It’s a cloudy and woolly-wet morning on Sydney Harbour as the men’s and women’s eights from Sydney University and Melbourne University prepare to contest The Australian Boat Race, a facsimile of The Boat Race that Oxford and Cambridge contest each year on the River Thames.
And like the delicious quarter-pounder burger of McDonald’s known as a ‘Royale with Cheese’ in France, the Australian version is just a little different.
For one it’s held on two different waterways. In odd years it’s on Melbourne’s Yarra River. On even ones it’s held on the glittering harbour of Sydney town, where it winds 4.6km from Onion Point in Woolwich, past islands named after a cockatoo and a goat, and into Cockle Bay in Darling Harbour. And it’s all a bit of a thing.
It’s all quiet on the waterfront as we sit bobbing about in the media boat surrounded by sexy sandstone real estate.
The women’s eights jockey into position as a helicopter buzzes above and a media man releases a drone like a falconer setting free a bird of prey.
There are police boats with lights a-flashing, yellow water taxis with official flags, and a small flotilla of pleasure craft out for a look.
The starter barks “Go!” from a mega-phone and go they do, the rowers, oars ripping in, carving, heaving, the boats sluicing fluidly through the sea. And they’re quickly away and we after them in the camera boat, close on their tails, photographers lying prone shooting clenched teeth and rictus faces, the money shots of rowing photography.
And it’s all quite cool for no reason you can put a finger on. It’s like mariners enjoying dolphins at the bow. Or like that bit in Jaws when they put three harpoons in the great shark and it tows the barrels and we chase them, and there’s jaunty music and laughter.
And so, two teams of eight row in harmony, surging powerfully through the sea. To the lay eye they all look the same.
To the rowing fellows on our boat – who include Harald Jahrling, who won gold for East Germany in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics – the form individual rowers is critiqued.
“There’s your bridge!” roars Harald, as the mighty arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge haws into view.
Even seasoned commuters will poke their heads up from their phones to look at The Bridge. And they will think as one: it’s a bloody great bridge.
A nor-easter picks up and whips specks of salt water across our stern. Sydney pulls a length clear. Sea spume blots the journo’s notepad.
Rough water now, and choppy. Rio was like this. Beautiful setting. But as Egyptian sculler Nadia Negm said: “If you are rowing this week you better know how to swim.”
The water smoothes in Walsh Bay and the Sydney eight draws clear, open water now between the crews, lengths negligible. Skyscrapers are the backdrop as the teams row into the shade of Barangaroo and giant bank buildings. And Sydney University wins the Bella Guerin Trophy.
Ms Guerin? Activist, suffragette, teacher. In 1883 she became the first woman to graduate from an Australian university. Aged 33 she married an 80-year-old. Aged 50 she married a 21-year-old.
She protested wars, decried religion and walked to the beat of her own drum. Hero.
The men’s trophy is named after Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, who rowed in the first official intervarsity race in 1870. Barton later umpired a cricket match between Australia and Lord Harris’s XI that turned into “the Sydney Riot of 1879”.
And so back to Onion Point for the start of the men’s race. Boats jockey. Helicopter buzzes. Police boats flash lights. And a media releases the drone.
Rules guy on the megaphone barks “Go!” and releases the hounds, and they carve into the briny with long paddles, heaving ho, fast as they can, propelling the 100 kg carbon fibre boat through the green seas of Greenwich. And again we’re off after them and it’s that pod of dolphins feeling again, something about it.
And so, the young boaters sluice through the briny, multiple man Turks in harmony. The bodies on these people! Long levers, tight muscularity. They are like rowing machines. Their discipline demands equal parts anaerobic and aerobic high-function.
It’s lactic acid in the limbs. As the Sydney women’s coach told his charges: “The winner will be the one who keeps their hand in the fire the longest.”
Melbourne’s cox is a girl, a recent initiative that would have pleased Bella Guerin. And as her crew sluice ahead of us she’s into them with good lungs, variations on “Row! You bastards! Row!”
Her commands punctuate across the waters of Greenwich. Be funny if she had a whip.
Out past Greenwich Point we plunder, into a nor-easter equal parts head and cross-wind, tips of the oars bare metres apart. And the sun comes out! And it’s magnificent. Sea spume and white caps, and glints diamond points of sunlight on the seas. The mighty bridge haws into view again and it’s a grand place to be. Apologies to Rio – this is the world’s best harbour.
Sydney goes a length clear. And then two lengths. Lactic build-up and hard yards now. The race is a long one by rowing standards.
Normally the eights will row for one or two kilometres across flat water. This is nearly five kilometres over lumpy seas. But they’re good with it, these people.
They train over ten times a week – on the water, on the rower, in the gym. Outside that they’re studying, eating or sleeping. Sasha Belonogoff won silver in the quad sculls in Rio. David Bartholot is heading to Canberra to try out for same. These people are rowing machines. And this is what they train for – the pleasure of pain.
Sydney owning it now. They tear into Darling Harbour multiple lengths clear. Pre-race they had joked about sledging the Melbourne lads across the water. Impossible now – Melbourne’s too far away. And they’re too buggered anyway.
They slide by a Star Ship, a paddle steamer, a submarine. Into the winner’s circle and the Sydney celebrate. There’s much man-hugging and chesty bumps. They pick up the boat over their heads, water rains, a much-photographed shot. They pile it on their truck, work not done.
Discipline will stay with these men forever.
There’s a presentation and medals, watched on by boat people in stripy blazers and Trump-like red caps, and a smattering of rubber-necking tourists. The race is brilliant yet something of a hard sell to an Australian public so saturated with sport.
Yet a great race down the Yarra and across Sydney Harbour is a very good idea indeed. And you’d think it would make decent TV with Ray Warren commentating, and various cams, and drones, and the jaunty soundtrack of Jaws.
Perhaps the race – even the odds – could be live-streamed and beamed onto the sails of the Opera House.