*Most Valuable Volunteers


Long after most people had packed up on what was a very long finals day of the New Zealand Rowing Champs, I walked up into the race officials’ tower at Lake Ruataniwha to get a last glimpse of the course before heading back to Twizel.

I thought the place would be deserted but one person remained as the light faded inside the tower. Michele Hawke was still hard at work typing up rosters and reports on how things were going at Lake Ruataniwha.

She’d spent the week co-ordinating the on water, race start, control commission, and finish judging duties as Chief Umpire at the lake. The next day, at the crack of dawn actually, I watched her give a team talk to her fellow umpires and all the other people that make regattas and fair racing possible. The words she used were just like those of a coach or rower before a big race.

Everyone had to be on their A game today, months of hard work was on the line, simple mistakes could have major consequences. She was encouraging. But you could tell she wasn’t someone you’d want to let down.

I was inspired, walked out of the door into the sunshine and thought, ‘this is going to be a good day’.

Michele’s passion for umpiring started the way it does for most of our officials. Her daughter rowed at Christchurch Girls High School and she thought if she was going to spend so much time at regattas she might as well do something useful. She collared South Island Rowing’s John Wylie.

“I said, well, John, what could I do as a volunteer?”

“He said, ‘Can you drive a boat?’ I said, ‘I guess I could learn’. Then he said, ‘Well, would you learn to be an umpire? And that was that. Michele was already an international gymnastics judge so becoming an umpire didn’t seem so terrifying. That was more than 10 years ago.

Now she’s working hard to get new people to swell the group of about 80 active umpires we have in New Zealand.

"We’re looking to see how we can simplify the process so that there's a clearer pathway, but there's no set timeframe [for becoming qualified]. We want some people to be able to get through probably after a season and have enough skills to be able to officiate at some of the more regional regattas like the ones on Lake Hood, Blue Lake, Lake Pupuke, the Clive River, those sorts of things.”

Like everything else, Covid had smashed the umpiring supply chain.  “We haven't had processes in place as well as we'd like to...particularly up north, they just didn't have the means to assess the people. So I took on the National Race Officials Co-ordinator position 18 months ago.”

This season Michele has overseen the biggest batch of newly qualified umpires in years.  Herman van Herel’s one of the new South Island umpires.  He rowed at St Bede’s in the early 1990’s and vividly remembers their oh-so-close first ever Maadi Cup win at Lake Karapiro in 1991. When his son picked up the sport at Bede’s a couple of years ago, Herman decided he’d rather watch the racing from on the water than on the spectator bank.  That way he’d get to see a lot more of the action.

He was tossing up whether to make the trip to this year’s Maadi when Michele gave him a call.

“She said, ‘Was I going to umpire at Maadi?". Herman, who’s 49, hadn’t been able to sit his final exam at South Island Secondary Schools so wasn’t planning on being involved.

“So [Michele] arranged an exam. I sat there on the Sunday before Maadi and studied like hell. I haven't done an exam since I was at school...but it was actually a very practical exam...it's all about your decision making and just being able to support your decision making.”

“So anyway, passed the exam and then Michelle said, ‘Oh, well you can go up there and you can umpire now.” It was Herman’s first trip to Karapiro since 1998. And in his new role he got to see the second time St Bede’s ever won a Maadi Cup in that oh-so-closest-of-all-races.


Screen shot of the close finish of the Boys Eight A Final at the 2023 Aon Maadi Regatta. Part of the umpire’s role is to separate crews when the naked eye wouldn’t stand a chance. 

Zoé Le Lièvre also finished qualifying during Maadi 2023. She’s just 24 and one of three new women on the panel. She was at Western Heights High School in Rotorua when her umpiring journey began. “I was a coxswain and all the rowers from my school were a year above me, so they all finished school a year in front of me,” says  Zoé. “I was gonna miss out on the [Maadi] Cup. But one of the umpires, James Boyce, convinced me and my parents that I should get the week off school to go umpire so I didn't miss out.”

For both Herman and Zoé, being out on the water umpiring is their “happy place”. “It just feels like a bit of a holiday without being a holiday, if that makes sense,” says Zoé. “Like it feels almost like a day out tramping. A weekend umpiring feels like a week away from work.”

Our new umpires:

Rob Bruce, Kim Hamill, Zoé Le Lièvre, Damien Poppelwell, Lachie Spence, Ben Upton, Herman van Herel, Gendie Woods.


gendie woods (one of the new umpires) pictured at Lake Ruataniwha  



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.