By Nic Neveling & photos by Nikki Cox
At 23:45 on warm Friday evening, 12 July, a small group of Vesta rowers met at Paddington Station and boarded the last train leaving London for the night.
Nine hours later they set foot on Portreath beach on the Cornish coast and began preparing for a day of rowing nothing like whey they were used to.
A Vesta crew of Michael Hughes, Jon Brown, Nicholas Neveling and Brad Lawson, supported by Nikki Cox, had entered a boat into round 3 of the UK Surf Rowers’ League Summer Series. They were certainly in for something different to the standard weekend at Dorney.
The stroke in a surf boat is like a stroke in a flat water shell, but that is about where the similarities end. Surf boats are large, wide craft designed for rolling through swells and crashing through breaking waves. There is no fin and no rudder. Instead the “cox”, or sweep in surf boat parlance, stands on the back of the boat and uses a flat wooden oar to steer and balance the the shell.
The most striking difference the Vesta clan found, however, was the surf boat “racing kit”. Surf boats do not have sliding seats so rowers have to wear speedos, which are then “wedgied” to expose the skin. The flat seats are then lubricated with water and aqueous cream to allow the rowers to slide on the recovery as they would on a seat with wheels. The rowing lycra, itself not exactly famed for its modesty, is Victorian by comparison. After an initial period of awkwardness, however, the lads soon embraced the budgie smugglers and pre-race “lubing up” routine.
After a warm up row with sweep Khalil Isaac in a boat kindly provided by Porthtowan Surf Lifesaving Club, the Vesta crew, dubbed “The Vikings”, were ready to race. The course was approximately 800m to 1000m long. Crews had to start on the beach, race to a buoy out at sea, turn their buoy and then charge home. Once the crews were in shallow enough water the bowman had to jump out of the boat and sprint to a flag on the beach to finish.
There were three heats, with the best performers across those three races going into a final.
Conditions could not have been more ideal, with blue sky, 28 degree temperatures and no wind. It was a day of endless summer. This fine conditions meant flat water, which favoured the less-experienced Vikings boat. Racing in lane one in the first round, the Vesta Vikings took advantage of the flat water and good conditioning from the Henley season to come in first.
For the next two races the boat was drawn in lane five, which because of the vagaries of tide and current was a longer haul. The Vikings finished third in race two and had to come from way behind after a botched start to claw their way into the top three in round three.
Two thirds and one win was enough to put the crew into the final for a showdown with the highly-rated Porthtowan crew.
Despite a bad start which saw the Vikings drop more than length, the crew settled into a powerful rhythm and began to inch back. A sharp turn put Vesta right back in the hunt and as the crews approached the beach Vesta had drawn almost level with Porthtowan at the front of the field. The local surf club just managed to keep ahead as the bowmen launched themselves out of the boats and onto the beach in the sprint for the flags. They touched first just ahead of the Vikings.
Although disappointed to just miss out on a win, the Vesta crew were pleased to come close despite their inexperience in a bigger boats and different racing format.
After hauling the surf boats back up the beach (loading a trailer is a breeze in comparison), the group made their way to the neighbouring village Porthtowan for a BBQ and after party at the Porthtowan club house, right on the beach.
As the sun slowly died over the Atlantic Ocean and the beer flowed, the party kicked off in style with some great tunes laid down by the Vikings sweep for the day, Khalil. After dancing on the beach until well after midnight, exhausted, the Vikings finally called it a night, strolling up the street through the warm summer night to their accommodation The perfect ending to a perfect day.
Many thanks to the UK Surf Rowers League and Porthtowan Surf Lifesaving Club for their warm hospitality and the the use of a boat. The Vikings hope to be on the beach again soon.