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On the 21st of July, nine of SUBC’s best young rowers set off for a three-week tour to Canada. Jonny Rundle, Tom McClintock, Jack Hargreaves, Peter Koster, Kit Cunningham-Reid, Hamish Playfair, Tom Sacre, Nick Wheatley and Ryan Barraclough were joined in North America by one of Australia’s best Under 23 coxswains, SUBC’s Will Raven. Together we formed an eight for competition at the Ontario State Championships and Royal Canadian Henley, with line up listed above from bow to stroke and Ryan as specialist sculling reserve. Our coach was noted “Dutch Touch” exponent Rick von Hooydonk. The trip over was made up of two flights – fourteen hours from Sydney to San Francisco, and five hours from there to Toronto. Aside from leaving us all with terrible jet lag, it gave us a lot of time to mull over what we were walking into. Eights racing in North America is close to a religion – they seem to hesitate over boating coxed fours for being too small and American and Canadian eights had dominated the World Championships and Olympics of the last decade. We knew very little about our accommodation at Ridley College or the equipment we’d be using from their boat club, still less about the courses we’d be racing on or the boats we’d be up against.

We arrived at Ridley (a co-ed boarding school in St Catharine’s, home of Canadian Henley) at two in the morning, and many of us struggled to find any real sleep that night. Nevertheless, training began the very next day, and we got to see the boat we’d be getting to know very well over the next three weeks. The George Abady II was an eight year old Hudson, which we were to crew with vintage, non adjustable oars. Coming from the SUBC shed, where the equipment is the very latest, it was clear that we were in for a challenge.

Almost immediately we were struck by a variety of misfortunes that are perhaps common in touring parties. Jack, our three seat, was hit by glandular fever and strep throat at the same time, and was unable to row from midway through the first week on. This meant that a few days before the first race, Ryan came into the crew, which forced a reshuffle of the bow four. At first it ran (from bow to four) myself, Ryan, Jonny and Pete, which was later changed to Jonny, Pete, myself and Ryan. To compound the disruption, we were told that because Will had coxed internationally in 2012 (at the Under 23 Championships in Trakai), we would not be able to enter the Under 23 or Senior Eight at Canadian Henley and our race at the Ontario Championships would be an exhibition and we wouldn’t technically be entered.

These disruptions did not provide the best platform for our first race – at the Ontario Championships. The race was a straight final with no chance to fine-tune or finalise our racing style. In short, the Canadians gave us a lesson in racing. Two boats from St Catharine’s Rowing Club shot out to the early lead, but it was not so much their speed in the opening quarter that impressed us – it was their ability to replicate that speed three more times over the course. That left us in a battle for third with a crew from Western Ontario. It was here that we learnt the most about how to really race. In a race that was already going to be a St Catharine’s 1-2, the crew from West Ontario would just not let us past, and we ended up finishing fourth. A culture of hard side-by-side racing meant that these crews would not capitulate as we had come to expect.

After the humbling experience at the Welland course, we were in for another disruption. While playing some Ultimate Frisbee, Ryan and Hamish collided, with Hamish limping away with a mid-foot sprain. This led to the inclusion of Dan, a Ridley College Graduates rower and Yale graduate, in the eight for a couple of training sessions, as well as a few interesting attempts at rowing in a seven.

This was the most difficult period of the trip for the whole group, and Australia’s early struggles at the Olympics did nothing to improve the mood of the crew. However, it was here that we made our best improvements, improvements that would put us in good stead for Henley. It was during those days that we got our first piece of really good news for the trip – Ali Coehoorn (nee Williams) was living in Canada with her husband and would be available at Henley to cox for SUBC once more. We had a coxswain for the senior eight and had Will raring to go in the Championship, but were nonetheless disqualified from the Under 23 eight.

A few more days of training and we were, by all appearances, ready to race. The emotions were running a little high in the heat of the Senior Eight, and the lack of a coherent plan hurt us badly. Ali hadn’t trained extensively with us, and was forced to dig into her vast experience coxing and coaching to get us on the same page on the fly. We scraped into the final, with the slowest time of the six boats.

In the wake of that race, we had what the media would call ‘a no-holds barred truth session,’ under the guidance of our Dutch Master where we each laid out what our goals were for the tour and how we should race in order to achieve them. Rick was keen that we develop our race planning much more fully as a crew and they we each have input and ownership of a plan that would take us through the entire course competing on every stroke for every place. The result was a much-improved race in the heat of the Championship eight. We qualified comfortably for the final, only four seconds back on the time of the early pacesetters from California Rowing Club.

We weren’t able to maintain the rage in the final of the Senior Eight, however. After putting down our best first 1000m of the tour, we couldn’t capitalise, and allowed three crews to cross the line in front of us. The disappointment was even more keenly felt because of how well we had raced for half the race. The race was won by a crew from California Rowing Club, which included an ex-Shore boy, Michael Bernerius.

As seemed to be the pattern with our races, the sub-standard performance in the final of the senior spurred us to redress the balance in the Championship. Racing a considerably higher calibre of oarsman, including some of the winners of the Grand Challenge at Royal Henley this year, we resolved to leave nothing in the tank. Coxed to perfection by Will, we exceeded the standard we had set for our first half in the Senior Final and then carried that standard through the rest of the race. Two of the best moments of the tour came in quick succession in that second thousand – first burying the California crew, some of whom were winners in the Grand, and then holding off a fast finishing crew from Mendota to finish second. The St Catharine’s crew that had beaten us at Ontario had been augmented by a member of the Under 23 Canadian team, and they were deserving winners.

Looking back, it is clear that the tour was not without its hardships, and certainly going in, I would not have envisaged having to battle so much to succeed. As we were told so many times by the elder statesmen of SUBC, however, it’s in those difficult situations that real friendships are made, and memorable careers are forged. Looking at the group that returned to Sydney on the 15th of August, I’m confident that many of them will look back on the tour to Canada as one of the most important milestones of their early careers.