Monkton Bluefriars Newsletter 2003
The Story of Nantes 2003

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The Story of Nantes 2003  by Mike Smith

Mike Smith, one half of our job-sharing Boatman team, is celebrating his retirement from BA with long-planned trips to Australia and the Himalyas, leaving Carl Purchase to run the show at Dundas for the Michaelmas Term. He promised to send an article by email, and it arrived a few hours after the Editor thought he had had finalised the lay-out of this edition of the Newsletter. It would have been a pity to leave it out, so there are four extra pages. Read on....

First of all a little background to this saga. Having retired in May 2002 and become a full time layabout, I was interested to read in the Regatta Magazine advertisments that the school was going to need a new full time boatman in the New Year of 2003. Now I´ve had contact with all boat men at Monkton since 1970 when Terry Page first started in the job (or actually started the job!) Brian Mawer and Adrian Gaynor helped me rebuild an old clinker pair in the early 90´s and of course I´ve known Barry Taylor through Bradford on Avon Rowing Club for nearly 20 years! I mention this because knowing them also means that I know that the job is not quite what it appears to be in the job description and in the light of this Carl Purchase of Bradford on Avon and myself applied for the post on a job share basis, I think we both realised that there was more to the job than just one person can do and the school probably did as well, as for some inexplicable reason they gave us the position.

My suspicions were confirmed when around the end of February, Julian Bewick casually mentioned the fact that there was a rowing camp at Nantes University over Easter and it would be such fun if one of us came along! He just happened to mention it with various embellishments regularly over the next few weeks until eventually I gave in and said all right I will. Needless to say Carl had more sense and had a quiet Easter at home. Of course Julian had already written me and my car into the equation and before long I had a ferry ticket and a car full of students.

The scale of the operation slowly dawned on Carl and myself when David Conington started mentioning the various boats and blades that would be required. By the end of the Lent Term the following boats had been squeezed onto the trailer

Eton Phoenix 8 Adrian Gaynor
Aylings 8 Mr B
Eton Phoenix 4 + Godrey Bishop
Eton Phoenix 4 + Second Wave
Janousek 4 + George Walter
Aylings 4 - (with sculling riggers)
Eton Phoenix 2 - Valentine (with sculling riggers)
Eton Phoenix 2 - Merak (with sculling riggers)
Janousek 2 - R.A.S.H. (with sculling riggers)
Burgashell 1 x Damien Rimmer
Burgashell 1 x Richard Young
1 rubber launch and outboard with fuel etc with riggers and blades for all that lot it can be seen that there was not much room left on the trailer!

That was just the equipment side of things. When on Saturday afternoon I arrived at the quad for a supposedly 3.30 departure I was met with a scene most WWII army quartermasters would be familiar with, 30-40 bags/grips/ suitcases scattered about, crates of orange juice, cornflakes, spaghetti, muesli, milk etc tins of beans tomatoes, pasta mix, cool boxes, full of goodness knows what and 30 students most of them with their respective parents. There was not a lot of tarmac left to be seen. All of this disappeared into the other boat trailer behind JMB´s long suffering Freelander, the minibus, Brian Mawer´s and my car (Brian´s car was affectionately known as the Doghouse Ú I wonder why?) The parents waved their loved ones goodbye and surprisingly by about 4.30 we were all on the road. The scale of the operation never ceased to amaze me, just the fact that JMB had emailed ahead to Portsmouth for 28 portions of fish and chips to be waiting for us before we got on the ferry gives you some idea of what is involved, that is an awful lot of chips, which needless to say were consumed within minutes of our arrival. Once established on the boat, being a driver I was fortunate to share a cabin with David, as were Julian and Brian next door. The rest were to fend for themselves in the available seats, by now all the adults had found the restaurant, where we had a really pleasant dinner and then retired hurt after a long day. By the morning when it was time to disembark, it was apparent that quite a few of the students (who will of course be nameless) were also about to retire hurt on the bus, having stayed up for most of the night, a lost phone, wallet and credit card and certain lack of brain cells were the more obvious results of over exuberance. Now of course it was time for more food and BSM was dispatched to the local boulangerie for a mere 20 baguettes for a light picnic lunch on the road, while vast quantities of muesli and corn flakes where consumed by most on the dockside. After 3 hours on the road having consumed the baguettes, 4kgs of pate, various pots of jam, 35 chocolate bars on the way, we arrived at the University Boathouse at Nantes, where the other two stalwarts of the party really came into their own, they were John Cameron the long suffering gap year student, and Sister Dee Clark. John immediately sorted the 18 boys sleeping accommodation out in the club gym while Dee was straight into the very limited kitchen to create yet another meal for 30 people (spaghetti bolognese brought in one of the cool boxes) Throughout the week John looked after all the boys in the gym and Dee looked after the girls in the small hotel up the road; she also supervised the cooking for everybody along with ministering to everybody´s ailments, adults included. Will Quayle, as Captain, had the unenviable task of organising all the rotas for cooking with Dee and washing up after every meal, he did this superbly without too much coercion either mental or physical!

What follows now, is a very limited diary of the following 8 days hopefully to give you some idea of the general pattern of the rowing and leisuretime of the camp. Each day followed roughly the same routine with David and I, who were staying with the girls in the hotel, having got them and ourselves into the mini bus (it was invariably David or myself who were last!) went off to get yet another 20 baguettes for breakfast. Meanwhile John had usually managed to extract the boys from their beds and set the tables up in the clubroom. Orange juice, baguettes, muesli by the sack and cornflakes were then consumed within minutes and we all looked forward to a morning´s rowing. The weather was superb all the week so after lunch the afternoons were usually taken up with studies in the clubhouse or sun bathing around the garden area in front of it. By the evening another outing in sculls or pairs to gain some small boats experience was organised, out hosts were not only very generous with their facilities but also with their boats and the evenings would sometimes see as many as 10 different combinations going out. While all this was going on Dee was in the kitchen preparing the next dinner for 30 very hungry individuals.


After breakfast it was everybody out to assemble the boats and by about 1030 the 1st VIII had boated in the pairs with Girls 1st IV and half an hour later the 2nd VIII were on the water. David looked after the pairs and John the girls, Julian taking the 2nd VIII. Not only did we have the use of our own coaching launch but the University let us borrow three of theirs. This meant that we could follow all the crews throughout their outings.


Seat racing is something that has passed me by throughout my rowing life mainly because it has never been in a competitive environment so today was a bit of an eye opener. I was detailed by David to stand on the bank at the end of the 1000 metre straight with a stopwatch and a flag while he set the crews off at the start in varying combinations throughout the morning, my role in this being to time them across the finishing line. To the uninitiated the modern NK stopwatch is nothing like a stopwatch of old, it has functions galore, lots more knobs and a considerable memory. It took me a long while to master it but with a good deal of tuition from David in the launch I finally got it cracked and then sat back to watch the 1st VIII suffer for the next 3 hours. Trying to (a) extract the times from the stopwatch and (b) interpolate them then took the next 3 hours! By the end of this David was reasonably happy and the blisters were beginning to appear.


Over breakfast Julian asked me whether I would like to take the 2nd VIII out for a coaching session as he was off with Brian to acquire yet more catering, so we duly boated and the VIII set off while I got a launch and followed them up. Having got them settled down with a bit of slide work over 2 kilometres they then rowed away and I navigated round what appeared to be a log in the river. I easied them and asked if any of them had seen what I just thought I had seen. Paul Allen in the bows said yes it certainly was and confirmed the fact that it was a body floating, not a log. With that, the entire crew decided to turn the boat around and take a second look, poor Jess Williams as cox found her commands no longer had any effect at all. By this time 16 eyes were popping out of their respective heads peering out of the boat and into the water. Eventually both she and I managed to get the boat moving away and it was confirmed that it was indeed a body in the water. I then had to go back and report at the club and bring David and Dee up to sort things out with the river police who by now had arrived on the scene. As always there is a lot of paperwork involved in these matters and by the time the crew had returned from upstream they had managed to explain in their excellent pigeon Franglais what had happened and relieved me and the crew of any further involvement, needless to say there was a lot of talk over lunch about the events of this particular morning


Morning outings generally followed the same course and in the afternoon whilst everybody was at their studies I asked David if he fancied a quick trip in one of the pairs, he agreed and off we went downstream, those of you who are familiar with Monkton will know that all the pairs are named after Brian Mawer´s dogs. Valentine passed away several years ago but today she went for her final walk.

The stretch of river that the boathouse is situated on is the Erdre which flows into the Loire through a system of locks in the centre of Nantes, to get to these the river flows through a large Napoleonic drain/canal about 800 metres long underneath the city, just wide enough for a boat to row through and is strictly one way controlled by traffic lights at either end. I think it was David who thought it would be a good idea to go through on the green and investigate the locks, which we did. Needless to say when we came back the lights for entry remained stubbornly on red, it transpired (once again through our Franglais with the local bargees) that you can only go upstream in the morning and downstream in the afternoon. As we weren´t going to wait until the following morning there was only one thing to do and that was to take Valentine ­the pair´ for a walk through the city on our shoulders much to the amusement of the locals, we had no shoes and were carrying the boat and blades for about 1├ kilometres over main roads, the TGV railway, tram tracks, the cathedral, through the fun fair and then the local park to re-launch it back onto the river at the upstream tunnel entrance. We arrived back at the boathouse 2 hours later looking decidedly sheepish and with very sore shoulders and feet having convinced the French that the English are totally mad! To celebrate our return our hosts Lionel and his family had put on an excellent BBQ for everybody at their house on the outskirts of the city, no mean achievement for 30 hungry exhausted bodies, needless to say there was not a sausage, burger or scrap of food left uneaten.

[pn] Throughout the week some serious miles/kilometres were being clocked up with the resultant toll on bodies and boats. All the time Dee Clark was patching the bodies up with massages, ice packs, plasters and my duct/gaffer tape which was used extensively for blisters and for patching the boats up! On the Friday Dee not only had Monkton to sort out but also Nottingham University who were sharing the camp with us. They had been practicing racing starts in a brand new coxless IV, borrowed from the University and had gone straight into a pier just off the bank, the boat was seriously damaged and the bow man badly concussed with bruised shoulders, back and kidneys.

David having managed to tow the boat back, called Dee and with help of several of the Monkton boys was able to get him out, where she administered ice packs consisting of our final meal of chilli con carne. He made a slow recovery and by Saturday was rowing again albeit a little stiffly. We ate a little earlier that evening as the chilli had been nicely thawed out.


One of the most satisfying facts of the whole ten days was the general improvement in performance of all the crews involved. As most of you know rowing on the stretch of Avon at Monkton is decidedly limited and the greatest distance with no other crews on the river is only about 2 kilometres or a Henley course. At Nantes we could not only row six abreast but have fifteen kilometres to do it in and going through the bridge at SucŚ there is another 20, with this consistency it is inevitable that crews get better as they settle down and a coach can actually see the improvement. This was very apparent by the Saturday. The 2nd VIII were by now split up into fours and a bit healthy competition was developing between the girls and the boys, I would have said it was about honours even but John Cameron and the girls will certainly disagree.


Some of us went to the service at Nantes Cathedral and then prepared for the traditional final fling, this involves a row up to SucŚ for everybody for yet another picnic supplied by Brian and Julian. 15 kilometres is quite a long way for anybody to row at one stretch. It normally takes about an hour and a half so whilst the two VIII´s and the girls IV were doing this, with John and Dee following in the launch, David towed the trailer up to SucŚ to await their arrival and set the picnic out with Brian and Julian. The boats were then loaded up and we returned to the clubhouse to pick the remainder up and have a well earned rest, followed by an excellent meal in town where we entertained our hosts from the University, this gave the girls a final chance of dressing up.


This saw us up at 5.30 in the morning to get to the University boathouse and finish loading the trailers, with all the bags and a very sad coxless IV to be taken to the UK for repair, to catch the 9.30 ferry from St Malo back to Portsmouth. Another breakfast on the road and a lovely smooth crossing and by 7 o´clock everybody was back at school for the start of the new summer term. Overall what brilliant way to enjoy ten days, it was a lot hard work for everybody (no more so than JMB who was in charge of all the logistics and had been planning for months) but was well worth while for all of us, coaches and students alike. Now I am reflecting on this several months later I might just be talked into doing it again, if asked of course! If nothing else it was certainly a very different way of spending Easter

Mike Smith

14-Sep-17 at 19:11:40