It was hot, very hot. Not unlike any other day on the Roodeplaat dam outside Pretoria. We were waiting to race; taking my shirt off and wiping my brow I got ready to put down another excruciating performance in the Pair. “Tuks Green, please move up”, that was our signal to move into our lane. As we got into position I glanced at the boats on my right: a young schoolboy eight brimming with nervous energy, a calm masters quad; to my left a quick schoolboy double and next to them a Woman’s Varsity Eight. It was hot, but today was going to be unlike any other.
That was part of my first experience at the John Waugh Rock the Boat regatta and being on the 4th of February it is almost that time of the year again for another iteration of this unique event. Started by James Thompson and Matt Brittain, two of South Africa’s most decorated athletes, their recipe aims to flip the established format of racing and introduces something you cannot find anywhere else.
To give you some idea about how the regatta works, there are 2 events – 1000m and 2000m. Every crew entered races a heads race (time trial) in the morning, with each boat being let off the start line at regular intervals. Once everyone has completed the heads race the crews are then separated into different finals based on how fast they were. The A final will have the top 8 times, the B final the next 8 fastest and so on. As there are no divisions you will find eights racing pairs, scullers racing doubles, schoolboys racing elite athletes and women racing men.
As the racing is so unique you find a new sense of nervous excitement running it’s course throughout the day, people getting a crack against others they would never race in normal circumstances. Ever wondered if your best woman would cleave a path through the best man, if the common adage of “ballie” strength really has any truth to it or just to see how fast a varsity octuple can really go? These scenario’s that normally lie in the banter of animated enthusiasts find themselves playing out down the 2000m race course on Roodeplaat dam.
As you would imagine this festive atmosphere permeates the crowds and spectators on the bank too. Each crew is encouraged to come dressed up according to their own theme and adopt a name, such as; “Daddy’s Working”, “Strokes for Harambe” or my personal favorite “Boaty McBoatface”. Among this colorful and bizarre menagerie of athletes and spectators is the aptly named “Rock the Bar”, which keeps the event going well after the last race and into the night as the festivities continue.
As with all racing there has to be a winner and with everything else at this regatta the top spot doesn’t go to the winner of the A final. It goes to the crew with fastest relative time against their boat class. A bit confusing I know, but basically if you are racing a Men’s eight, your time will be compared against the benchmark time for that boat class and worked out as a percentage. The highest percentage of all boats wins the HPC High Performer of the day.
But at this regatta there is so much more on offer than winning the top performer of the day, so much more to experience as an athlete and as a spectator. This sport has its share of unique events across the globe and Rock the Boat is very much in the front by making rowing more exciting, more competitive, and more accessible.
Most importantly, more fun.