hill Farm’s ‘secret’ campsite on Friday evening. With no signposts, illogical directions and no sign of life, it didn’t advertise itself, hence most rowers failing at the weekend’s first hurdle – finding our accommodation. Richard and Jill apparently went to the pub to ask for directions and never quite got any further, a likely story….

Everyone was up early on Saturday morning to be greeted by damp and dismal weather. Once again, most rowers failed at the next hurdle – finding the registration point for the race. After detours down narrow country lanes, several circuits of every roundabout in Haverford West and confusing locals by asking for directions to places that didn’t exist, we all finally arrived for our bacon butties. The moral of the story at this point? If you want to get somewhere and not take the scenic route, stick with Tina. Thankfully she was coxing our crew!

The race began shortly after 11am, with a timed start and Porthmadog ladies leading the field, followed by the other 8 boats in the fleet at 30 second intervals. The girls set off with instructions that the Cleddau bridge marked the half way point, and after this landmark they should look out for buoys, jetties and international ferries. But these challenges were over 11 miles away – 11 miles of featureless landscape, dismal drizzle, sweeping wide river bends and choppy seas. A strong south-westerly wind against an ebbing tide made for difficult rowing and unpredictable waters. Port ladies held their own against the crews that followed and were only passed about 5 miles into the course by the boat that went on to win – Llangwm men, who had started in ninth place! Small battles with other mixed and men’s crews provided the only interest over the next few miles, with very little scenery of note before the impressive Cleddau toll bridge.

Elaine at stroke set a perfect pace for a row that would rely on the crew’s stamina and technique – great practice for the London River Race in a month’s time. Saz and Nicola did their best as the ‘power house’ in the middle of the boat, although Saz got plentiful abuse for easing off to eat, despite perfecting a one-handed banana munching technique and pointing out that the long row meant that we were missing lunch. Heather put in an excellent performance at bow and was understandably reluctant to swap with Pippa to sit in the cold passenger seat with waves breaking over the bow!

The Cleddau bridge was a welcome sight and presented the first opportunity for the traditional ‘oggy’ call. From that point on, crews were asked to keep out of the channel and avoid the Irish Ferry, which we were told would not stop for us if we dared to cross its path. The ferry was safely moored by the time our girls passed the dock, but the organisers had failed to warn us of the other dangerous vessels in the channel – notably the oil tanker moored on a jetty on the north bank which showed complete disregard for our tiny longboat as it fired up its engines and chugged into our path. As we approached the boat moored on the jetty, one of the dock workers waved to Tina and she duly returned his friendly greeting. It was only when Saz called out that the tanker was moving that we realised he hadn’t just been saying hello! After a battle for water with this gigantic vessel towering over the crew and Tina refusing to give way as she called out that the tanker was ‘going too slow’, the girls then had a tumultuous passage through the tanker’s wake before reaching calmer waters again. With Llangwm mixed crew and Porthmadog men fighting it out a few hundred metres behind, the water lost in this battle for power was a little depressing for the tired crew.

After passing through two more jetties and with enthusiastic ‘oggy’ calls for each, with fresh rower Pippa now in the bow seat the crew was finally on the home strait. The very long home strait. Much longer than we had hoped or expected! Despite the 6ft swell meaning that all competition from other boats was frequently hidden from view, unfortunately Llangwm mixed crew kept reappearing at the crest of the next wave. Their menacing yellow boat gradually drew closer and closer until they finally overtook our crew as we entered the Dale bay. Reassuringly (and importantly), the ladies managed to stay ahead of Porthmadog men and, even more reassuringly, the Llanion ladies crew who had started the race immediately behind us were now nowhere in sight.

A long push along the beach at Dale and everyone was pleased to finally be home, tired and in pain but glad to have completed such a demanding course – after over 22 miles rowing and 3 hours 55 minutes on the water, we were delighted to be welcomed by our excellent support drivers (and drinks providers!) Jill and Godfrey.

About a minute later the men came in, and although Richard entertained the crowd with his aquatic antics, diving in to finish the race swimming to cheers and applause, it emerged that he only had such reserves of energy because he had spent half the race asleep in the bow. Noel had rowed bravely on through injury in his first ever long race, while Bob was already showing enthusiasm for the next day’s 8-mile race and so clearly hadn’t been trying hard enough. Geoff was just pleased for it all to be over, having finally proven that he is in fact capable of rowing a whole ‘big’ race, after ducking out in all previous attempts to swap with the cox or drive the support boat. Veteran rower Simon was undoubtedly the oldest competitor in the field and provided strength and motivation for the whole crew. Porthmadog men – as the only super vet crew and having traveled the length of the country for the privilege of a tortuous 22-mile row – were ultimately awarded for their efforts with a special trophy for ‘the dog that the judges most wanted to take home’. The girls also won the trophy in their category, having arrived over 10 minutes ahead of their nearest rivals, although no-one was quite prepared to say that they would return to defend their title the following year!

Sarah Medcalf

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