There’s a special coaching combination going on at the Whangarei Rowing Club
Something pretty cool happened at Lake Karapiro a couple of weeks ago. Take a listen.
That was commentator Kirsty Dunhill at the KR1 regatta at the beginning of the month. The weekend got even better for Whangarei, with five crews making the A Final of the Novice Double Sculls.
A great day for Whangarei rowing, with a blue blanket across Lake Karapiro.
They also qualified three boats for the A Final of the Novice Coxed Quad, finishing 1st, 5th and 6th before boating an Octuple and winning that.
The Girls A Final Novice Octuple where Whangarei took the win.
Club president and head coach Chris Williams can’t hide the smile when he listens back to that commentator's audio. It’s the first time he’s heard it because on the day he and whoever was left on land from New Zealand’s northern-most club were giving it heaps from the water’s edge.
“We all gather down there just below the flag poles and yell and scream from there,” says Chris. “People were giving us a hard time because we've got this bark we do across the water and the barking is because of my dog Jack.”
Jack the dog is Whangarei Rowing Club’s G.O.A.T.
“He's been with me the whole time I've been coaching,” says Chris, who got into the sport when he started Masters rowing 12 years ago.
“He’s 13 this year. He's getting on, getting old and crinkly like me.”
But like Chris, Jack expects the kids to give it their best.
“When we're out in the coach boat and the girls aren't doing anything, or we're just sitting having a yak, all of a sudden Jack’ll start barking to get them moving.
“Even in the erg room, if they're sitting not rowing, he'll walk in there and start barking at them. He thinks it's his job to keep them going.”
Most of the kids are out of Whangarei Girls’ High with a bunch from Pompallier Catholic and Huanui Colleges as well as Whangarei Boys’.
Chris had a reasonable group last season but this year numbers have grown again, all with the help of a handy $5 note at a clubs and sports orientation day at Girls’ High.
“I took a single up there and put it on some dumps and I had my rowers there, but the girls were just walking past.
“So I said, ‘Let's go and grab one of the ergs from the gym, bring it down here and we'll have an impromptu erg competition. Whoever gets the fastest time for 500 metres gets the $5.’
“The girls set it up with a sheet of paper and took names and times and things like that. I was just standing there watching what was going on and who was pulling good times without any skills at all. We eventually got 23 of them.”
Whangarei club rowers with Jack the Kelpie-Foxie cross. His owner Chris Williams says he’s a great organiser: “He runs all around the place and sorts things out...if he's left in the boat while I'm getting crews off the water, he's barking his head off to try and get out to go and sort things out again.”
As you can imagine, with all these aspiring double scullers, the clubhouse at Whangarei is full of small boats and one in particular has a special place on the racks.
Chris bought it last year after the Auckland RPC was wound up.
His novices from last season used it and its significance really sunk in during a break at a regatta one day.
“Our food tent was quite close to Rowing New Zealand, so I said, ‘Let's go down and knock on the door and see if they'll let us come in’. And they did. We got taken in by a nutrition lady. She took us through the whole place, showed us downstairs. The girls were going gaga over Emma Twigg’s single sitting there and all that. But as we walked through there was a photo of the Evers-Swindells sitting in their boat. And I said to the girls, ‘That's the boat that we've now got. It's that boat. And they're going, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh’. So it holds a special place in the club.”
Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell in the boat that’s still winning races – at Whangarei Rowing Club.
And with Whangarei’s current performances, ‘Shirley’, as it was once called, continues to be a podium boat.
Even better, Georgina and Caroline’s names are engraved on the riggers and foot stretchers which gives the girls even more incentive.
This relocation up north all came as a bit of a shock to Georgina: “Well to be honest this is a surprise to me as I thought our old boat was hanging in an Indian restaurant in Christchurch! But if it has gone to Whangarei and being used by a new set of young rowers then I’m thrilled.”
While Chris is a late starter to the sport, he’s done plenty in life to prepare him for the challenge of running a club and schools programme.
He was production manager at Golden Bay Cement, where he worked for over 20 years and now runs his own business in electrical engineering and air-conditioning.
He grew up mainly in the Waikato – his dad was a policeman stationed in Te Awamutu and Piopio, and they moved to Otahuhu and Papakura, Kaitaia for a while. Places where you learn a lot about people.
He reads whatever rowing books he can get his hands on courtesy of birthday and Christmas presents from his wife Desarae.
Chris moved north to Whangarei 36 years ago, hoping the change of climate would ease his young daughter’s asthma. It sure did.
His rowers are like family now.
“I just treat the girls as if they're my granddaughters. That's the way I look at them. And they treat me as their grandad basically.”
And as for Jack? He’s family too.
“The girls all ogle over him,” says Chris. ‘’[But] when we're boatloading, he gets into a huff and goes and sits in my ute, because he knows that I'm going away, and he'll sit in there and they'll go up and pat him and pander to him and all that sort of carry on because he's getting down in the dumps because I'm going away and he's not going to be able to do anything.”
It means he can’t be the bossy parent for a few days.
Chris hopes Jack will get a chance to be around on regatta day next year though. After rowing at the Head of the Yarra race in Melbourne, Chris thought it would be great for Whangarei to host a head race. He and the rest of the coaches at the club want to invite other clubs to a 14km race up and down the harbour in coxed boats next September.
Crews would start and finish under the city’s eye-catching ‘Fish Hook’ bridge (Te Matau a Pohe).
And instead of being grumpy sitting at home in a sulk, Jack could be watching from the bank, barking himself.
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.