Rowers gear up for SAARC summit

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.”


Maldives joins the International Rowing Federation

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.

British Airways' quad rowboat is unloaded

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.


President gives certificate to Zero Degree Channel rower

President Mohamed Nasheed presented a certificate to British national Guin Batten yesterday, after she rowed solo across the equatorial Zero Degree Channel on 30 March.

The president signed and presented the certificate at a function held at the President’s Office yesterday afternoon.

President Nasheed congratulated Guin on her achievement and she thanked him and the people of the Maldives for supporting the crossing.

“I hope that my crossing is an inspiration to bring rowing back here to the Maldives,” she said.

The crossing makes Guin the first rower to cross the 60 km channel alone and she now holds the record for the fastest crossing, 7 hours 16 minutes.


Oar-inspiring: Olympic rower completes equator crossing in 7:16

Olympic rower Guin Batten has completed her solo crossing of the Zero Degree Channel in 7 hours 16 minutes, setting a world first for the 60 kilometre passage between Huvadhoo Atoll and the island of Fuahmulah.

The 42 year-old silver medallist, who also holds the world record for her solo row across the English Channel, said she was awed by the excitement, enthusiasm and knowledge of her local supporters, 200 of whom were waiting on the beach at Fuahmulah when she arrived.

“It was a bit tricky getting through the rocks, but when I arrived I was given flowers, a coconut to drink, and many, many handshakes,” Batten says.

A crowd gathers on the beach of Fuahmulah for the arrival of rower Guin Batten.
A crowd gathers on the beach of Fuahmulah for Batten's arrival.

“I got back in the boat and went round to the harbour where the entire primary school was waiting – there was probably 500 people there too.”

The crossing itself was “picture perfect” – although surrounded by “terrific thunderstorms”, an “amazing show of light and sound”, none came close and for most of the journey the water was “calm and silky clear.”

“The weather was perfect, with very long, rolling three metre waves. It was pleasant and calm – you wouldn’t have known you were in the middle of the Indian Ocean with three kilometres of water under you,” Batten says.

Setting off in the early morning darkness on Tuesday, Batten rowed at a constant speed of about 8.5-8.7 kilometres an hour, a “jogging pace” that meant she only needed to drink three litres of water “and half the food I thought I would need” during the crossing.

Rowing in the darkness was “surreal”, she says. “We spend our days sitting in front of screens and machines, but out here you feel alive. It was something you don’t do everyday.”

Batten was accompanied by her support vessel, the coastguard and a fishing dhoni – “about 40 people who looked like they were having such a good time” – together with dolphins and a pod of pilot whales.

The Maldivians on the fishing dhoni came to her rescue at one point, five to six hours in, “when I started feeling low. It was a real bad patch,” Batten says.

“I had to think really hard on different things every 2-3 minutes to take my mind off the pain in my hands and body – you don’t make good decisions like that. But the locals on the dhoni got the music and the drums going and started dancing, then threw a bucket of water over me.”

She is full of admiration for the local fishermen who helped the vessels navigate the reefs and currents out of Huvadhoo Atoll, one of the most technically difficult parts of the crossing.

“Their local knowledge and experience was so impressive,” she says.

Batten and her rowing vessel.
Batten and her rowing vessel.

“After two hours I couldn’t navigate using the island and had to steer off the support boat, which was stressful. The skipper had a really hard job working to keep the course.”

With Batten exhausted by her journey and being draped with garlands, some of the locals took the opportunity to have a row in her boat.

“One of the girls [who had a go] was a natural – she looked like she would’ve picked it up in an hour,” Batten says. “One thing I really felt while I was doing this challenge, was that rowing is a common language.”

With her hands shredded by blisters (“here in the humidity the skin becomes soft”) caused by over seven hours at the oars and wearied by thousands of handshakes, Batten now intends to enjoy some of the Maldives’ more traditional tourist pasttimes.

“I know I said previously that I wanted to do some exercise before lying on the beach – well now I’m quite happy to do just that.”

President Mohamed Nasheed said last week he was “delighted” that Batten had become the first person to row solo across the Zero Degree Channel.

“I hope her efforts will be a catalyst for the revival of rowing in the Maldives,” he said.

Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing was supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.

Images provided by Umair Badeeu.


Olympic rower prepares for 60km crossing in early morning darkness

Silver-medal winning Olympic rower Guin Batten has begun final preparations for the first recorded solo crossing of Maldives’ zero degree channel in a row boat.

The 42 year-old British medallist, who holds the world record for a solo crossing of the 30 kilometre English Channel, now intends to row 60 kilometres across the ‘zero degree’ channel that bisects the equator between Foammulah and Huvadhoo Atoll.

Touching down in Male’ on Saturday, Batten and her support team went straight to the meteorological office and decided to commence the attempt around 2:00am early tomorrow morning.

For over seven hours she expects to struggle against the swells, tides and currents of the Indian Ocean in her 35 kilogram rowing boat.

“Seven hours if everything goes right,” Batten told Minivan News, before her trip down to Thinadhoo.

The early morning start offers the best combination of weather conditions, although Batten acknowledges that rowing in the dark will be a challenge.

“Because it’s dark you don’t see the waves coming, but you can feel them rolling under you,” she explained. “There will be a technical element involved, because you lose power if the oars catch the water in an odd way, or you ‘catch a crab’ (miss the water altogether).”

For navigation, Batten has an onboard GPS device in the boat, as well as an ordinary magnetic compass by which to steer. Altogether, “I’m aiming for a speed of 19 strokes a minute,” she said.

Even fluid consumption will be a challenge – Batten will have to consume two litres of water an hour just to replace the fluid lost through sweat. Moreover, her hands are already blistered from her endurance training in the UK in the lead up to the event.

Batten's team chart the crossing, which she will attempt at 2:00am early tomorrow morning..
Batten's team chart the crossing, which she will attempt at 2:00am early tomorrow morning.

A heritage of rowing

Batten’s attempt at the zero degree crossing is not just a personal challenge, Batten told Minivan News. She is passionate about reintroducing the lost art of rowing to the Maldives, which largely disappeared across the country in the 80s with the proliferation of electric motors.

“Rowing is very technical and different countries have unqiue styles,” Batten explained. “At the moment the people who know [the Maldivian style] are probably 60 years old, so there’s a risk that all that knowledge and understanding could disappear.”

As well as inspiring Maldivians to row, Batten’s team are working on bringing over six boats to set up a rowing club. For now, however, she is focused on what the Indian Ocean may throw at her.

With all it challenges to contend with, she acknowledges that a key goal for her support boat “will be to remind me to have fun. The glass is half full!”

Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing is supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.


Olympic rower to cross equator between atolls in world first

British Olympic rower Guin Batten says that while she loves visiting the Maldives, “like most people I get a little bored with just lying around on a beach.”

So during her next trip, on 29 March, the 42 year-old silver medallist intends to row 60 kilometres across the ‘zero degree’ channel that bisects the equator between Foammulah and Huvadhoo Atoll.

In the first ever attempt at the crossing in a rowboat, Batten expects to spend seven hours battling the swells, tides and currents of the Indian Ocean, in coastal rowing vessel just 78 centimetres wide and weighing 35 kilograms.

“The boat has an open stern and is designed so waves can break over it,” Batten explains. “The attempt will involve a lot of technical skill, and I have to make sure I don’t catch the waves with the oars. Ocean waves are long and slow, but there’s very little information available on the currents and conditions – I don’t think it’s going to be straightforward.”

Batten has been preparing by studying surf reports in the area, and expects the Somali current to be a formidable adversary (“that’s what gives the surfers their southwest swell”).

As far as madcap record-setting rowing enterprises go, Batten is well qualified. She holds the current world record – male or female – for rowing solo across the English Channel in an Olympic hull, in a time of three hours and 14 minutes.

But that was only 30 kilometres – half the distance she will face next week.

“As an athlete I’m designed to race two kilometres in seven minutes, not 60 kilometres in seven hours. It will be very different in style,” she predicts.

“Last weekend I rowed for five hours, and it was tough. Your hands get very sore from the blisters, and you go through the highs and lows.”

One of Batten’s major concerns during the equator crossing will be regulating her body temperature: “I’m coming straight from a freezing British winter to the lovely tropical Maldives where it’s 30 degrees,” she says, predicting it was very likely she would develop some level of heat exposure during the attempt.

“The critical thing is to make sure you drink enough and have enough energy on board. I’ll have to drink two litres of water an hour, and I’ll probably sweat more than that.”

Beyond her record-setting attempt, Batten says she hopes to inspire Maldivians to take up rowing again after it lapsed from the culture.

“I thought it was interesting that rowing used to be very popular here in the 80s – there were even competitions but they all died away.

“It’s a great tradition for a country like the Maldives to have – there’s a lack of space for sports [on land], but there’s so much beach and sea. We’re exploring how to bring over four-man rowing boats and start up a rowing club. My ambition is to see it take off again, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other.”

Batten’s trip to the Maldives next week might be a little less sedentary than that of most visitors, but she says it won’t be entirely beach-free: “I’ll just be getting a bit of exercise first.”

Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing is supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.