The Daily Ritual

They are the 5am kids, mostly. The ones who pack their bags the night before,
Roll out of bed to find a familiar pair of Crocs, ‘stoks or slides,
Shuffle half asleep into a row suit and maybe a waiting car.

Stretch, yawn, warm up, paddle, push hard, then push some more for 16k.
Hustle into a uniform, a bus and then to school all before 8 o’clock.

For others it’s the other end of the day,
After a full shift at school comes a shift on the water,
To rivers, lakes, estuaries or harbours.
Or weights, or S&C. Home to a shift on the books.

Then LIGHTS OUT.

This is the daily ritual for thousands of students across the country as the rowing season nears its big week at Aon Maadi Regatta. But those daily routines have been turned upside down for the rowers from Te Tairāwhiti and Hawke's Bay.

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14 February 2023

It’s just before 7am and Craig Clark is standing on the bank across from the Gisborne Rowing Club. The Waimata River is coursing past both sheds – around them, past them, through them. The Club Chairperson who has put his heart and soul into Gisborne Rowing, captures the heart-breaking scene on his phone and posts it to Facebook. But his video can’t and won’t show the devastation going on inside the clubhouse.

THE DAMAGE TO THE GISBORNE ROWING CLUB BOATS AND BOAT SHED AFTER CYCLONE GABRIELLE.

It’s an excruciating wait before he, Gisborne Boys’ Sports Co-ordinator Peter Simmons and other parents from both the boys’ and girls’ schools can get a look inside. Eighteen boats destroyed. Around five more severely damaged.

Clean up underway after the damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Some have floated off racks and been lifted, squeezed then snapped at bow and stern against the rack above. Others have been tossed about in a giant rinser, timber and wood versus steel and iron. Only the 30- and 40-year-old boats you find in any Kiwi boathouse, the ones consigned to top racks and covered in a layer of dust, have survived. There are ergs buried in silt, their electronics submerged and seemingly unrecoverable. And with its 150th anniversary coming up next year, piles of photos and mementos lie sodden and ruined. 

Two weeks on it’s a day Peter Simmons still struggles to find words for, words that start with a long pause and a face fighting to hold back tears. “Sorry, I just have that not quite devastated [feeling] but the realisation that we’ve got a lot of work to do. I do get quite emotional about things but... we’ve just got to get on and get things... you know...” 

Thursday 16 – Friday 17 February 

Still no phones, no comms, no wifi. If you want to talk to someone you have to go out and find them.  The city, the region is more remote than ever.    

Former Gisborne Girls’ High Head Girl Sabine Lapointe has made it down to New Zealand Champs in Twizel. Her mum Danielle is still coaching at the school where there’s a group of about 13 rowers whose Maadi hopes seem so far away right now.  

The only way to get information from Lake Ruataniwha is to head out to the airport and try to get some, any, connectivity. So, Peter Simmons heads out to tap into rowIT. His phone lights up with good news. 

Sabine is the 7th fastest qualifier for Friday’s final and there are more people out there as the live result plays down. The girl from Gizzy finishes less than a second outside the medals. It’s a big boost for everyone in this tight-knit rowing community with still so many challenges to deal with.

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Peter and others in the clean-up pull back wall linings in the clubhouse to discover a layer of silt more than a metre high from Cyclone Bola in 1988. Gabrielle has left a similar layer on top of that. And while everyone’s immediate instinct is to put on a pair of gumboots grab a shovel and help dig homes and buildings out of this mess, someone’s saying, Hang on, the silt’s contaminated. You need PPE gear. There are health and safety issues. You can’t be putting people at risk.

There’s no water to clean stuff up with. No one’s allowed on the river because it’s contaminated with raw sewage. There’s a five-day stand-down. If another big storm passes through, the river could get re-contaminated. Peter worries his crews might not even get back on the water in the city before Maadi.

And there’s much more than rowing to worry about. Homes are inundated, people left with nothing. And the kids from the club have been right in the middle of it, says Peter. “Last week rowers from both the boys’ and girls’ school were unloading pallets to help Ngati Porou get food parcels and other donations in places further north like Tolaga Bay.”

One Week On

Sabine Lapoint (Gisborne) 2nd place Women's Club Single Repechage 3

Sabine Lapointe Photo: Picture Show Ltd.

While Sabine Lapointe was flying the Gisborne colours at Ruataniwha, Mark Weatherall, Rowing New Zealand’s Community and Development Manager, was also in Twizel but his thoughts were further north, trying to find a way to help those clubs affected by Gabrielle in Te Tairawhiti and Hawke’s Bay. He flew back to Lake Karāpiro straight after finals with a mission. 

“I went out to the North Island-based schools and clubs and said, ‘Hey... who can help?’” 

“Pretty quickly I had 15 ergs promised and they were brought to the lake over the weekend. I loaded those up on Sunday night.” 

The next morning, he hit the road as yet another heavy rainstorm was lashing the coast.   

“Mate, it was pouring down. You come through the gorge and can pretty quickly see the devastation. When I arrived, I drove into the school, parked up and the door on the trailer down. There were about 15 kids waiting and they just helped unload it, really excited. They’re like, ‘Thanks Mr Weatherall, this is real cool’.” 

For Peter Simmons this is as close a return to normality his rowers will see for a while and a lifeline to making Maadi.  

“I put a photo of the ergs and kids all lined up on our Heja app and said, ‘This is what a real erg room looks like. And everybody loves it. I've actually just had our First XV coach come and ask if he can use them.”

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ON LEFT: CRAIG CLARK (GISBORNE ROWING CLUB CHAIRPERSON), PETER SIMMONS (GISBORNE BOYS’ SPORTS CO-ORDINATOR) AND ON RIGHT: MARK WEATHERALL (ROWING NEW ZEALAND’S COMMUNITY AND DEVELOPMENT MANAGER), PICTURED WITH SOME OF THE ROWERS FROM GISBORNE ROWING.

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The ergs that clubs and schools generously offered up to Gisborne Rowing Club to replace the ones damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle so their rowers can still train. 

There have been plenty of other shows of support. 

  • Almost $10,000 was raised at the Aon Junior regatta last weekend, including over $4,000 from St George’s Rowing Club in Auckland. 
  • RangiRuru is running a fundraiser at South Island Secondary Schools next week. 
  • Boatmakers Laszlo and Filippi have both offered assistance. 
  • Rowing NZ’s looking at the cost of seat levies for regatta entries for schools and clubs affected by the flooding as part of a region wide Pay Half, Play Hard initiative. 
  • Aon, key partner of the Maadi Regatta, has made it possible to fly and truck 25,000kg of supplies and six generators into the region as well as setting up mobile offices. 

Monday February 27

“As I was driving out of there, I just looked at the river. I looked at the club and the conditions around the club and the mud and I just really felt for them, I thought, ‘that's tough, you know, there's such a big hill for them to climb’. But they're a resilient bunch, their enthusiasm, their upbeat nature. They're great people, you know, awesome people.” 

Mark Weatherall 

That night they had another storm across Te Tairāwhiti. Roads closed again. The hill to climb even steeper. 

Wednesday March 1

Peter Simmons sits at his desk at Boys’ High. There’s a flag pinned to the wall behind him. Red and black. GBHS. He knows trauma and tragedy too well following the Canterbury earthquakes.  

“I’ve been through a hell of a lot in my lifetime. I had property down there, our family home. It took us eight years to get clear of insurances. I was part of the Urban Search and Rescue team deployed to Christchurch for weeks on end, and so the stress levels in the four or five years after that were, were way more than this."

That’s true maybe, but Peter has 35 rowers he’s trying to keep buoyed after three years of Covid cancellations and now this. 

“You know, I got up this morning and again, State Highway 2 North has been shut because of trees coming down. So that's just gonna be our daily, you know. Even getting to NISS (North Island Secondary Schools) next week, we’ll be praying that we can get up at 5am and hit the road. And then to Maadi. 

Karāpiro Lodge is booked, extra tent sites have been allocated. If all goes well there will be students from the club’s three rowing schools at that parade on the Sunday before the racing starts. And Peter’s red and black flag will be flying.

Shaun Hayward Andy Hay gs

Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He coxed New Zealand's world champion eight in 1982 and '83.