It was only day two of the World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia but there was a frenetic pace to everything out on the water.

 

Five New Zealand boats were in action for the first part of the morning’s heats before young sculler Finn Hamill took on the roulette wheel of racing the repechages of the Lightweight Men’s Single Sculls.

The interval between each race was reduced over fears of a weather bomb arriving. Added to that, the progression system for many events meant only a first or second would be good enough to avoid the repechages.

On top of that there was the brutal challenge of trying to secure limited spots for next year’s Olympics.

“I've had one qualification regatta previous to this, so I can definitely say that the intensity does step up,” says Tokyo silver medallist Jackie Gowler.

“Crews are just like, this is a do or die for them, so they are hitting it hard from the heat and not saving anything, so it's definitely a step up. But we're good for it.”

It all made for a cut-throat exhibition of 2000m rowing at its best, a breathless procession where the New Zealand boats all played their part in one way or another.

Alana Sherman and Kate Haines were first on the water in the heats of the Women’s Pair, where only the winner would qualify directly for the semifinals.

The event’s become the showcase of women’s rowing prowess in that many of the top combinations are also part of their national eights.

The Romanian, Great Britain, Italian and Dutch crews are all on double duty at this regatta. They have heats in the eight today so were clearly desperate to avoid the repechages in their pairs events.

New Zealand was up against Romania in the first heat and the Europeans appeared uncatchable once they took the lead just past the 500-metre mark.

Sherman and Haines were only put together after the World Cup III regatta in July, with Haines swapping over from the Double Sculls.

“I feel like it's been really refreshing personally moving to sweep,” says Kate. “I feel like that's been a really fun, exciting challenge and just working with Alana, she's just so easy-breezy to work with. It's been really cool.”

They finished just over eight seconds behind the Romanians in fourth place, encouraging considering it was their first international race together.

“I feel like there's a lot on the line at the moment, so you kind of just want to get the first one out of the way to see where you stack up against the rest of the field. I feel like we have some things we want to work on and some things that we did well.”

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Kate haines and Alana sherman in the Women's pair at the 2023 World Rowing Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing

There was a little bit more wiggle room for the heats of the Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls, where first and second qualified directly for the semifinals.

New Zealand’s Jackie Kiddle, a former world champion in the event, and new partner Shannon Cox were up against Great Britain’s Imogen Grant and Emily Craig. They set a new world’s best time in June and posed a formidable challenge to the New Zealanders.

Kiddle and Cox responded, staying within a boat length of the Brits through to the 1500m mark at which point they were assured of a semifinal spot.

The New Zealanders recorded the fourth fastest time of the day.

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Shannon Cox and Jackie Kiddle racing in the Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls at the 2023 World Rowing Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

That set things up for the Women’s Double Sculls with Lucy Spoors and Brooke Francis making their world championship comebacks after becoming mothers for the first time.

The New Zealand boat trailed China by just over a second at the halfway mark before taking off through the third 500m to lead at the 1500m and claim the win in 7min 03.74sec.

The Women’s Double looms as one of the great finals, with Romania setting the quickest time of the four heats, finishing in 6:55.41.

Their boat is stroked by one of the phenoms of the sport, 24-year-old Simona Radis. Not only was she world champion in the Double Sculls last year, but she also stroked the Women’s Eight to victory. It’s been suggested she is eyeing a third event in future.

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Brooke francis and lucy spoors competing in the women's double at the 2023 World rowing championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

The heats of the Women’s Four offered an easier progression than most of the day’s racing, with the first three going through to the semifinals. But even those races had a feeling of desperation about them.

The New Zealand boat of Phoebe Spoors, Gowler, Ella Cossill and Davina Waddy is still relatively new, but they brought an edge to their heat, going up against Romania and China.

They were just over a second down on the Romanians at halfway and still in second place through the 1500m before finishing third.

“I feel like the first 1km we came out pretty strong,” says Jackie. “We actually had quite a nice rhythm. Then I think coming through the third part of the race we got a bit rattled by the wind and just couldn't quite find it again. We're pretty happy with it though. We're not far off I don't think.”

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The women's four: Davina Waddy, Ella Cossill, Jackie Gowler and Phoebe Spoors at the 2023 world rowing championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

The Men’s Four of Matt Macdonald, Tom Murray and world championship debutants Logan Ullrich and Oliver Maclean kicked off their regatta with a powerful row against the Netherlands.

“For myself and Logan, there was definitely a lot of pressure on the line, but I believe we handled it pretty well, the conditions were a bit all over the place and probably not our best executed race,” says Oliver.

It was a showpiece of competing styles, with the Dutch rowing almost upright while the New Zealand boat swung through the 1500m just 0.32sec adrift.

The Dutch held on to cross in 5:59.50, with New Zealand recording 6:00.41 to go straight to the semifinals, in what was the fastest of the three heats.

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The Men’s Four of Matt Macdonald, Tom Murray,  Logan Ullrich and Oliver Maclean and the 2023 World Rowing Championships. 

And when it finally came time for Finn Hamill to jump on the repechage roulette in the Lightweight Single, a sense of calm had come over the course. Hamill home in a barely contested duel with Irishman Tom McCarthy and off to the quarterfinals. A good day to stack your chips on black.

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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.