Fred Strachan was always drawn to the water. Dunedin’s North End was the perfect place to start one of our greatest rowing journeys.

It’s minus 6 degrees outside, but the trick to keeping warm in Twizel is to never let the embers die. The pot belly stove in Fred Strachan’s lounge creates generous warmth for him, Toby the labradoodle, and whatever visitors are coming through. Right now, there are a lot. Twizel coach Kelvin Maker is a regular fixture, up from the course at Ruataniwha where he is the custodian of the jewel in the South Island’s rowing crown. He’s just been reading the local newspaper to Fred, whose macular degeneration is about the only thing stopping him from being able to live independently. There’s a spade standing upright in the garden, the earth’s too hard right now but otherwise, Fred looks after the flowerbeds and keeps things weeded.

He lugs his firewood in by wheelbarrow and laughs now at having to dig a 10m path through heavy snow to reach his supply 10 years ago. Fred’s resilience is renowned, and so is his recall.  It’s him we turn to for a story about the first New Zealand Junior Eight to race at a World Championships. It was Fred’s idea to send the crew, and not long after they’d been to Nottingham in 1973, there would be colts and Under 21 crews to Australia. All in the hope of creating a conveyer belt of top athletes to keep New Zealand at the apex of world rowing.

50 years ago: half a lifetime for the rowing legend whose 100th birthday is creeping up around the corner.

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Fred at home. Photo: PICTURE SHOW LTD.

It all started with “poking his head in round the front door” at the North End Rowing Club in Dunedin as a boy.

“We were very close to the water, where I lived,” says Fred. “We did the usual thing, spearing lampreys and trout and fish coming up the Leith. And North End, they were down there, so I was always around the waterfront. I always liked the smell of ozone, sea smell, salt water.”

Fred was the youngest of five. Four sisters probably kept him outdoors and he roamed the North End through days at Albany Street School, Union Intermediate and King Edward Technical College.

Fred's Philosophy: “Best rowers, in the best crew, with the best coach in the top event.”

By 1942 he was also serving King George in the Army. It’s an episode Fred will talk only about in statements of fact or with summary dismissal.

He interned first at Burnham, then Hororata with the 18th Field Regiment. “And then I was in Timaru for 124 City Independent Battery, 25-pounders. I was a gun sergeant there and during the end of that time I volunteered for the Air Force to see if I could get the crap shot out of me. “But I eventually finished up in hospital and I was invalided out and it all came apart after three years and I went back to work so those wasted years are better forgotten.” So, out of the Army, Fred found himself down at North End once again. Except this time he would begin the journey that has kept him involved in rowing continuously for nearly 80 years.

“There were all these servicemen coming back in ‘45. And the first crew I went into, the stroke, had lived in the same street as me, he was a few years older than me, but he’d spent five years in Greece and [been] a prisoner of war.  There were three ex-servicemen, and they were all 25 to 30 having spent five or six years overseas. So that was the first competition and, uh, you just continue to grow from there.” Good equipment was extremely hard to come by in those years. Materials were in short supply and there were very few boatbuilders around. Bob Stiles was making boats up in Christchurch but that was a world away from the North End club where membership was made up mainly of ex-servicemen and apprentices from the Hillside Railway Workshops.

The lack of decent equipment must surely have affected Fred’s first genuine attempt at a Red Coat. His championship four had won virtually everything in the Deep South but were struggling to find a decent boat to take to take north for nationals. “We didn't have a Best & Best (plywood-skinned), so we managed to borrow one from Invercargill Railway, now Waihopai. And that boat had been made in 1896! It was twisted badly, so Duncan Calder in the bow, had to put wedges on the gunnel to lift the swivel up about 2 inches!" They did eventually get hold of a boat from Port Chalmers RC and ended up third in the nationals in 1950 at Whanganui.  There was a 2nd in the championship four a year later at Akaroa and a seat in the prestigious Interprovincial Eights in 1953. Unfortunately, work commitments meant Fred had to pull out of that eight, but the Otago crew tipped over the Auckland eight, which was then composed nearly entirely of West End rowers. It sowed a seed for the aspiring coach and selector. He started to question why New Zealand’s representative crews were being selected from the winning club crew of the time.

It has informed Fred’s philosophy ever since. “Best rowers, in the best crew, with the best coach in the top event.” There are tales of an almost regimental approach. Some might even describe a slightly cruel fascination with pushing people to their limits. But that’s unsurprising in the era when Arthur Lydiard was sending the likes of the late Sir Peter Snell and John Davies into the hills and tracks of the Waitakere Ranges in Auckland.

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FRED and Andy Hay at Lake Ruataniwha. Photo: PICTURE SHOW LTD.

 

There are two crews that stick out in those early years. The First Red Coat he won for his beloved North End in 1960. And there was his was three-peat Boss Rooster-winning crew at Avon. “I was pretty happy with the four that won the title three years in a row [between 1974-76]. Especially their last race in ‘76 when they had to come from a length down to beat Petone in the final 250 metres on Karapiro,” says Fred. “6.08” he proclaims. “For a coxed boat, a wooden boat, wooden oars. Compare that with the Red Coat for the same event this year [2023 Nationals], plastic boat, carbon fibre oars, no cox, 6.17. Without a word of a lie, at precisely that moment, Toby comes bounding over and barks three times. He has a miniature of that Boss Rooster in Avon colours on his sidetable at home. So, if anyone ever wants to make a centurion’s day, turn up at home with the one in Red and Black from 1960. That might just about complete everything.

Fred’s achievements go well beyond his coaching expertise though. He was one of New Zealand’s first fully qualified international umpires and he used that opportunity to mine information while he was away overseas. “It followed on from when I was umpiring in Mexico with the ‘68 Olympics. They had a meeting there behind closed doors and a guy by the name of Hans Jakob gave a talk on what was happening in East Germany... Swiss Thomas Keller, who was also an umpire at the time, predicted that East Germany would dominate world rowing because of their programme, scientifically measuring the attributes of all the athletes and directing them from one sport to another to suit their physical makeup. And that set me on the track of if we wanted to do any good, it had to be a long-term plan, and it had to be from cradle to grave, sort of thing.”

Even today, that lifelong focus on our athletes remains. Fred still has the hand-written notes for all 75 trials he ran on behalf of New Zealand Rowing’s selection panel. At one time he would have been able to quote anyone’s height, weight and erg score. And more significantly, he had their psychology pinned down - who was best in six seat or stroke or bow seat of any boat. Pinning coaches down to staying with his seat selections wasn't always as easy. “I was browned off when the coaches came along before they’d even had had one row and they wanted to change the seating,” he says. “But we'd boated the crew with the information we had, and they hadn't even tried it. So I had a few tussles with coaches over that, over the years.

“But once you give the crew to a coach, well, that's about it. In ‘71 we did have a big argument with Rusty [Robertson] when he'd boated a different eight [to the one picked]. Don [Rowlands] and I didn't agree, and I just lined up Rusty and said, “The eight is the priority. We want the best men in the eight. Seat by seat. And I went through the crew.

“Alright, alright,” he said. And he boated the crew as selected and they won in ‘71 and ‘72.” They were seminal times, a win in the eight at the European Championships in 1971 and of course that Munich Olympics success in 1972. Fred’s eye for picking the right person for the right seat has never deserted him. In 1981 he picked a young rower out of Otago to row seven seat of the New Zealand Men’s Eight. The crew was training in Munich ahead of the World Championships when Fred arrived to see his man had been reduced to a reserve. It’s about here the story takes a definite juncture.

When Fred grilled the coach why his man wasn’t in seven seat he was told the athlete wasn’t sure he was up to it. When Fred grilled the athlete, he replied, “Whaaaat, that’s bullshit.” Fred understands coaches have their reasons and he can laugh now about coach Harry Mahon’s decision. The real story probably sits somewhere in between, suffice to say Herb Stevenson rowed in the seven seat for Waikato the next season and then in the New Zealand Eight that won at Lucerne in 1982. And from that seven seat he was also named International Rower of the Year. That boat was the first international crew to ever row at Lake Ruataniwha.

The course will always hold a special place in Fred’s heart.

“The atmosphere,
“The ambience,
“The trees,
“The lake,
and “The Mountains Behind You,” he says. 

It’s a feeling South Islanders might appreciate more than most. There are still so many moments to reflect on for Fred:  Those who made it in the sport, and those who didn’t. “There was a guy who came in about 21, 20 years old. And I thought at the time he's got the ability, he's got the size, that lanky sort of build, the tremendous reach. He just wanted a bit more time on technique. But, he didn't quite make it, just drifted away and I always feel a bit sad when I strike someone like that. [It could have been so different with] just a wee bit more attention, a wee bit more patience.

“On one occasion I had a guy in a single scull here for the holidays. And one day, it was a glorious day, late morning and we went out for about two and a half hours. And when we came back in, towards the course, I said, ‘We'll go in now. We'll scrub the row this afternoon. You've been doing so well today. No rowing this afternoon.” And he said: “Okay, it is Christmas Day I guess!” There’s a long pause finally broken by a great smile from Fred. “Hamish Bond,” he says. “When he was 17.” “So, time doesn’t matter does it?” says Fred. “Rhythm, relaxation, float, feel. Mind over matter. Holistic experience. Most coaches say the same thing. Different words maybe.”

“But when the rower’s out there, when it's going, well, they know it. They don't want to come in, it's going so well. No matter how tired they are. Lucy Strack will probably feel the same way. I've pushed her at times when she was just about out on her feet, but kept it going, kept it going, kept it going. Embers...continuously kept going for 80 years.

It’s easy to embellish the legend of Fred Strachan as a ruthless taskmaster.

But I reckon Fred never pushed anyone beyond what they probably didn’t really want to do themselves. There’s nothing cruel about Fred. His reputation may have preceded him as somewhat scary. But that doesn’t come into it really.

Fred Strachan got New Zealand Rowing where it is today because of his empathy, his appreciation and great respect for the sport. And he didn’t get anyone to the top by instilling fear as a key motivator.

He got them there with love. And I don’t reckon you’ll find a staunch South Islander who doesn’t agree.

Happy Birthday, Fred.

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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.