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Rat Islanders Go Extreme Distances to Row in a Foreign Land

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Log of the RIRSC trip to Budapest for the International Master’s Regatta September 2019

Elevan RIRSC rowers (Connie, Mari, Karen, Linda W, Linda D, Frank, Janet, Maribeth, Sally, Suzy N. and Peggy) flew to Europe in September 2019 to compete in the International Master’s Regatta (September 11-15) in Lake Velence, Hungary, about 40 km from Budapest.

The first set of Rats arrived in Budapest on Saturday afternoon to a gloomy, rain-soaked Seattle-like afternoon. A German woman in the Frankfurt airport noticed Peggy’s RIRSC t-shirt and said ‘that doesn’t sound like a very nice place.” Little does she know! Our first task was to negotiate our taxi rides to our apartment, having to calculate the 300 Hungarian forint (“HUF”) to US$ exchange rate. This is difficult to do after hours with no sleep, but we managed to find our apartment which was perfect for the six of us. Trying to explain that we were there in Budapest to row boats to our taxi driver who spoke little English was, well, hilarious. Hungarian is a very difficult language, most closely related to Finnish, and all we sort of mastered during our stay was ‘thank you’ (kosonom). After settling in to our apartment, we ventured out in the pouring rain and found a fantastic Italian restaurant that was warm and inviting, with great and very affordable food and wine. We felt very welcome to start our adventures.

On Sunday, our group had one full day to see Budapest, and we took advantage of it. We walked more than 10 miles and 47 flights of stairs (thank you Sally for your smart watch). We started from our flat on the Pest side of the city, and walked over the Danube River to the Buda side where we were greeted by pagan drumming motivating a sea of marathon runners. Over the Green Bridge, up to the Cave Church excavated into the side of Gllard Hill, and then we climbed to the top to the Citadel, overlooking all of Budapest.

The Buda side of Budapest is the older side, home of Buda Castle, the palace of the Hungarian Kings first completed in 1265. At the base of Buda Castle was a funicular up to the top, but as the line was too long, and we felt we had not yet walked enough miles, we wandered back across the Danube across the Chain Bridge, the first bridge built in Budapest (named as it works like a giant chain), to the Parliament building, the 3rd largest parliament building in the world! We decided to get tour tickets for later, then tackled the metro to visit one of Budapest’s famous hot spring baths. This was a highlight where we played amongst the Hungarians, tourists, children and lovers in the rivers, bubblers, and fountains of this bath complex. (This was a picture-free event!).

After a well-earned dinner, we settled down on our river boat cruise, most of us struggling to stay awake. We finally made it home so we could rest before our train ride to the Regatta venue, but Budapest was not done with us yet. As we settled in to sleep…Boom! Crack! A violent thunderstorm sent us running to unplug our phones (thanks to Safety Officer Janet) and counting off the time between lightening and thunder (not very long). Most of us slept fitfully, ready to have a more restful day to Velence.

On Monday morning, we decided to visit the Budapest Market before we left for Velence, so we walked in the pouring rain to the large, colorful, and most important – protected-from-the-rain market building. We wanted to buy some Hungarian paprika, but were overwhelmed in the bountiful collection of vegetables, cured meats, peppers and spices, bakeries, chocolate fountains, and on the top floor, crafts and tourist goods. After the market, we decided to take a taxi to the train station for Velence. The taxi, however, only fit 4-5 people with our bags. A fateful decision to split up lead to a predictably hilarious set of misadventures with Sally and Peggy wondering around Budapest metro stations searching for a yellow building with columns, and the rest of the group wondering where the hell Peggy and Sally were. Eventually reunited, we swore never to separate again. Befitting the day, we ran to barely made the 2:15 train to Velence station.

By the time we reached the train station, we were not enthusiastic about traveling the additional two miles to the agency for keys to our rental houses. After a phone call, the housing agent agreed to meet us at the little beer stand near the train station, and thus the day turned in our favor. At first, the news that the house rented by Peggy, Mari and Connie had been sold (whoops!), we ended up negotiating to share one house for all 6 of us, which we wanted in the first place. Good tidings! They transported us to our house, we made a quick trip to the grocery store and shared a nice meal of salad, salami, cheese, bread and wine in our new house.

Tuesday, September 10, the first day of the regatta! After several days of rain, we were all so happy that the weather had cleared, although it was warm and muggy. Our group walked the short path to the edge of Lake Velence to wait for the shuttle to the race venue. The lake is warm, shallow, and 1/3 of it is covered by reed marshes, which complicated the start of the race course. It is one of the warmest lakes in Europe, but didn’t really look that appealing for swimming. We walked to the southern shore of the lake and saw many swans; apparently part of the lake is a bird reserve.

We were alone on the shuttle for a couple of stops until we saw a few rowers waiting and it was … What? … the Budapest crew: Karen, Linda D, Linda W, and Frank! An auspicious start to the day. This group had decided to stay in Budapest and train out for the rowing events. We all rode together to the venue, and upon entering, one of the first persons we sighted was Suzy, so our group was complete.

Lake Velence is the third largest lake in Hungary, and a popular holiday destination for Hungarians. Although we thought it would be crowded with rowers, apparently the end of the summer season registered with the locals much like in Port Townsend, with a sigh of relief that they are getting their town back. There are actually several ‘settlements’ around the lake, including Velence (the main train stop and where the venue was), as well as Gardony and Agard, along the southern shore of the lake. Our house was near the Agard train/shuttle bus stop, an easy 10 minute walk from our house.

The dusty venue had a campground near the shuttle bus entrance, a wide variety of temporary stands selling everything a rower could want to use, drink, eat, or wear, and of course fields and fields of boats. Many of the European clubs had their own boats, but for those of us who traveled far, we rented boats from a couple of boat vendors. The judges sat in a small tower at the lake’s edge, from which calls were made continually about the races. Mostly in the background, when you really listened the calls were charmingly personal like “This team looks really tired out!”

The Rats registered and began to meet up with the Avalon rowers. Avalon is a virtual rowing club with members from all over the US who meet up at regattas and row together. One-eyed Sally is the organizer and heart of the organization, and does the bulk of the organizing because of her love of rowing. On this day, one day before official racing started, several of us were hoping to have race practice, especially Maribeth and Linda W, who were lined up to bow cox a quad and double, respectively. It took all day, but eventually Maribeth and Janet rowed the course in a quad, Sally and Peggy in a ‘straight 4’ (sweep four with no coxswain), Mari and Connie, and Linda W and Cari (from Avalon) in doubles. We were very happy to get a chance to practice, because the approach to the course was confusing, each boat having not only to wind their way around reed marshes while trying to avoid other boaters, but also try and figure out what the referees boats were yelling.

For Rats unschooled in master’s sprint regattas, here is a primer. The course is 1000m along straight lanes that are marked every 250m with colored buoys. For us long-distance, open-water rowers, this is a very different style of race. Generally, you start fast in the first 250 m, find your stride in the middle 500, and then go all out for the last 250. The nomenclature of the boats describe all of the different kinds of events, including 8+ and 4+ (8 and 4 sweep boats with a cox); 4- and 2- (sweep, no cox, called a ‘straight 4’ and a ‘pair’); 4x and 2x (quad and double, no cox), and of course singles (1x). Strangely, no triples!

The race course had 8 lanes, with a platform at the head of each lane where the boats would maneuver to (generally backing) where a race official would hold your stern end until the start of the race. Each ‘heat’ was classified by a letter according to age classes, based on the average age that each rower will turn in 2019. For example, the classes we rowed in ranged from D (average age 50-54) through to J (average age 80-82), with the highest age class of “M” (89 and older). On the shuttle bus we met a Norwegian rower who won several golds in the M class (he was 93!!!).

After our practices, we all wandered to the food vendor area and ate Laskas (sort of a Naan bread filled with Hungarian-spiced meats, sour cream, onions, and vegetables) and drank a well-deserved beer. We made it, we rowed, and we were ready (we think?) for racing!

Wednesday, September 11 was the first official day of racing, a half day starting at noon. The weather over most of the days of racing was hot and sticky, especially in the afternoon. Only Sally and Peggy had races on the first day, starting with a “straight 4” where we beat one of the boats (“we beat the Brits!”). Note, most of the teams at the international regatta represent groups of elite rowers from countries all over the world who practice together and row all the time as a team. Thus, it is very exciting when an Avalon boat does not come in last. For context, the best times in the 1000m event (e.g., young men in 8’s) are in the low 3-minute range. Our Avalon times generally ranged from 4:20 – 5:00; the fastest time of all of the Avalon races was Frank’s 8+, G class (4:12), yay Frank! The most important thing is to row fast enough that the next heat does not bear down upon you, as heats started every 4 minutes.

After the last race, Sally, Janet, Mari, Connie, Peggy and Maribeth hung out at the race venue, enjoying a Hungarian beer and then staying for the ‘Opening Ceremonies.’ This consisted of lots of speeches from suit-wearing dignitaries, including the Mayor of Velence, the head of FISA (the international rowing organization), and a couple of other suits. The audience was sparse as it appeared that most of the rowers had found more interesting things to do. The MC kept asking everyone to ‘move up’ perhaps to make it look like there were more people in the pictures. Then a horn band came on stage to serve as entertainment, starting their set with a rollicking play on a version of a song from the Monty Python movie ‘Life of Brian’ – “Always look on the (Boat) side of life,” allowing us to do the cancan dance.

All of the Rats had races on the first full day of the regatta on Thursday. All boats were either men or women on these days; mixed boat races were conducted on the last day of the regatta and were organized during the event. Only Connie rowed on Sunday from our crew. I will describe the ebb and flow of the race days (Thursday-Saturday). We were asked to arrive at least 2 hours before your first race, so there tended to be much waiting around at the Avalon tent. We would hang out, visit the vendors, eat and drink, get nervous, and also help our fellow Avalon mates to carry their boats to and from the launch docks. There were four floating docks in the launch area – two for launching, and two for the return. There was a race boat official there to yell at boaters, who responded in many languages with different degrees of politeness as the multiple boats of different sizes tried to navigate the small area. At the end of the race, there was a winner’s dock (where the rowers received their gold medal), as well as a ‘hot seat’ dock for boats that did not have enough time to go back to the launching area. It is amazing that there were not more collisions.

On Thursday, Maribeth survived her first international race as bow cox in a quad with 3 other Avalon rowers, while Suzy, Linda D, and Linda W were in the same heat in a different boat. The day flowed with many events and different groups of Rat rowers, culminating in a late afternoon event of women’s 8’s, with Suzy, Mari, Karen, Peggy, Linda D and Connie in one (H boat), and Maribeth, Janet, Sally in the other (G boat). Frank had his only races on Thursday, in a 8 and a quad. After the long day of racing, the Budapest crew headed back to a fancy dinner in Budapest, and the Lake Velence crew found a local restaurant, then stopped for gelato at a stand near their house. Yummy.

On Friday, Linda W, Sally, and Peggy rowed together in a quad, and Janet and Karen in another in the same event. Connie and Mari raced in a double, with Mari coxing, then shortly after raced in a 4+ event, with Suzy, Linda D, and Maribeth in a separate boat in the same event. On Friday afternoon after racing, all the rowers except for Connie, Mari and Suzy traveled to Budapest for a happy hour in the luxury apartment where the three couples were staying, and then a group dinner.

The Avalon crew has some of the best Class H and above rowers in the world, including our own rowers Mari and Connie. On Saturday morning, Connie and Mari participated in a quad race and WON A GOLD MEDAL, not only in their age class (J), but also beat the I boats they were racing with in the same heat! Three of our members are official members of the “Octos” – rowers that are 80 or older (John, Roger, and Connie). The medals are quite heavy, so, following the race, during a celebratory beer, the weight of Connie’s medal pulled her off her chair. With indomitable spirit, Connie recovered quickly and still went on to row several mixed races on Sunday, although later reported that the airplane ride home was not fun.

For most rowers, the end of the regatta was a busy Saturday afternoon with most Rats rowing in two 8’s: one with Linda D and Suzy, and another with Janet, Sally, Karen, Connie, and Mari and Linda W. Peggy and Sally rowed the last Avalon 4+ event, in two separate heats. We all said sad goodbyes at the Avalon tent as we each finished up our last races, and promised to keep in touch via WhatsApp in our adventures to come. Before everyone left, we were able to get one big Avalon group picture, so that we can all remember both the Rats and Avalon crew from our Velence adventure.


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