The British Rowing Championships -British rowing’s problem child

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This week British Rowing confirmed that they were moving the Senior British Rowing Championships from October to the 15th– 16thJune. I think it’s safe to say this decision has received mixed reviews. One the one hand, the move from October was a bit of a no-brainer, I’ve always felt that to hold a National Championships in late October was asking for trouble. Who wants to race a multi-lane 2K regatta in the 3rdweek of October?? Not only is the weather likely to be unhelpful, there’s also the question of racing 2K in big boats when most clubs are beginning to ramp up their winter training and getting ready for the Head Season. As a member of the Head of The River Fours committee I’m well aware of the impact that the Champs has had on that event. Several times I received feedback from some high-performance clubs that they wouldn’t be racing at the Fours Head as they were racing at Champs a couple of weeks earlier and didn’t have the time to put together the crews, nor (more importantly) could they justify the expense of entering multiple boats at the Champs and then the Fours Head a few weeks later and then the GB Long Distance trials the week after. As the British Champs and the Long-Distance trials were both mandatory events for anyone wanting to be considered for National selection, the Fours Head has often missed out.

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The National Water Sports Centre, Nottingham. Photo Flatwater racing UK

So, in my opinion, the move to a summer date was an obvious decision. But, where to move it? The racing calendar is notoriously busy and it was never going to be easy to find a suitable slot. But, British Rowing made the decision to go with the weekend of the 15th-16thJune at the National Water Sports Centre in Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham. What has annoyed a number of people in the rowing world about this decision, is that it appears to ride roughshod over the existing events in the calendar. In particular, the fact that it is a week before Henley Women’s Regatta is causing a lot of concern and dismay, Miriam Luke, Chairman of the regatta issued this statement:

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Henley Women’s Regatta Chairman, Miriam Luke. photo: sportskeeda

“Henley Women’s Regatta was consulted about the new proposed date for the British Senior Championships (15th 16th June) and we expressed our concern. We believe by scheduling the British Senior National Championships to the weekend before Henley Women’s Regatta is not in the interest of women’s rowing in this country and we advised against this.

Henley Women’s Regatta is 10 days before the start of Henley Royal Regatta and one week before the qualifying races. Most crews look to peak for a major competition once every two weeks. Therefore, crews wishing to compete at the highest-level regattas in the calendar will need to peak and race at every weekend over 4 weeks. We do not believe it is sensible to crowd these 4 weeks with so many high-level events.

We work hard all year to attract high level crews from abroad to come and race British crews at HWR. For many this is a unique opportunity to test the best in the UK versus the best from overseas We have some exciting crews planning to make the journey for this year and we want them to have the best GB Universities and Clubs to race. The Championship level events last year offered exciting and close racing with a good entry of between 7 – 16 crews in open weight.

Having the three pinnacle regattas in the UK crowded into this time does not make sense for the rowing calendar. We appreciate that crews may choose not to compete at all three events, i.e. the British Senior Championships, Henley Women’s Regatta and Henley Royal Regatta, but we are disappointed that crews and coaches may have to make this choice.

We are also aware of rumours suggesting that crews performing well at the British Championships (should it be confirmed that they will take place on the weekend prior to HWR) would be exempt from the time trials at HWR. The committee wish to stress that no pre- qualification for HWR will be allowed and that all crews will be required to take part in time trials if they are required for an event.

Miriam Luke

Chairman, Henley Women’s Regatta”

The weekend of the 15th-16thJune also sees no fewer than four other regattas, including the British Masters Championships in Strathclyde and Reading Amateur Regatta, one of the major Thames river regattas and pre-Henley Royal and Henley Women’s regatta’s events. This will be a major issue for clubs as the vast majority do not have the resources to send crews to Strathclyde, Nottingham and Reading. The Chairman of Reading Amateur Regatta, Andrew Wilbey, wrote to British Rowing expressing his dismay at the proposed change of date. Perhaps, more fundamentally, this “crowding” of events on this one weekend will have a massive impact on the many volunteers who help run the regattas, especially the Umpires. British Rowing Umpires are a finite resource and many of them officiate at events every weekend throughout the summer. With four events already taking place that weekend (Masters Championships, Reading Amateur, Marlow Town and Barnes and Mortlake Regatta), the addition of the British Championships puts a massive strain on this resource (especially as the number of Multi-Lane qualified umpires is an even more finite resource). It’s entirely possible that there simply won’t be enough suitably qualified officials to run all of the planned regattas. It would be a massive shame if British Rowing’s heavy handedness causes one of these other events to be cancelled.

Mark Davies, Chair of British Rowing, seems well aware of the difficulties this decision has caused. In his press release he said:

“This was not an easy decision. It was widely recognised that the British Rowing Senior Championships needed to move from October, but there was no perfect date to put it. The very limited availability of suitable multi-lane courses in the UK meant that we were limited to one weekend in what appeared, for a number of reasons, to be the most appropriate month. The recommendation by the senior volunteers in the sport who make up the Events Committee was to trial that weekend for one year.

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Mark Davies, Chairman British Rowing. Photo: Hear The Boat Sing

“We were acutely aware of the concerns raised in a number of quarters in relation to that weekend, and we listened to and carefully considered the large number of points that were made from across the rowing community.

“After a lengthy discussion, the Board was satisfied that the Committee had considered every other option open to it under the current format of the Championships. Faced with the option of having no Senior Championships in 2019 (and guided by the Chair of the Sport Committee that this could have a knock-on effect into 2020), we agreed that the proposal before us was in the best interests of the sport.

“The Board fully recognises that hosting the British Rowing Senior Championships on this weekend in June 2019 will require a huge effort from the outstanding volunteer network that delivers our sport, and that this decision will dismay some members at the same time as it is welcomed by others. We plan to undertake a wider review of the entire competition calendar, as well as assess whether we have the right format for the Senior Championships, as part of a wide consultation ahead of 2020.”

“On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to share their views on the proposed change of date and would emphasise that we will seek to address the points that they have made either directly or as part of the future consultation.”

So, it would appear that the decision was driven mainly by the availability of a suitable venue, with only three possible venues in the UK (Dorney Lake, Strathclyde and NWSC) it was always going to be a challenge to find any weekend in the summer when one of these venues would be available. Having said that, it does feel like this is the wrong decision for this year. More time needed to be spent to ensure they were able to get the date and venue they wanted, rather than the only one available. Perhaps the Brit Champs should’ve been left where they were for 2019 and plans put in place well in advance to find a suitable date and venue for 2020 (although that being Olympic year will be an added consideration). 6 months doesn’t feel long enough to. Plan for such a major event.

So, with British Rowing saying this year’s event is a trial when should the championships be held? It all boils down to what are the British Championships for? Are they the pinnacle of the season? Many would say no, as the main focus for British club rowing is Henley Royal and Henley Women’s regattas. When the Championships used to be held in late July there was always a bit of a feeling of post-Henley hangover – many athletes took a break after Henley and weren’t perhaps in top form for the Nat Champs. When I raised the question on Twitter about when should the Champs be held, I received a number of different responses ranging from “what’s wrong with October, no one’s prepared for them so it’s all equal” to “combine them with final trials in April”.

What needs to be decided is just what are the Brit Champs for? Do we, the British rowing public, what an event at which the national squad athletes can compete (and compete in their club colours)? The drawback of this suggestion is that it will mostly end up with the national team athletes winning all the events. Personally, I would like to see an event that all clubs can compete at. I’m a great fan of the way the National Championships are run in New Zealand. There they have different classes, the Premier events – for those athletes who are members of the national squad and high-performance clubs, Senior – for those below international standard, Intermediate and novice. What’s attractive about this system is that it enables the various levels of experience to compete at the same regatta and can become National Champions. Another suggestion is that the championships are combined with the final GB trials in late April. With GB aspirants racing in the single and pairs with “everyone else” in the bigger boats. There is merit to this idea as it will allow the public to watch the top-level GB athletes smashing it out for selection and then the cream of club rowing racing in the bigger boats. My only concern with this idea is effectively the same as when the event was held in October – will the weather be suitable to hold a 2-3 day multi-lane championships and will clubs and crews be “race ready” so early in the season?

Perhaps a better date would be late May – this is far enough into the season that clubs and crews are “race ready” but also gives sufficient time to recover and prepare for the likes of Henley Women’s and Henley Royal Regattas. The downside to this date would be that the GB squad wouldn’t be available to compete as it would clash with the racing or preparing for the Rowing World Cup.

So, at the end of the day, there is no “perfect” answer for when the British Championships should be held, or even what format should they take. What is clear though, for this year at least, the compromise solution decided upon by the Board of British Rowing has pleased no-one. I hope the event is a success and has great racing, but the potential price being paid by other events, and the manner in which this event has been muscled into the calendar has disappointed many in the British rowing community.

Let’s see what decision British Rowing takes for 2020, but whatever it is it needs to be done far enough in advance that both athletes and officials have enough time to prepare and that it complements the existing race calendar as far as possible.

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