Addu City and Hulhumale’ students will compete in an International Rowing School Competition during the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to be held in Addu City during the first eleven days of November.
Students over age 11 from Addu’s 12 schools and Hulhumale’ have been training in four-seater crew boats, or ‘quads’, since September. The teams are down to their last three weeks of training for one of the Maldives’ first contemporary rowing competitions.
“Over the past few days we’ve been racing the students to select the fastest from within each age group for every school. There have been some very close results so I’m looking forward to some great racing between the schools come the 4th of November.”
British national rower Natasha Howard trains students from a program base on Hithadhoo Island. She arrived in the Maldives in August with fellow rower Rachel Loveridge to volunteer coach students for the competition.
Unable to exercise during the day in Ramadan and with few resources (boats were imported, and the island’s Utility Office has served as a boat house), Howard used the first month to meet with principals and the city council to arrange a schedule to ensure the teams would be ready to compete in November.
“The City Mayor Abdullah Sodiq and all the council members have gone out of their way to ensure that I have everything I need,” said Howard, who has operated from a desk in the council’s education unit.
Howard said the program has generated great enthusiasm in Addu. Without volunteer support from Hithadhoo Youth Center, only a fraction of interested students would have received any training. Instead, seven volunteers learned the sport in order to help instruct 213 interested students on necessary skills.
But limited resources have made cuts necessary.
“I could have cut the sessions twice over and had children in tears when the cut was made to reduce the group to just 16 boys and 16 girls [from each school]. Others ask me constantly could they come for more sessions and don’t believe me until I show them my schedule that there really is not another hour in the week they could come (unless they skip school).”
Further cuts will reduce the team to four boys and four girls from each age group (U14, U16, U19, U21) for the race on 4 November.
Start line: Zero Degrees
The program began with a world record. On 30 March 2010, British national Guin Batten became the first person to row across the Maldives’ equatorial Zero Degree Channel.
Speaking at a presidential ceremony in April, Batten reflected on her record’s significance. “I hope that my crossing is an inspiration to bring rowing back here to the Maldives,” she said.
Primary school teacher and coastal rower James Cowley took the suggestion to heart. When Batten left her boat in the Maldives in March, Cowley used it to develop the sport of rowing from his volunteer base in Thinadhoo.
One significant step was establishing the Rowing Association of the Maldives. In November 2010, the Maldives became the 131st member of the International Rowing Federation (FISA).
Equipment has been slowly added to the Maldives’ rowing collection. Acting as the Sports Development Coordinator for Friends of Maldives (FOM), Batten arranged for two four-person ‘quad’ rowboats and several coaches to be brought to Thinadhoo and Ghadadhoo in 2010 with the support of British Airways (BA), British Rowing and Westminster School.
This year, Howard and Loveridge were accompanied by seven coastal ‘quads’ from the UK, three of which are being used in Hulhumale’ and four of which are in Addu.
“Our aim is to ensure that when the volunteer coaches leave there is a self-sustaining club in place,” Howard said.
The Addu program instructs 213 students, mostly boys, who are shuttled across Addu’s 14 kilometre road, Maldives’ longest, each day for practice. In a progress report, Howard noted that fewer girls had the necessary swimming skills to participate in the program, “it wasn’t for lack of interest in rowing.”
Remembering the drowning incident at Kuda Huraa earlier this year, Howard reported that rowers will receive swim training by a Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) volunteer after SAARC. She also mentioned plans for an Addu swimming program next year “as concern is growing at how many of the students do not know how to swim.”
Students have shown enthusiasm for the program, which involves two two-hour sessions of land fitness and water training each week. Most groups are separated by gender, according to school advisories.
“Like everywhere in the world some students are keener than others and push themselves harder but not a single student has refused to do anything we’ve asked of them from carrying 50 kilo boats to and from the water to doing burpees, press ups, squat jumps and sit ups. We’ve had lots of reports of sore muscles during the first week but everyone came back for more,” Howard said.
In addition to gaining physical strength and finesse, rowers develop strong communication skills.
“The art of communicating with each other and doing the same thing together and at the same time are crucial and something we have been working on with the students,” said Howard, adding that each student learns at an individual pace.
“How quickly a student learns the new skills will vary with each individual – if they are naturally shy and quiet building the confidence to talk and give instructions to their partner will take that little bit longer than it does for an out going, noisy and naturally bossy person! However, the desire to win races is a great motivator and all our students have worked out their various ways of communicating.”
Not just kids’ play
As Batten noted in 2010, the Maldives has a unique appeal for rowing. Howard highlighted the climate’s unique advantages for coaches, novices and experts.
“The area of water we use here in Addu is great for getting novices started – sheltered by some small islands it never gets rough and there are no strong currents. Even when the wind is blowing hard the boats cannot be blown out to sea.
“The warm weather and water also means everyone is very happy to get soaking wet (the more often the better) and we, as coaches, are able to hang off the back of the boats as the students learn to row and so provide one on one coaching support very easily.
“The other great advantage is the ability to look over the side of your boat and see coral, fish and turtles swimming by – definitely not something many other rowing locations can boast about!”
While rowing was a traditional transportation method in the Maldives, contemporary facilities are sparse. Howard said resources are currently being channeled into SAARC preparations on Addu, but that improvements are expected after the summit.
After consolidating the programs in Addu and Hulhumale’, “our next priority is to utilise the local boat building skills and investigate the possibility of having the boats built here in the Maldives to reduce costs and so make them more widely available.”
According to Howard, there is plenty of demand for expansion.
“Interest is not just limited to the students. Teachers, parents, doctors, council members and the ladies in the Education Unit are all desperate to come and have a go and race. Time and too few boats means that everyone has to wait their turn right now,” Howard observed.
For Maldivian rowers, Batten’s record remains fair game for the breaking.
After failing to break her own record in the Zero Degree Channel in November 2010, Batten told the public, “The record is still there for the taking, and there’s a good chance somebody local could break my time of 7:16.”