The Maldives has been welcomed as the 131st member of the International Rowing Federation (FISA), following the association’s congress in New Zealand.
The landmark membership comes as British Olympic rower Guin Batten returned to the Maldives last week with a team of four champion female rowers, to try and break the record she set for crossing the equator between Huvadhoo Atoll and Fuahmulah in March.
Batten crossed the 60 kilometre ‘zero degree’ channel in seven hours 16 minutes, in an epic struggle against the the swells, tides and currents of the open Indian Ocean in her 35 kilogram rowing boat.
The 42 year-old silver medallist, who also holds the world record for her solo row across the English Channel, attempted the crossing again together with elite rowers Rachel Woolf, Ali Gill, Elise Cope and Louise Wymer.
The aim, says Batten, “was to trash my record for the single crossing, in a quad (four rowers, one coxswain).”
“Unfortunately the weather against us. We started quickly, and might have managed it in 5.5 hours, but we were not fast enough for currents and it began to look like it would take us 15 hours – which meant the support vessel was going to run out of fuel,” she says.
The team had trained for an endurance slog, but the brief window in the weather had closed and conditions rapidly began to deteriorate and the attempt was reluctantly called off after three hours.
“But the record is still there for the taking, and there’s a good chance somebody local could break my time of 7:16,” Batten says.
Batten may keep her title for the meantime, but the main purpose of the visit was to inspire local islanders – particularly women – to pick up the oar and re-embrace the country’s traditional mode of transport.
Acting as the Sports Development Coordinator for Friends of Maldives (FOM), Batten arranged for two four-person ‘quad’ rowboats to be brought to the Maldives, with the support of British Airways (BA), British Rowing and Westminster School.
Meanwhile, the mission to reintroduce rowing to the country has been ticking away ever since Batten left her rowboat behind following her attempt in March. Primary school teacher and coastal rower James Cowley has been working as a volunteer based in Thinadhoo to develop the sport of rowing in the Maldives, and has already established the Rowing Association of the Maldives: “I believe it’s the first national sporting association to be based outside Male,” Batten says.
Cowley told World Rowing in October that getting appropriate equipment to the country remained a key challenge for the project: “It is amazing how much the young people have learnt using only Guin’s rowing boat, a canoe and the goggles Speedo sent out last month,” he said.
The equipment problem was been somewhat addressed with Batten’s latest visit, but other challenges remain: “For starters, a lot of people here don’t swim, which was quite surprising, so James taught 30 young people to swim and got them rowing in the lagoon while they developed safety procedures.”
Currently Cowley is training a group of male rowers and some younger men, as well as four girls “who are facing a lot of pressure because James is a male coach,” Batten says. “Elise Cope will spend three weeks coaching, but we need to have a female coach based out here too.”
Rowing, she notes, “is one of the fastest growing sports for women worldwide”, and an art not entirely lost to the Maldives, “but most of the people who know how to do it are in their 60s, and there’s a risk the knowledge will be lost with this generation,” says Batten.
Despite the challenges locals have really taken to the project, and the arrival of the new boats will get many more out onto the water. Saad Ibrahim, representing the Rowing Association of the Maldives, observes that “the boat allows us to take multiple young rowers out at the same time so they can learn to row together and develop their team skills”.
Batten describes it as a “fantastic opportunity to bring rowing back to the Maldivian community. The vision for this long term initiative is to bring sport into the community to encourage life skills such as team work amongst the local people and to give them the chance to see more of their surroundings.”
Locally, the project’s ambition is to set up six water sports clubs throughout the Upper Southern Province. Ultimately, Batten says, the Maldives may one day look to host the World Coastal Rowing Championships, “which will introduce a lot of people to the country who would not normally visit otherwise – it’s quite a different group of people to the surfing and diving community,” she adds.