Rowing Club Stories 3 - The Regatta

The Quarts

Our regatta was known as Leicester Quarts Regatta. This was because the day was brought to an end with a series of races between scratch coxed fours competing to win quart (2 pints) tankards. These tankards were of exceptional quality, being made of gun metal and pot bellied in shape.

During the day, rowers, who had come to compete in all the usual events, entered for the Quarts races, giving their names and which side they preferred to row on. Coxes also entered, their prize being a small cup. Some competitors had travelled great distances, usually by public transport, especially to enter the Quarts races. There was, of course, an entrance fee but I can’t remember what it was.

When all the entries were in, the names were put onto pieces of paper and divided between three boxes, strokeside, bowside and cox. Somebody of note was asked to draw the names from the boxes, two strokeside, two bowside and a cox to form each crew. In this way, a random mix of status and age in each crew was achieved. Novice oarsmen (there were no women, but Novices were known as Maidens in those days so perhaps that made up for it!) could find themselves rowing with Senior and Elite rowers and visa versa. Sometimes, the draw would produce an obvious winning crew but generally the crews seemed to be fairly even and some good racing was to be had. In any case, it was a very sociable way to end the day and friendships were made.

Committee Boats

Until the age when most people either owned or had access to a car, rowers were not expected to provide their own boats at regattas. They arrived, usually, but not always, carrying their own blades and raced in boats provided by the regatta committee. Some, by prior arrangement, were also lent a set of blades. I can remember, on several occasions, walking from the club to London Road Station with my crew, each carrying a blade which was stowed in the guard’s van of the train as we travelled to that weekend’s regatta. There was another walk at the end of the train journey to the host club. I don’t think anyone tried to catch a bus while carrying his blade!

It was expected that the boats provided by the regatta committee would provide neither advantage nor disadvantage to the crews and so they had to be identical. This, of course, meant that clubs were burdened with the expense of buying two matching boats at a time. This was good news for the builders but proved difficult for many smaller clubs such as ours and, inevitably, a lot of old boats were pressed into a day’s service that they could no longer cope with. Breakages were frequent. Stretchers broke. Brass thumbscrews sheared off in the adjuster holes. Foot straps (no shoes) broke. Seat wheels either broke or came loose. All these, and more, required a small team of suitably able people to repair the damage between heats.

The need for several pairs of boats at a regatta relied on the good will of neighbouring clubs. We borrowed boats from Loughborough, Nottingham, Derby, Newark and Kettering (Yes, there was a Kettering R.C. on the boating lake in Wicksteed Park!) and they borrowed ours for their events. Of course, this led to the problem of finding a vehicle to transport them. We were fortunate in being given the use of a 3 ton tipper lorry by our president, Teddy Friesz but some clubs were not so lucky and resorted to all sorts of racks fitted to all sorts of vehicles. This, remember, was in an era before the M.O.T. test and other restrictions. It was a sometimes a matter of relief when our boats were safely returned to us!

Communications

In the 1960’s, mobile phones were still a long way off. Policemen still communicated with each other via whistles and police box phones! Walkie-talkies had been invented but I seem to remember that it was illegal for ordinary mortals to use them.

We needed to communicate between the start and the finish, just as we do today. The solution for many years was to invite the Sea Scouts or the Army Cadets to provide the necessary service. Small boys, dressed as sailors or soldiers, would arrive on the morning of the regatta and lay a cable along the bank for the whole length of the course. A primitive looking telephone was then connected at each end and we were ready. I think the procedure was to wind a small handle on the side of the phone as fast as you could to generate enough electricity to ring a bell at the other end and allow a short conversation.

The system was prone to break down frequently and, when it did, someone had to walk along the bank to see if there was any damage to the cable, while the people at each end inspected the connections. One of these occasions led to an incident involving our club captain, Peter Julian, who has told this story many times and I’m sure he won’t mind me repeating it. Peter set out to inspect the cable in the company of Dennis Southgate, a much respected and leading member of the club. Somewhere along the bank they found the problem. The cable had been neatly cut. Standing a few feet away, grinning at them was a drunk. Peter asked, “Did you do that?” to which the drunk replied, “Yes”. “Why?” asked Peter. “Because I felt like it” he replied. The drunk suddenly fell on his back, nursing a bloody nose. “Why did you do that?” he moaned. “Because I felt like it!” Peter replied! “Oh dear, Peter!” said Dennis, “For you, some problems have such a simple solution!”

The Boathouse Stomp

On the day before the regatta, the boathouse was completely emptied. Boats that were not needed were moored against the far bank of the basin and the racks were loosened and slid to the tops of the supports, out of the way. The resulting space was then divided into two halves by a canvas sheet. The space at the back was used as the changing room, whilst the area nearest the doors was fitted out with a bar and a refreshments area.

Someone had the idea of holding a Regatta Dance in the evening to make further use of the enormous room, complete with bar, that we had created by moving the boats out. It was the “Swinging Sixties” and rock groups were everywhere. We hired a group that was very popular in Leicester at the time and placed an advertisement in the Leicester Mercury in the hope of attracting a few more people to add to the rowers who might stay.

I think the dance, which had been advertised as “Boathouse Stomp”, was due to start at 8 o’clock and continue until midnight. Shortly before opening time, someone ran into the boathouse and shouted, “Is there a football match tonight?” We all went outside and looked in amazement as a crowd advanced towards us over the Upperton Road Viaduct. The advertisement had worked! The event was an enormous success and late-comers had to be turned away because the boathouse was full and there were even people dancing outside.

One small hiccup occurred about halfway through the evening when the temporary outside lighting failed. People rushed to sort out the problem, which turned out to be a loose connection about 20 feet up a tree. “I can fix it!” said one of our lads called Peter and within a few minutes, he was up the tree. There was an enormous blue flash.  “It’s alright, I’m not earthed!” he shouted as the lights came back on again.

Following its initial success, The Boathouse Stomp was set to be an annual event and was held for, I think, three years. Sadly, it was abandoned, I think in 1965, after a group of hooligans attacked the policeman, who was trying to guard the takings at the gate, and attempted to steal our money. This resulted in the arrival of half of Leicester’s Police and several arrests being made. I am happy to say that some of our members were called into the court by the magistrates and commended for “going to the aid of a police officer in distress”. I was told afterwards by one of these members that he thought he was going to be prosecuted for assault on the yobs, who were a pitiful sight after their skirmish with a lot of angry rowers and policemen!

Preparations for the Regatta

Back in the 1960’s the preparations for our annual regatta were a little different to those required for the current event although many of the basic requirements were the same. We were not required to make provision for a large number of competitors’ boats because all but the Elite events used committee boats. We didn’t even need to make provision for a large number of cars because many of the visitors came by public transport or shared a car, if they had one.

As far as the course was concerned, there was one very important task that befell the Regatta Secretary. He had to write a letter to the Superintendent of Leicester Power Station, which was on the site of the present Leicester City Football Club’s Stadium, asking him if he would kindly turn off the outflow from the cooling towers! The water from these massive structures was piped to the canal and emerged just upstream of Walnut Street Bridge and would often cause a forceful cross current. This didn’t bother our crews too much but visiting crews had been taken by surprise in previous years, as they approached the finish, and had either collided or crashed into the towpath, or both. This situation was made worse because, unlike the oars we use today, the oars were then made of wood and the ends of the blades would break off when they hit the towpath wall – expensive! The man at the power station was always very helpful and informed me that, as long as he was given a couple of weeks notice, he could divert the water into a lagoon for the day. So all was well!

A vital element of each year’s preparation concerned the provision of suitable toilet facilities. (Those of a delicate disposition should skip this paragraph and pick up the story further on!). The club had a toilet! It was a very small room at the end of the buildings, with a door that opened onto the drive. There was no plumbing and the toilet was of the chemical variety. In other words, it was a big bucket with a seat on it which started the day with some sort of disinfectant in it and finished the day……well, it wasn’t really big enough! This was the best we had, so it became the “Ladies” for the day. On reflection, the men faired better because the “Gents” was a trench, dug at the back of the normal changing rooms, surrounded by a canvas screen and accessed via duck boards. At least it was in the open air! The “posh” toilet always got locked at the end of the regatta and remained locked until a few days before the next one. Each year, there came the awful realisation that someone had to enter this squalid little room and empty the previous year’s contents into the cess pit (Yes, we had one!) and clean everything, ready for use again. Straws would be drawn and the lucky winner would unlock the door and throw it open, retreating swiftly to give it half an hour. He would then return with an old oar which he would hook under the handle, in order to carry the beast to the cess pit at a reasonable distance from it. After tipping the contents, a rope would be tied to the handle and it would be thrown into the river, tied to the chains, and left there for several days. When it was recovered, it was surprisingly fresh!

Umpires

As may have already been gathered, regattas in the 1960’s and 70’s were much more of a social event than the present ones. Crews raced each other and then expected to have fun together, unlike today when many of them pack up and go as soon as they have finished their races. Maybe it was easier then because they had very little equipment to return to their own clubs.

Umpires had only themselves to take home and seemed to spend most of the day chatting to each other, reminiscing and getting more and more lubricated from the bar. This fine body of men (they were highly respected) would, of course, make their way onto the towpath, after some persuasion, and officiate. Nobody would dare to question their decisions, although I recall many staggered starts, collisions on the course and myopic rulings at the finish. It must be said, though, that the Rules of Racing were a lot different then and so were the attitudes of many of the crews taking part. For example, the starter would instruct the crews, “I will ask you once if you are ready and if I receive no reply I will say GO”. When he actually started the race, there was sometimes a little hissing noise between the words “Are you ready? And “Go”. This was the sound of cigarettes being thrown out of the boats! On the course, it was perfectly legal for a cox to steer his boat towards the other crew in the hope of intimidating the other cox. The ultimate aim of this was to cause the opposition to run into the bank or the towpath wall. It was all part of the fun! The aggressor would, of course, be disqualified if he actually collided with the opposition, so the skill of the cox under attack would be to hold his course and hope for a clash of blades, or, if he thought the umpire wouldn’t notice, move slightly towards the attacking boat and cause a collision that would disqualify the attacker!

Benny’s Teeth

One of our regular umpires in the 1960’s was a lovely old man who I will just call Benny. He was a member of one of the many clubs along the River Thames in London and, every year, would catch a train for Leicester to officiate at our regatta. Benny was a very tall, lean man who had a partly paralysed face, of the type seen with stroke victims. This caused one side of his mouth to drop and it was sometimes difficult to understand what he was saying. He had quite a ruddy complexion, which didn’t seem to fit his slender frame, and I noticed a few thread like veins on his nose. This was evidence that Benny liked a drink! He was a very capable umpire, scrupulously fair and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules – for the first half of the regatta! Towards the end, he couldn’t be shifted from the bar.

When we were clearing away, the day after one regatta, we found a complete set of false teeth on the changing room window ledge. Of course, nobody would touch them, let alone move them to a safe place until they were claimed. So, there they stayed, gathering a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, until the following regatta. Benny duly arrived for his annual umpiring stint and went into the changing room. “There they are!” he exclaimed, picked them up and put them in his pocket! It seems that, after consuming far too many beers, he had put them on the window ledge so that he wouldn’t lose them when he went round the back of the building to be sick and had completely forgotten to retrieve them!

The Fire

Sunday, September 8th 1974. The last time I was Regatta Secretary and all was going according to plan. The racing was keeping to the timetable and everyone was having a good day. I think it was just after the lunchtime break that we became aware of a thick cloud of black smoke rising from the scrap metal yard on the other side of Upperton Road (where the new houses are now). We could hear sirens, but the fire was obviously too far away to affect us – or so we thought!

“We’ve got a problem!” Not a message to Houston Control from the moon, but words to that effect from the mid course umpire to the finish. “There’s a big pipe blocking the towpath lane!” Racing had stopped with some of the boats in the marshalling area at Castle Gardens. I ran down the towpath to see what was happening and discovered that there was, indeed, an aluminium pipe hanging from a manhole in Mill Lane Bridge and on the bridge was a fire engine.

I climbed the steps up onto the bridge and found a very bored looking fireman looking at a row of gauges at the back of the fire engine and asked him if it would be possible to bend the pipe so that it was against the towpath to allow us to carry on racing. He told me that, although the pipe was constructed in short sections to allow it to concertina to a fraction of its length so it could be stowed away, it was impossible to bend it! I then asked him how long he expected it to be there and he replied, “About three days!”

It was clear to everyone that nothing could be done about this obstruction. The firemen obviously needed water and the manhole was in the bridge exactly for that purpose. It was also obvious that the fire was massive. In fact, at its centre was an entire train of scrap railway carriages. With the co-operation of the crews affected, we shortened the course so that the start was at Mill Lane, next to the pipe, and we moved the finish up to the turn into the club.

The racing was completed and everyone was happy. In fact, many of the competitors congratulated us on our handling of the situation. A couple of weeks later we received a letter from the A.R.A. which criticised us for altering the course without first getting their approval!

 

Malcolm Neal