Four New Zealanders are the latest to join World Rowing’s umpiring panel
  • Could you identify the blade colours and acronyms of all 157 member federations of world rowing?
  • List the people on World Rowing's Executive Committee, Council and the 12 different Commissions and the election process they go through?
  • Recite the progression system for the 22 entries in the Men's Double Sculls at the 2023 European Champiosnhips?

These are just some of the questions and curiosities of a 380-page rule book 1848, 1849, 1850 and 1851 found themselves having to regurgitate not very long ago.

They were locked in the Boardroom at Rowing NZ and being tested on how they would deal with these scenarios and many more.

The questions lasted most of the day and at the end of it there were celebrations for what they’d achieved – four Kiwis had just become the latest World Rowing umpires, numbers 1848-1851.

Good to go on the next step to Olympics and world championship events.

Mary Birch, let’s call her World Rowing Umpire #1848, on account of alphabetical order, says the process was grueling:

“This is probably the most difficult exam I've ever had to revise for and take...and I've done a lot of law exams, for example, I tell you, it was very challenging.”

Especially the afternoon role-playing sessions: “I think we all probably found it quite excruciating,” says Mary. “It's quite awkward when you are standing there waving flags in the Rowing New Zealand boardroom and pretending to be the umpire or the starter or whatever. But you have to get over yourself and just go for it.”


From left to right: Sophie Strachan, Steve Brine, Lauren Farnden and Mary Birch. Photo: Picture Show Ltd. 

“I felt the role play part was probably more up my street,” says #1849 Steve Brine. “One of my scenarios was having to wash out the New Zealand Eight because they were 500 metres behind and I nearly said [to the examiner], ‘I don't think this is realistic!’. But we’re finally here.”

Getting there has been full of twists and turns for Steve.

“I started seven years ago and was then interrupted mainly by Covid,” he says. “But a couple of other personal things happened in our life at the time - a couple of race officials passed away and interrupted the training. I've been through about five lots of training seminars.”

Like so many of the people that keep rowing running, it started with the participation of their children. Mary had three go through the sport in Cambridge, Steve’s daughter was the inspiration for his involvement.

“I started here as a boat driver in about 2007 when I was captain of Whakatane Rowing and I got a little frustrated sitting on the bank all day, every day.”

#1850 Lauren Farnden and #1851 Sophie Strachan have also been around the rowing scene for a long time.

“I started back in the day as a rower and then a coach and got tied into umpiring down on the Dunedin Harbour when there weren’t enough officials to complete some of the local regattas,” says Lauren. “From there I was asked, just over a year ago, about the international side of things.”

Sophie has also seen the sport through the lens of a coach. She could see an opportunity to bring some positive change when she considered umpiring.

“From a coaching perspective I had very little understanding of how things operated from an umpire's perspective. So there was a bit of learning for me in that, [asking], ‘Why are we here and who's in the boat park and what are their needs and wants? How do we keep people in the sport and enjoying it and getting the best result for everybody?”

About 170 umpire assignments come up each year for the various World Rowing events, from World Cups to the Indoor championships to Coastal Rowing. For most of the regattas there can be only one person per country.

Mark Weatherall, Rowing NZ General Manager - Community and Development appreciates the significant effort that these four have put in, "It's an amazing achievement and the time and energy gone in to this is not lost on us."

"We are very proud to have them representing NZ as world class umpires and very grateful to have them as umpires at our regional and national regattas." Mark adds.

Unsurprisingly, officiating at the Olympics is something our new umpires all aspire to.

Four Kiwi rowing diehards, all hoping to add their face to World Rowing’s names and numbers.



Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.