Organisers of the FISA Tour 2003

The 2003 FISA Tour
River Thames - Oxford to London

30th August - 7th September 2003

FISA Tour Reports

Canada 2002 Denmark 2001 Finland 2000 USA 1999

Red Hats on the Rideau

The Weyfaring Turnbulls' account of this year's FISA Tour in Canada

Not your average sort of canal, the Rideau. To start with, it's not really a canal, more a series of lakes joined by the Ottawa, Rideau and other rivers, with only 12 of its 125 miles being man-made. Then it's so wide in places that it makes our own familiar Father Thames look like a brook. And finally, it goes up a hill and then down again, from Ottawa (40.8 metres above sea level) to the summit at Upper Rideau Lake (124.2 metres above sea level) and back down to Kingston on Lake Ontario (74.0 metres above sea level). Which means you need a lot of locks - 31 to be precise. Built by the British under Lt. Colonel John By between 1826 and 1832, it is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America and many of those locks are still operated by hand using the original mechanisms.

But let's start at the beginning, namely Ottawa Rowing Club, where 80 recreational rowers from 14 countries gathered for the start of the annual FISA tour in September. Our Canadian hosts had done an impressive job of organising everything - from providing 16 coxed quads, specially designed for touring by the Hudson Boat Company, booking accommodation and meals along the route, and not forgetting the social programme, which included an Indian Pow-Wow on a Mohawk Reservation and a visit to Upper Canada Village, an open-air museum which recreated the Colonial life of the 19th Century. We were issued with our tour T-shirts, while the host team donned their red hats, so that the rest of us could recognise them instantly whenever we needed help or information.

We assembled on the bank of the Rideau River for the first day's rowing - thankfully missing out the first 8 locks - and were welcomed by the Mayor of Ottawa, a representative of Parks Canada who operate the canal, and a "Mountie", alas without his horse. As usual with FISA rowing tours, each boat had a designated captain who was in charge of the boat for the whole week, while the rest of the crew changed each day, giving everybody a chance to row with as many of the group as possible. You never quite know if your crew will consist of former Olympic rowers or novices, let alone if they all speak the same language, but somehow it seems to work. Each day started with a captains' briefing, complete with detailed maps, descriptions of locks and lunch stops, navigational hazards (fortunately not many of those), all timed to the nearest minute. Clearly a lot of preparation and practice runs had been done in advance. And everywhere the red hats were visible to help us carry boats, supervise us going through locks and, most importantly, dispense picnic lunches!

The sun shone, the scenery a wonderful blend of urban, rural and natural landscapes with million dollar homes, quaint cottages, and loons swimming in sheltered, undisturbed bays surrounded by woodland. And those locks - massive, deep, agonisingly slow. Some of them with 2, 3 or even 4 chambers, and you need to allow half an hour for each chamber. Fortunately we were able to get out of the boats for a stroll or a swim while waiting for the gates to open, but it did cut into the rowing time for each day.

But the week flew by and soon it was time for the LAST NIGHT PARTY - an extravaganza where each nation thanks the hosts in speech, song or drama (the Snow White sketch by the Germans was particularly memorable), presents are exchanged, and next year's hosts receive the FISA flag. Which means us, Great Britian, Blighty, the home of rowing - as next year's tour is on the River Thames. So roll up, all you British touring rowers - we need customers of course, but also sponsors and helpers, as those efficient Canadians will be a tough act to follow. Who knows, we may even decide to dish out our own red hats!

The Tour Song

Four strong winds that blow gently
One canal that runs high
Sixteen boats that won't sink come what may
Eighty friends from far and wide
Some Colonials as our guide
You can see their red hats bobbing on the way

Every morning get up early
'Cos the buses leave on time
Peter Okens maps each minute of each day
Every stretch is full of locks
And our lunch comes in a box
But a cold beer washes all our cares away

Patrick Vincent and Peter Burstyn
Making sure we all had fun
At the Mohawk Pow-Wow we all had a ball
The guys from Hudson always there
If you need a quick repair
And Ernst Peters has some souvenirs for all

Four strong winds that blow gently
One Canal by Colonel By
Happy memories that won't fade come what may
Now the FISA tour is done
And it's time for going home
But we'll see you all next year in the UK



The Danish FISA Tour 2001

Sorry, I haven't got round to writing a report on this one yet. Here's the song anyway (to the tune of Mingulay):


Chers amis and liebe Freunde
Take your oars and pull together
Never mind the wind and weather
Lets go touring the Fisa way

When the call comes they obey it
From the wide earth's farthest reaches
Leaving sun and sandy beaches
They go touring the FISA way


Through rough seas and raging torrents
Brows a'sweating, muscles straining
Blistered fingers but never complaining
Painfully touring the FISA way


But when evening sun is setting
You will find these sporting heroes
Drinking beer in bars and casinos
This is touring the FISA way


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Impressions of the FISA recreational tour in Finland, July 2000

See the tour song at the end of the article

Maybe it was the thought of rowing 200 km with fixed seats and square blades. Maybe it was the fear of exposing a less than perfect body in the sauna (honestly, who cares?). Or maybe no-one knew about it (did you receive any publicity from the ARA? We didn't). But once again, the President of Weybridge Rowing Club and his Consort (moi) formed the entire UK delegation to the annual FISA recreational tour. This year it was Finland's turn to host the tour, led by Bo Gammals who recently retired as Chairman of the FISA Rowing for All Commission.

One of Bo's long-term aims has been to promote fixed seat rowing, and the Karelia Rowing Festival provided the ideal opportunity. This is an annual event, where some 2,000 Finnish oarsmen and women, most of whom only row occasionally, assemble in Karelia, Finland's easternmost province, to paddle the 205 kilometres down Lake Pielinnen in the last week of July, in Church boats. These are quite an experience for the uninitiated. Imagine, if you can, a cross between a Thames skiff and a Viking longboat. Fourteen rowers, side by side in 7 pairs with one oar each held in place by a single pin located in a plastic sprocket on the side of the oar, sit on fixed seats and attempt to propel a massive, clinker built, wooden boat over the sometimes extremely rough waters of the Finnish lakes. Formerly these boats were the only means of transport between remote hamlets and the nearest church, hence the name. These days some intrepid Finns even try to race them. At heady speeds approaching 10 km per hour.

With the benefit of some rather limited long-distance skiffing experience (in France, but that's another story), El Presidente and I boarded a Finnair jet to Helsinki and then a somewhat smaller propeller driven job to Joensuu to join the other 48 rowers from 14 different countries who were to form the FISA contingent of this otherwise domestic rowing event. Many were old friends from previous tours - Marilyn from the USA, Everardo from Mexico, Warwick and Bronwen from Australia, Israel from - where else - Israel, Focko from Holland, Rainer from Germany and Fritz from Switzerland, to name but a few. We were welcomed by our Finnish hosts, Bo and his wife Zita of course, Sirppa (our guide and interpreter), Eino (Chairman of the Karelian Rowing Association and Managing Director of PKO, a major Karelian company who were one of our sponsors), and Reijo (Vice Chairman of the Karelian Rowing Association). I mean really welcomed. The Finns certainly know a thing or two about hospitality, and must surely qualify as one of the friendliest peoples in the world. They never stopped smiling, and did everything possible throughout the week to make sure we enjoyed ourselves.  

So on to the bus and up to Nurmes on the northern end of Lake Pielinen. We spent the night at the Hotel Bomba (it probably costa Bomba), built in the traditional style with the bedrooms in log cabins. Had a rather late night, as it didn't get dark until 11.30 p.m., which was a bit disorientating. Next day was an early start, since we were intending to row 61 km. Until we saw the weather. And the waves. And the boats. 61km in a day may be possible for a fit, young crew in a fast boat on calm water. Most of us were over 40, less fit than we would like to be, and not used to this type of boat or conditions. The standard of rowing was also rather variable, ranging from Erich (ex German National Squad) to some who would make our novices look like elite oarsmen. We were supposed to row 27 km before lunch. One o'clock came and went, and we were hungry. "How far is it?" we asked Reijo, who was coxing. "About 5 km", he replied. An hour later we asked him again. "About 2 km." Fifteen minutes later we asked a third time. "Only 1 more kilometre." At this point it dawned on us that kilometres might be measured differently in Finland to the rest of the world. We asked Reijo to explain. "It's the distance you can hear a dog bark." "What kind of dog?" "It depends what kind you have. It also depends on the weather, the wind direction, whether or not you are in the forest….." Enough said. We made it to the lunch stop and rowed for another hour after lunch. They towed the boats the rest of the way. Some of the Finnish crews gave up as well, so we didn't feel too bad. And the sauna afterwards cured the aches and pains wonderfully.

We couldn't row in Church boats without going to Church, so the Finns organised a couple of services for us. We learned something of Finnish tolerance. Not only do they cope with two languages side by side (Finnish and Swedish) but two forms of Christianity, Lutheran and Orthodox, without a hint of conflict. First was the Lutheran service. One rower from each country was issued with their flag and, looking rather like the Olympic opening ceremony, we trooped off to the Church in Lieksa, a stunning example of modern Finnish architecture. The service was totally incomprehensible, but we enjoyed the singing from a small but excellent choir, led by a young priest with a fine baritone voice, who we discovered had written all the hymns (with catchy, folk-style tunes) and had even made a recording. He was also the cox of a boat full of priests and wardens - the "real" Church boat - who sang as they rowed. The Orthodox service came later, at the picnic site where we had stopped for lunch. We stood on the grass among the sandwiches and beer bottles, while the priest blessed us in several languages, including English. We had a further encounter with the Orthodox religion next day at Valamo monastery where our guide was a young Canadian "wannabe" monk studying iconography. Do you think monks are boring, sad people? Then meet Brother Vassili - he will change your perceptions forever. He was so entertaining that we were late for dinner, which was a shame as it was superb. Of course we asked him to join us - we felt he needed a change from porridge.

So we rowed on to the end of the tour, down the lake and then a stretch on the Pielinen river, lined with logs on their way to the timber mills. We went through one enormous lock, where word got round that it was Peter's (from Canada) birthday, and we all sang the traditional song in whatever language we knew. On the final day we had to put on a spurt to avoid being swept over some rapids, but otherwise the sun shone and the waves subsided. We made a lot of new friends (including Elaine and Peter from Canada and Mila from Portugal), had some more saunas and got blisters on our hands and other places we'd rather not mention.

Had a great time. Wish you'd been there.

Caroline Turnbull


(words by CT, to the tune of Walzting Matilda)

What an oarsome sight on the shores of Lake Pielinen
Fifty young athletes who've come here to row
Stroke side or bow side or sculling if you'd rather
Rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo

Rowing in Church boats, rowing in Church boats
Down Lake Pielinen to Joensuu we'll go
Eight different languages, it's like the Tower of Babel
Rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo.

With Sirppa to guide us we never need to worry
'Cos she's great and she speaks every language we know
But she didn't throw her ring to appease the Gods of Koli so
We've wind and we've waves and we've rain and we've snow

Rowing in Church boats, rowing in Church boats
Down Lake Pielinen to Joensuu we'll go
We've got blisters on our hands and in places we can't mention
Rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo.

We've wined and we've dined and we're feeling pretty happy
Thanks to Eino the boss of the PKO
And we'd all like to dance but we've drunk too much Pontikka
So before we fall over to bed we must go

Rowing in Church boats, rowing in Church boats
Down Lake Pielinen to Joensuu we'll go
Take care or you might get "locked up" on your birthday
Rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo.

Now Reijo's our pal, he invites us to his summer-house
A place in the country where he likes to go
When you hear his dog bark then you know it's one kilometre
How big's the dog then? Alas, we don't know.

Rowing in Church boats, rowing in Church boats
Down Lake Pielinen to Joensuu we'll go
And we measure the distance in Finnish kilometres
Rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo.

Carrying our flags we've all been to worship
With Lutheran priests who can sing while they row
But the Orthodox monks have the best sense of humour
It's to their kind of heaven that we'd like to go.

Herra armahda, herra armahda*
Make us row fast 'cos we're fat, dumb and slow
But we've had a great time and got lots of happy memories
Of rowing in Church boats with Zita and Bo.

*Finnish for "Lord have mercy"

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Report on FISA Tour 1999

Imagine a peaceful, unspoilt area of the north-eastern corner of the USA, with the September sun shining on the Adirondak hills of New York State to the west, the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east, and between them the lapping waters of Lake Champlain and Lake George, flowing gently northwards towards Canada and the St. Lawrence River. This was the scene which greeted 80 rowers from 12 countries as they arrived at Camp Dudley, the oldest boys camp in America.

Next day there was a bit of a breeze as we launched the specially-designed touring boats from the Hudson Boat Company of Canada onto Lake Champlain. But nothing to worry about really. Though the water did start to get a bit choppy after an hour or so. The odd wave broke over the side of the boat. No problem, we had bailers. Have you ever tried to bail and row at the same time? We observed the phenomenon that the lower you get in the water, the more waves come in. Pass the life jacket, someone... Oops, glug, glug, splash splash, swim, swim, help, help! Look out for the monster! (Champy, who is apparently a cousin of Nessie).

The weather improved for the next couple of days, so we got some sightseeing in, visited Fort Ticonderoga and learned how the Americans rewarded us Brits for getting rid of the French for them - yup, they threw us out as well.

Having moved to the YCMA at Silver Bay, it was time for some more rowing, this time on Lake George, which is smaller so the water is usually calmer. Someone said something about a hurricane moving north, but as Michael Fish once said: "Don't worry......" We started to get worried when the waves were about 3 feet high. Fortunately the water was warm and we were near enough to shore to pull the boat up onto the beach after it sank beneath us. The coastguard has disappeared by this time, so we flagged down a passing cadillac and got a lift back to camp. The lady was very nice and said she didn't mind the leather seats getting wet.

Apparently the hurricane's name was Floyd and his hobby was uprooting trees and throwing them down onto the overhead power lines, thus rendering modern electrical appliances useless, so my hair was a complete mess for the rest of the week. We rediscovered the delights of playing cards and board games, and secretly drinking whisky by torchlight. It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

On the final day the sun shone, there was no wind, the boats worked, so did the crew, and we flew across Lake George like a bunch of, er, international rowers. We had a great party afterwards, at which the UK delegation* performed the following song (written by yours truly, to the tune of The Red Flag, for no particular reason other than it fits the words):


From Dudley Camp we started out
And launched our boats upon the waves
We passed each nation with a shout
For Britons never shall be slaves
For Basin Harbour we were bound
Upon Lake Champlain's farther shore
But then alas we ran aground
Our boat would never travel more.
The rocks were hard, we could not stand
The zebra mussels cut our feet
We dragged our boat along the strand
And dreamed of beer and things to eat
We did not dare to swim across
For fear of Champy, monstrous beast
But Amy came and rescued us
And ferried us to join the feast.
From Mossy Point on old Lake George
In William Sanford off we flew
Past verdant bays and rocky gorge
A gallant, strong and hungry crew.
The waves rose up, we harder pulled.
"Head for shore" our captain said.
Too late, for Bill with water filled
And sank beneath the lake like lead.
Alas, all hopes of pizza died
As boat met beach with sickening crunch
"Ah, who will rescue us?" we cried
The coastguard had gone home to lunch
But some kind lady saved the day
She picked us up in car of gold
And brought us back to Silver Bay
We got our lunch - though rather cold.
Next day we're forced to stay aground
A new friend joined our merry throng
We could not row while he's around
His name is Floyd and boy, he's strong!
The moral of this sorry tale
If of your life you would be sure
Is pack a picnic, cakes and ale
Before the FISA swimming tour.
*Yes, Chris Dodd can sing!

So thanks a million Marilyn, Amy, Carol L, Carol P and Zimra (even though she didn't catch any bats), the Hudson Boat boys and all the other helpers for organising an excellent tour and overcoming extreme adversity - it was a noble effort!

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