The challenge that takes you out of the comfort zone

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It’s the river race that tests all your rowing skills.

 

Philippa Baker-Hogan has a bit on.

She’s off to New York over the New Year to celebrate a milestone birthday with her daughter.

Then she’s back in Whanganui a week out from the other annual event she’s been dedicated to since 2008, the Billy Webb Challenge (BWC).

Philippa is one of those people who’s comfortable being uncomfortable, and this is handy in pressure situations like winning world rowing championship titles and organising major events.

The BWC is in a rebuilding phase after some stellar years when it attracted the world’s best single scullers through the pulling power of Kiwi stars like Mahe Drysdale and Emma Twigg.

“You know, the first year we literally did have 25,000 people on the banks of the Whanganui River, like over a hundred years ago when Billy Webb won,” says Philippa, who took over as event manager last year.

Webb was the first New Zealander to hold the World Sculling Championship title, after beating Charles Towns in Sydney in August, 1907. He successfully defended his crown six months later on the mighty Te Awa O Whanganui.

The current race still attracts plenty of local interest, it’s part of Whanganui’s Vintage Weekend celebrations and also falls on Wellington Anniversary weekend.

“The public love seeing people that are in and around the New Zealand system,” says Philippa. “Just being right up close to them, you know, getting on and off the water and literally being able to rub shoulders with them.”

Messina Su’a feels the local support as much as anyone. She started rowing at Whanganui High School and last January became the first woman from the River City to claim the Philippa Baker-Hogan trophy for the BWC’s fastest woman.

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Messina Su'a after winning the Billy Webb challenge (centre) with Philippa Baker-Hogan (left) and two-time Olympic medallist and fellow Aramoho Whanganui RC club member Kerri Williams (right). 

Messina comes with a rich sporting heritage, her dad Tasi played 65 games on the wing for the Whanganui provincial rugby side in the 1980s, her mum Lee was in the Canterbury women’s team and her cousin Murphy was the first Samoan-born cricketer to play for the Black Caps.

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Messina's cousin Murphy Su'a played 13 tests and 12 ODIs for the Black Caps.

Messina’s just finished her first year studying Health Sciences at Otago University and was part of their rowing squad that dominated the University Rowing champs in April.

She was persuaded by Aramoho Whanganui Rowing Director, Axel Dickinson to enter the BWC despite having only raced in the single twice as an Under-17.

The photo of her after winning says it all. She looks genuinely shocked.

“I don't think I realised how cool it actually was to do that. When you look at all the other names on that [trophy], they're all New Zealand rowers and have done well at worlds, and so to have my name with them is such a cool thing.”

And anyone who’s rowed on the Whanganui River knows there are all sorts of traps.

“It had just been flooding so there was lots of debris, logs and stuff sticking out of the water,” says Messina. “I had to watch out for a log that was sticking out right at the start, but I managed to get myself sorted and get going again.”

The race against the clock starts at the Union Boat Club, heads upstream under the Dublin St Bridge and Aramoho Railway Bridge where the rowers have to turn and head back downstream.

“The trick is, a lot of people can gain on you in that turn, so you need to nail it, otherwise you can lose quite a bit of momentum,” says Messina.

Logs and bridges weren’t the only obstacles.

“Towards the end of the line, one of the boys from our club started to cut me off so I thought I had actually lost it.”

In the end, she finished just seconds ahead of Union sculler Rebecca Wilson.

Messina will be back to defend her title next month. The 6km course was a great workout just ahead of nationals.

“It gets you really prepared [for] the mental challenge of getting the race start and race finish,” she says. “Definitely the mental thing was a big advantage or take-away from that race. I told myself, ‘If I could race 6k, I could race 2k in a few weeks’.”

She’ll have just celebrated her birthday. And with a great day sorted and underway, hopefully Philippa Baker-Hogan will be comfortable being comfortable.

The Billy Webb Challenge
Sunday, January 21, 2024.
Open to all boat classes except Eights and Octuples.
Entries close 5pm Thursday, January 18, 2024.
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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.