Ask Wellington Rowing Club’s Head Coach Chris Jones what he loves about rowing, and he’ll reply – with a nod to classic children’s novel Wind in the Willows – “just messing about in boats.”

 

With an answer like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking rowing is little more than a hobby for Chris. But it’s a pastime that has brought him to Wellington from the UK via Athens; helped him meet his wife; has seen him row – and win – for the Oxford University lightweights; and coach any number of champion crews over the years.

But, as for so many rowers, he caught the rowing bug at school.

“I’d never heard of rowing as a sport before I went to Abingdon School, which is a big rowing school in the UK. But my brother went there, and once he got dragged into the sport, I sort of followed in his footsteps. They’re still some of my fondest rowing memories – an idyllic River Thames on a hot summer’s day, water like glass. That’s what hooked me, and I still keep in touch with the friends I made back then.”

With several years of school rowing behind him, there wasn’t much question of how Chris was going to spend his spare time at Oxford, although others thought he might need some convincing.

“I remember sitting in my room on my first night at my college, feeling a bit out of place and a bit of an imposter. All of a sudden, there was this almighty hammering at the door, which came off its hinges and collapsed on the floor.

“These two huge guys lumbered in, said they’d heard I was a rower and told me I was expected down at the boathouse the next morning at dawn. I told them I’d been planning on doing that anyway, and could they put my door back please. They looked a bit sheepish and vaguely propped the door back into place and wandered off.

“And that was it really. I spent the next two years basically living at the boathouse, rowing, coaching and eventually organising all the other crews as well. I had to step back a bit in my third year to concentrate on getting a degree.”

Chris’s university rowing career culminated with a win in the 1976 lightweight Boat Race, which had been inaugurated the year before and was held on the Henley Royal Regatta course. As time went on, he spent more and more time coaching, eventually coaching Boat Race winning crews for the Oxford lightweights 15 years or so after winning the race himself, and helping London Rowing Club win the Thames Cup title for club eights at Henley in 1998.

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Chris in 4 seat rowing in the 1976 lightweight Boat Race for Oxford held on the Henley Royal Regatta course.

He eventually moved to New Zealand in the early 2000s and thanks to London connections, found himself coaching at Wellington Rowing Club. In conjunction with fellow senior coach Joe O’Neill, he has coached many winning crews, including the Men’s Club Eight in the club’s 125th year in 2010.

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Chris (right) and fellow senior coach of Wellington Rowing Club, Joe O'Neill pictured at Henley ROYAL REGATTA IN 2023.

As it happens, he had been planning to come to New Zealand several decades earlier via Greece, but had ended up spending four years living, working, and rowing in Athens.

“It was a great experience but the rowing was virtually non-existent. Athens’s port at Piraeus is probably even worse a place to row weather-wise than Wellington.”

Certainly, a typical day on Wellington Harbour doesn’t bear much resemblance to the idyllic summer day on a mirror-like Thames that Chris remembers fondly from his time at school. So what does it take to develop successful crews from the capital?

“The Wellington region has produced a lot of successful rowers going back many decades so sometimes I think the lack of water time can be a bit of an excuse. It’s certainly a challenge but at times we’ve relied a bit too heavily on fitness and ergs and running up and down hills at the expense of technique. It’s always going to be harder to work on technique than if we had a sheltered river on our doorstep, but you’ve still got to do what you can.

“Beyond the technical side of things though, I think a lot of it comes down to the attitude of the squad and their relationship with the coach.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s my job to set the framework for the season and to put together a programme and obviously to coach technique on the water. But it’s up to the rowers to hold themselves accountable.

“Things are changing in the sport but there’s still a bit of an old-school attitude where the coach sees themselves as there to flog the athletes and make sure they do the work. I’m not interested in that – either you turn off people who might otherwise make a contribution, or you get a few short-term results at the expense of bigger, longer-term success.

“We’ve been most successful when everyone has bought into the project. Where we’ve been unsuccessful is when people have hung back to see how the season is heading before making that sort of commitment. And ultimately the difference comes down to leadership from the athletes themselves.”

It's an attitude Chris is applying to his professional career as well. After years as a senior HR manager in various companies, he now helps senior executives with their own career planning and, particularly, with working out what happens once they retire.

“You’ve got these incredibly talented, driven people who have spent years working in their various professions, suddenly confronted with what they’re going to do with all the extra time on their hands. Most of them don’t really want to kick back and play golf for the rest of their lives – they’ve got a lot more to contribute but don’t quite know how to take the next step.

“It’s similar to coaching rowers. I’m not the one who’s going to be executing their plans to sit on boards, or set up charities or whatever it might be. It’s my job to help them work out what it is they want to do, and how to make it happen.

“You help them set a vision for what they want to achieve, and some parameters for how they’re going to judge success, and then it’s up to them.”

Andrew Smith_(c)2018_Tabitha Arthur Photography_lr--4

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is a keen Masters rower based in Wellington. A member of Wellington Rowing Club off and on since 2000, he spends more time on the erg than the water, trying to convince himself he's still young.