With a little effort I was able to schedule my last business trip to the Netherlands when it allowed me to row the Elfsteden Roeimarathon. This race is a race that covers approximately 200 km and goes through each of the 11 cities within the Netherlands province of Friesland. It takes 18-24 hours to complete. The Elfsteden race is most famous not for rowing, but for ice skating. During the winter all the water ways along this path can freeze under very cold conditions; when this happens the Dutch initiate the Elfsteden ice skating race, which is not only a race but a truly Dutch cultural event. The last time it was cold enough to run this race was in 1997.
The rowing version of the race is done in Class C Doubles with coxswain (stuurman, in Dutch). They are larger than a racing double and much heaver. Since some of the waterways have large boats that produce big wakes and there can be some rough water the boats need to be modified. The modifications include creating stern and bow decking, adding a very large splash-guard, mounting a GPS for navigation, adding electric pumps for bailing, and inserting extra floatation compartments and wave protectors over the riggers. The most important addition is mounting the traditional oil-burning lamp on the bow and stern. All of these alterations were made the week before the race but had to be installed at the race site on the day of the event since the boat modifications could not survive the trailer trip to the race.
There is a huge amount of organization required to prepare for this race. First, the race course itself is very long and complicated. In the Netherlands the canals and waterways form an extensive network and are nearly as common as streets; thus, you really need to have a good set of directions to prevent getting lost (on our legs we took 2 wrong turns). The race package provides an extensive set of maps and way-points that needed to be programmed in the GPSs used in the boats. In addition these points had to be programmed into the GPSs used in the chase cars so the spare rowers could find the locations to change crews. Since this is a very long race lasting nearly 24 hours people needed a place to sleep, so a convenient “campsite” was found. Camping in the Netherlands is a lot different than I am used to in rural Oregon. In the Netherlands you sleep in a nicely manicured field in the middle of a working farm, with a portion of the barn converted into a bathroom with showers, and a nice patio for cooking and sharing meals together. Since we had 27 people the preparations for the campsite were rather extensive, requiring 6 tents and lots of food. The most difficult coordination was of the cars and people. First we had to get all the people and equipment from Eindhoven to the race, about a 3 hour drive. In the Netherlands this is more complicated than I am used to – the cars are smaller and many people do not have cars, plus 3 hours is considered a long trip. Once everyone is at the race we needed a chase car and a campsite car for each team, each equipped with the preprogramed GPS, food, and drinks.
With the plans in place, we began the actual execution starting at 8:00 AM in Eindhoven. For the race preparations all the people were divided in 2 groups. Group 1 departed first, traveled with the boats to the race course and mounted all the modifications on both boats (I was in this group). Group 2 left a little later with all the camping gear and set up the campsite. Once the campsite was set up, they joined us at the race site; unfortunately they had all the food and we had to wait a few hours for them to arrive. With the full group of 24 rowers assembled we had a big pasta dinner next to the boats and canal. At the appropriate time 2 rowers and a cox for each of the 2 Beatrix crews launched for a leisurely 5k warm up row to the start. The rest of us drove to watch the start – even this simple drive highlighted how important the GPS was because none of the people in my car knew where the start was. All 94 boats were log-jammed in the small start area. At 8:00 PM the boats were started one by one at about 30 second intervals. Each team of 12 was divided into 4 crews of 3 (A-D). Each individual crew of 3 would row approximately 10 km (about 40-60 minutes) then change out with another crew. The intended sequence was: A,B,A,B,A,B > C,D,C,D,C,D > A,B,A,B,A,B > C,D,C,D,C,D. For example, the starting crew A raced while crew B was in a car frantically driving through Friesland trying to find the next exchange point. In the beginning this dash between exchange points was more like a convoy since the crews were closely grouped, but by the end we were on your own. While crews A&B were rowing crews C&D were at the campsite and trying to get some sleep.
I was in crew D so after the start of the race we went to the campsite and tried to get settled. Since it was still relatively early and still light I got very little sleep. At around 11:00 PM, we had to get up and drive to the exchange point. Some people on our team slept well and were not so eager to get up delaying our departure. It was very strange being crammed into a car with mostly strangers, driving through the very dark countryside, toward some way-point on a GPS. Upon arrival at an extremely dark, remote patch of weeds under a brilliant starry sky, we waited with a number of other crazy people for our crew to arrive. This was actually a lot like pit crew in a NASCAR race. The more experienced crews had long poles holding unique combinations of lights, or actually internally lit signs to show their crews where to pull in (we had to shout since we did not have a sign). As the crews arrived the pit crews had large poles with hooks to help pull the boats in and the crew members were exchanged. The more experienced crews had very long poles, pulled in very accurately, and exchanged crews quickly. Being less experienced we had to chase our bout down the cannel a few meters, the exiting crew did not know you had to let the oars go parallel to the boat to so they had difficulty pulling in far enough, and we were cumbersome during the rower exchange (with more practice we got quicker). When I finally got my chance to start rowing around 1:00 am it was truly peaceful, even though we were rowing very hard. The water was glass, there was no wind, no sound other than that of the boat; and the only lights were far-off oil lamps behind us, a small glow from the GPS on the coxswains face, and the beautiful sky speckled with stars. All of our nighttime rows were like this and for some reason not being able to see much made the time go by much quicker. During the last segment of our first rowing shift we watched the sun rise while we rowed across a glassy lake. Our shift ended around 6:00 am and we headed back to the camp site to try to get some sleep
At the campsite I tried to get some sleep but it was difficult since it was very bright day and it was very warm by Dutch standards. So after maybe 1.5 hours of sleep we raced to the exchange point to start another 6 hour adventure, 3 hours rowing & 3 hours of driving. The weather was absolutely awesome for rowing: clear, sunny, and absolutely no wind, which is unheard of in an area covered in power-generating wind mills. The problem with this was that it brought out all the pleasure boats, which produced big wakes that were amplified in the small hard sided canals. Even with this, only about two different stretches, of 2K each, were uncomfortable to row in. Our team decided to change the order of the C & D crews for the last group so after our last segment we rushed to the finish line to watch our team finish 28th out of 94 in 18 hours and 30+ minutes. As with any rowing regatta the race had finished but the work was not done. We had to remove all the modifications and load the boats on to the trailer.
The race organizers had a lot of very unique touches at the post race festivities. They provided each crew with unique Friesland desserts composed of a graham cracker-like base, whipped cream, and chocolate (as with many Dutch deserts it had the slight black licorice flavoring). The post-race meal was a classic Dutch winter meal (I guess since this race commemorates a winter event) of stampot with sausage or sauerkraut, and vla (similar to pudding). They gave each participant a Maltese cross-shaped medal just like those in the ice skating race, and for the winners of each event the medal came with a lanyard in the very uniquely designed Friesland flag.
At the Finish
That night despite being very tired, we all hung around the campsite talking for hours. This was an absolutely wonderful experience with great rowing, true camaraderie, awesome weather, and a fabulous Dutch cultural experience.
I found Friesland noticeably different from the rest of the Netherlands. It appeared to be even flatter then the rest of the country, even though I know that this is not physically possible. I suspect that this is because it is less populated and there is noticeably less tall vegetation. It was amazingly green with numerous very small quaint villages.
Each boat had a tracking device on it that was used to show our exact position and speed on a web site. Paula was able to track our progress and speed real-time from Taiwan, and since I rowed in the middle of the night the time change worked in our favor. At the beginning of the race we were actually able to use the live video cam on the race web site so she could see me while I talked to her on the phone.
Unfortunately I forgot to pack my camera so all pictures here were taken by other members of the team.