An Otago University Rowing Club lightweight eight crew showed plenty of guts and character when they came sixth in a recent elite rowing regatta in Taiwan.
The I-Lan International Collegiate Invitational Regatta attracts lightweight eights from many of the world’s top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, Yale and Harvard.
Otago again showed it was at home in elite company, finishing ahead of Yale, Oxford and Cambridge - the latter team beaten twice in individual encounters.
Sydney won the eights, with Melbourne University and Harvard taking second and third places in the 14-team event.
Otago and New Zealand rowers and built a strong record in the annual Taiwanese event, finishing sixth last year and winning the “B” final to take fifth in 1998.
Kiwi ingenuity and four months of extremely hard training played a key part in the latest solid performance, team captain and experienced stroke Glen Sinclair said.
Several sessions in a heat chamber at the Otago University Physical Education School’s Human Performance Centre helped the team to acclimatise to the sweltering Taiwanese summer heat and humidity.
Ice-jackets containing frozen compartments, developed by Otago University researchers, kept the team cool during racing.
Backed by a $NZ1 million Taiwanese state subsidy, the regatta is run by the I-Lan County government and held in the county, 70km east of Taipei.
The semi-rural county is home to about 500,000 people and Taiwan’s only international rowing course - a 2km section of the Tungshan River.
The Tungshan is also known as “the river of hope” but only two days before the start of the weekend regatta, despair seemed more appropriate for the Otago team.
On what became a “Black Thursday”, team member Duncan Grant had to withdraw with chronic tonsillitis, a potential disaster for a team travelling without a reserve.
Luck also deserted Otago in the crucial boat draw that day.
The boats are supplied by regatta organisers but not all are equal. Nine are of fast design but five are markedly less competitive. For the second year in a row, Otago drew one of the slower boats.
“Everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong,” coach Malcolm McIntyre joked privately afterwards.
After medical help, Grant quickly bounced back. So did the Otago team.
Fast behind-the-scenes work by Sinclair and Otago manager Gerard O’Flynn secured the services of Brendan Fehon, the Sydney University reserve, who proved an impressive substitute.
McIntyre knew it was vital the relatively inexperienced team “clicked” together early in the first race on Saturday morning.
Otago put in a fast first 500m but still trailed a sharp-looking Melbourne team by more than three seconds.
When the Otago rowers reached the Tungshan River bridge, 750m downstream from the start, they were fighting back strongly, working vigorously to challenge Melbourne’s lead.
Nevertheless Otago finished second, behind Melbourne but ahead of Cambridge.
A win in the afternoon repechage became vital to reach the A semifinal.
Otago gained an early advantage over Japanese university team Waseda and won the repechage handily, by a couple of seconds, but not as decisively as hoped.
On the regatta’s final day, Otago had to make the top two placings in the semifinal to reach the four-team A final.
But, despite a positive start, Otago could not contain Melbourne and defending champion Hamburg, finishing third.
During the race, the troublesome Otago boat could be seen riding low in the swell and flexing ominously from bow to stern.
In the B final, Otago faced a strong head wind, against a back-drop of dark clouds from a tropical storm.
Otago led initially but failed to counter an early challenge from the Toronto team, which beat Otago into second place, despite another gutsy battling effort.
Sinclair was nevertheless delighted his team had put together its most complete performance, starting and finishing strongly.
Otago also recorded the second fastest time among the eight teams in the A and B finals.
And of the five boats with slower designs, only the Otago boat reached the final eight placings.
Sinclair was also pleased with the team’s battling, never-say-die approach.
“We probably all laughed at our problems rather than sat and cried about them,” he said.
“Right from the start, there was always concern that they were very young guys who hadn’t been in any big competitions before,” he said.
The rowers had coped well with the setbacks and had ended as “No 1, the fastest boat” in its design class.
The Otago team also proved impressive cultural ambassadors for their university and country.
Stirring haka performances, included on the regatta’s formal welcome night, attracted a great deal of attention and media publicity. The team also proved a hit during visits to several Taiwanese schools.
The full Otago team was: Rachel Goudie (cox), Glen Sinclair (stroke and captain), Shane (“Wattie”) Key, Guy Reed, Nick Ross, Brendan Fehon (substitute), Duncan Grant, Mike Maze, Mark Patterson and Benjamin Lowe (bowman).
Lowe said that taking part in such high level competition had been a positive experience.
The Otago achievement was yet another example of “small-town Kiwis doing well on the world stage.”