An oarsome tradition

IT’S been an excellent January 26 for New Norfolk Rowing Club. The under-14s and 15s did well against the older squads at the Sandy Bay Regatta. It was a good day all round. But afterwards, like every race, these boats need to be cleaned up and put away. It’s a task requiring coordination and at least four strong backs. And these boats are special.

Some of them date back to the 1970s and an era of what’s now considered an old-school craft of wood boatbuilding. They’ve been meticulously pieced together, the thinnest of marine plywood over hand-cut wooden ribs and spacers, the most minimal of seats, again shaped in wood, that run in a lightweight channel.

New Norfolk has the largest collection in Tasmania of original wooden rowing boats, from single-oarsman sculls up to the kings of the sport, the eight. Hefting them in and out of the water is the club’s president, Peter Nichols. Like many of the kids he’s training on the river, he has the frame of a rower, long and strong of limb. While the newest generation of oarsmen and oarswomen are getting to use the older, heavier wood boats, their futures will increasingly involve the lighter carbon fibre constructs of the modern age.

“We first get these kids to learn in the old boats, including to respect the old ways,” says Nichols. The modern building that is the New Norfolk Rowing Club on the Esplanade is designed with storage racks for its 60-plus boats downstairs. Upstairs is a large open function space equipped with a commercial kitchen and bar. Importantly, its wall spaces exhibit the club’s very long history, photographs of heroes and heroines of the oar, an impressive roster of Olympic and international rowers, along with the silks and trophies of regattas and competitions over the years.

The board table is a nice touch, made by Hobart craftsman Glen Thurstans to incorporate a boat’s original wooden sliding seat and frame under a centre glass panel. Nichols’ wife, Carol, the longest serving secretary of the club, oversaw professional digitisation and then the framing of the hundreds of club keepsakes for the walls. This upstairs is available for community events, and already counts among its clients the Derwent Valley Youth Future Actions Forum, the Hydro-Electric Commission and the Rotary Club. While impressive, the rowing club on the Esplanade was a long time in gestation. “We started to think about this back in the 1960s,” says Nichols, “when the club rooms were on the other side of the river, and more, separated from the Derwent River by the busy Boyer Road.”

More than one of the club’s long, fragile boats met their end during transport across that road. Over time, the club drew together the necessary strands of funding for this $2.3 million building. Sale of the original clubrooms brought a handsome stake, which was then paired by Derwent Valley Council. That combined amount was matched again by the State Government and then by the Commonwealth.

“Crucially, we had great support along the whole way,” he says, “from Valley mayors like Martyn Evans and Ben Shaw to State Ministers like Rene Hidding, Mark Shelton and Guy Barnett, and Federal Senator, Jonathan Duniam. “We also appreciate recent support from Mayor Michelle Dracoulis and councillors Peter Binny and Matt Hill.” Derwent Valley Council also funded a clever modern pontoon structure that furnishes a large non-slip surface to allow crews to launch and retrieve boats no matter weather or tidal conditions.

Sitting at the water’s edge, the pontoons have begun to attract small groups of people who at times may commandeer entire sections.

“We wouldn’t mind, except when they won’t move sufficient for us to get the boats in and out of the water,” says Nichols. Combined with alcohol and undesirable behaviours, there’ve been a number of recent confrontations with other sports and recreation users along the Esplanade. It’s been two years since the club opened at this fine facility.

Although the newest facility on the Esplanade, in many ways it’s also the oldest. The New Norfolk Rowing Club was first incorporated in 1928, not much short of 100 years ago. It’s well set for the next 100.