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Volume 32, Number 4July/August 1981

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Regatta on the Nile

Written and photographed by Martin Love
Additional photographs by Susan Siravo

In Egypt last December, on a bridge across a channel of the Nile, Bob Ernst, assistant rowing coach at the University of Washington, was talking about the upcoming 2,000-meter race in which a top-flight American crew was pitted against an Irish crew and four Egyptian crews in one of the final races of the annual Nile International Rowing Festival. "We've got this one easily," Ernst said, just minutes before the race began.

He wasn't the only one to think so. Dick Erickson, the head coach, had already told his oarsmen that the Egyptians posed no threat in the "fours" - a race of four-oared shells. "They're going to start fast and wear themselves out before they get halfway down the course. Just take it easy, hang in there and stay close."

On that confident note, the Washington crew started the race and for a while it seemed that Ernst and Erickson were dead right. The four oarsmen from the Arab Contractors, thought to be the best Egyptian crew in the race, had taken the lead at the start, and though they were still ahead at the half-way mark, Ernst and Erickson were still confident as they jumped into a car to follow the crews to the finish line.

By the time they got there, however, their assurance had evaporated. Instead of wearing themselves out, the Arab Contractors, in the most dramatic race of the regatta, had scored a signal victory over one of the formidable American crews in the regatta.

It wasn't the Egyptians' only victory, either. In Luxor on December 23, a few days before the races in Cairo, two Egyptian scullers - oarsmen racing alone in small shells called "sculls"- placed first and second, and an Arab Contractors entry in the "eight" race beatall the European crews. Finally, in the "pair" finals in Cairo, an Arab Contractors entry beat both a Belgian and a Trinity College crew.

For the Egyptians watching these races from both banks of the Nile, those victories were exciting. At Luxor, for example, some 30,000 people jammed onto the embankments were jubilant when an Egyptian crew briefly held the lead in an "eight" race that they surged down the banks into the river itself, screaming their support. Though relatively unimpressive in terms of world competition, these triumphs meant that Egypt's nine-year effort to enter and encourage international rowing was at last beginning to yield results and restore rowing in the country where, 33 centuries ago, in the reign of Pharaoh Akhnaton, ancient oarsmen began to compete in a royal regatta known as the "Festival of the Oars."

That, most probably, was the beginning of rowing as a sport, but in the West it was not until the 14th century that it appeared again - on the Grand Canal in Venice. Later, in the early 18th century, professional oarsmen, who ferried passengers across the Thames near London, apparently competed in races between the Chelsea and London bridges. Racing by amateurs got started in Britain around 1829, the year of the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race. At about the same time, amateur rowing competitions started in America, and in 1900 rowing was accepted as a sport at the Olympic Games. Since then, the United States, Germany and Great Britain have won most of the medals and pioneered most of the technical innovations that have made shells faster and lighter and have improved the efficiency of the rowing stroke. One such innovation was the sliding seat created by an American, J. C. Babcock, in l857.

In Egypt, where it began, rowing had long since disappeared as a sport when, during World War II, British oarsmen apparently began to build and race shells on the Nile, and some Egyptians began to do the same. Eventually, as a result, the Egyptians formed several rowing clubs, six of which participated in the 1980 festival - Masry, Cairo Police, Suez Canal - Ismailia, Alexandria Police, Port Said Police and Police Federation - and one of which emerged as a strong competitor: the Arab Contractors.

Insofar as Egypt has a national team, the Arab Contractors comprise it. Organized in 1960 - with the sponsorship of Osman Ahmad Osman's giant construction firm (See Aramco World, March-April 1974) - the Arab Contractors Club is at once the oldest and best of Egypt's rowing teams. Its crews, in the 1970's, rowed on the University of Washington's home waters near Seattle, competed three times in the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in England and rowed at the Henley Canadian Regatta in Toronto. The club also led the move to organize the first Nile rowing festival back in 1971, at which Egyptians, for the first time, competed against international crews.

That year, only Oxford and Cambridge Universities of England sent crews. But in 1972, when the Oxford and Cambridge crews returned to compete, they found crews from Harvard and Yale there too. By 1974, German and Italian crews had also begun to participate, and since then the festival has grown in stature each year. As Dick Erickson said last December when he brought his University of Washington oarsmen to Egypt for the fourth consecutive year, "The festival is far and away one of the most unusual athletic contests I've ever attended."

"The Nile is just a spectacular setting for rowing," he continued. "It's one heck of an opportunity for young student athletes to be here, a priceless experience to visit Egypt under these circumstances."

Even more indicative of the current stature of the Nile competitions is the fact that the U. S. Olympic Committee provided funds to send American oarsmen - and two oarswomen - to Egypt; these crews were selected to represent the United States at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but couldn't go because of the U.S. boycott of the Olympics. The U.S. national "eight" which competed in Egypt in December had been beaten only once - by the top East German "eight" which won a Gold Medal in Moscow. As expected, this crew won its races in Egypt.

Other Olympic-level contenders - and the first two women in the Nile Rowing Festival - were Carrie Graves, the current coach of the Radcliffe-Harvard women's crews in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her rowing-mate, Peggy McCarthy. Both women, had the U.S. boycott not been imposed, would have gone to Moscow last summer as part of the national rowing team, and at Cairo and Luxor they raced their "pair"- a two-man shell - against two younger Egyptian women representing El Masry Rowing Club: Hanan Shahwan and May Ahmed Aly.

The American women won easily since both Graves and McCarthy are much larger than the Egyptian women - a decided advantage in rowing. (Graves, for example, weighs 185 pounds and stands just over six feet tall). Furthermore, they have been rowing together for almost a decade; both rowed when they were students at the University of Wisconsin and, because McCarthy works as an engineer in the Boston area, often train together on the Charles River.

Still, the Egyptian pair rowed valiantly and only lost by a couple of lengths. After the race in Cairo, Graves said she was impressed with the spirit of Aly and Shahwan. "They've got a future if they stick with it," she said.

Actually, the rowing festival included t much more than rowing. The highlights were, naturally, the two separate regattas - the one at Luxor and the one at Cairo concluding with the finals on December 28. But the opening ceremonies at Luxor on the 23rd were also memorable, with Egyptian boys and girls in costume, brass bands and dignitaries assembled within the famous Temple of Luxor in the shadows of stone effigies, tall columns and walls festooned with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

When they weren't resting, practicing or racing, the oarsmen also attended banquets, visited the monuments, explored the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, and enjoyed performances of local folk dancing and music. In Cairo, the University of Washington oarsmen - on the day of the finals - drove out to the pyramids at Giza and scrambled to the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

As for the regattas themselves, the European and American oarsmen found them challenging - and not just because of the competition. In Luxor, for example, they had to use some old racing shells that were much harder to row than the shells they raced back home, and harder to "set up" in the water. Oarsmen must practice long and hard to learn the characteristics of individual shells so that, during a race, they'll be relatively stable in the water. Old, wooden shells, after much use, also lose their stiffness and tend to twist when rowed hard, making it that much harder for oarsmen to row efficiently.

For oarsmeo, a change of shells is serious. Though spectators may think rowing is an easy sport to master, it isn't. To compete at rowing demands dedicated sustained efforts by a crew, and by individuals, to condition the muscles, heart and lungs; indeed the exertion required by a good oarsman in a 2,000-meter race involves the use of more muscles, and more energy, than that of any other athlete. In each minute of the five or six minutes it takes to complete a race, an oarsman inhales more than twice the air an unconditioned person inhales while exercising, and each member of the crew must use - effectively - almost every muscle in his or her body: the arms to pull the oar at the "catch," the start of the stroke; the wrist to feather the oar as it leaves the water; the back to maintain posture and help power the oar and the legs to provide the driving force as the curved, slightly concave blade bites and grabs the water.

The exertion required to do all this at the greatest possible speed - most races are rowed at an average rate of 35 strokes a minute - exhausts even the best trained oarsman or oarswoman. As a result, rowing is a painful sport - perhaps one of the most painful. The oarsman - or oarswoman - needs to have the endurance of the long-distance runner and the strength of a weight lifter. Unlike the runner, however, or the weight lifter, who is accountable to no one, the rower - if he or she falters in the middle of a race, or breaks the rhythm - can lose a race for the whole crew since one idle oar instantly disrupts the others. Indeed, rowing well is maintaining perfect timing and coordination and rowing in an unfamiliar shell makes that timing and coordination that much harder to capture and maintain. It's the equivalent of top tennis players switching rackets on the eve of a crucial doubles match.

As in all rowing regattas, the last and most important race at the Nile festival was between the men's "eights." Rowed late in the afternoon as the sun went down and long shadows fell across Nile waters at Cairo, this race almost became a spectacular win for the University of Washington "Huskies," but turned into a devastating defeat.

At the halfway mark, the Huskies had a half-length lead on the older, stronger and more experienced U.S. national crew, the only other crew still in contention, and had they maintained their strength and stroke, they could have won. But with 100 yards to go, the Huskies still holding a 10-yard lead, the bigger U.S. national crew began to gain. At the finish line, the Washington crew was beaten by a few painful feet.

Later, back at the boathouse, one Washington oarsman exclaimed as he stepped wearily from his shell: "We had them. We really did, I don't know what happened." Dick Erickson had an answer: "There will always be someone bigger and stronger than you are," he told his oarsmen.

This, as the Egyptians showed in the "fours" race, is what makes regattas interesting - and keeps the Egyptians bent to their oars.

It isn't the only factor, of course. Another is the fact that Egypt is one of only two

Muslim countries to be represented in the Paris-based Federation Internationale des Societies d'Aviron (FISA), the international rowing authority. Turkey is the other.

This is only logical. Lacking perennial lakes and rivers, most of the countries in the Arab East have virtually no way to master the sport and thus no interest in it. On the other hand, Ernst said, Saudi Arabia recently ordered more than 100 sophisticated plastic shells from West Germany, and ifs possible that other countries in the Arab world will become increasingly involved in rowing - particularly those countries that can afford to support oarsmen who must buy the expensive equipment required to be competitive.

For the present, however, Egypt is the hope of the Arab East in rowing. Bob Ernst says that Egypt could have world-class crews if they could get the coaching required to train local talent.

The ultimate test is, of course, the Olympics, and so far Egypt has not sent crews to the games. But according to Abd al- Mun'im, assistant secretary of the Rowing Federation of Egypt, there is a definite "possibility" that in 1984 the Egyptian oarsmen of the Nile will go to Los Angeles to compete in sport launched by their ancestors 3,300 years ago.


Pair with Coxswain (Men)

1. U.S.A. - National Team

2. U.S.A. - Charles River Rowing Club,
Cambridge, Mass.

3. W. Germany - Marktheidenfeld
Rowing Club

4. Egypt - Arab Contractors

5. Belgium - Union Nautique Rowing

6. England - Worcester College, Oxford

Sculls (Men)

1. Egypt - Cairo Police Rowing Club

2. Egypt - Suez Canal Rowing Club,

3. W. Germany - Straubing Rowing Club

Eights (Men)

1. U.S.A. - National Team

2. U.S.A. - University of Washington

3. U.S. A. - Harvard University

4. Egypt - Arab Contractors

5. Belgium - Vlaamse Rowing Club

6. W. Germany - Marktheidenfeld
Rowing Club

Pair (Women)

1. U.S.A. -National Team

2. Egypt - El-Masry Rowing Club

Pair with Coxswain (Men)

1. U.S.A. - National Team

2. W. Germany - Marktheidenfeld
Rowing Club

3. U.S.A. - Charles River Rowing Club,
Cambridge, Mass.

4. Egypt - Arab Contractors

5. Belgium - Vlaamse Rowing Club

6. Ireland - Trinity College of Dublin

Four with Coxswain (Men)

1. Egypt - Arab Contractors

2. U.S.A. -University of Washington

3. Egypt - El-Masry Rowing Club

4. Ireland - Trinity College of Dublin

5. Egypt - Suez Canal Rowing Club,

6. Egypt - Port Said Police Rowing Club

Scull (Men)

1. Egypt - Suez Canal Rowing Club,

2. W. Germany - Straubing Rowing Club

3. Egypt - El-Masry Rowing Club

4. Egypt - Arab Contractors

5. Egypt - Cairo Police Rowing Club

6. Egypt - Alexandria Police Rowing Club

Eights (Men)

1. U.S.A. - National Team

2. U. S. A. - University of Washington

3. U.S.A. - Harvard University

4. Egypt - Arab Contractors

5. Egypt - Cairo Police Rowing Club

6. Belgium - Vlaamse Rowing Club

Martin Love, a former oarsman who rowed racing shells at the University of North Carolina, is now assistant editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 31-36 of the July/August 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1981 images.