British government must “acknowledge what is really happening in the Maldives”: Salisbury MP John Glen to UK parliament

The international community “will not find it tenable” if former President Mohamed Nasheed is excluded from elections in the Maldives later this year, Deputy Leader of the UK’s House of Commons Tom Brake has stated.

Brake was responding to a speech in British parliament on March 27 by UK MP for Salisbury, John Glen, who called for the British government to “acknowledge what is really happening” in the Maldives “and stand firm later this year”.

“The [Maldives] is now in a critical state. The free and fair elections that should happen later this year are in the balance. It is difficult to get clarity from the international community, and even from the British Government, on how assertive it is prepared to be to deal with the country,” Glen stated.

“There is systematic corruption among the judiciary, and almost every week new stories of human rights violations reach the press. Although the ousted [former President] Nasheed is expected to run in the forthcoming elections, it is difficult to say that he will have a clear pathway to the elections, given the legal machinations put up against him almost every week.

“As I have mentioned, there are the most vile human rights abuses in the Maldives. A 15-year-old girl has been sentenced to 100 lashes in public when she turns 18, and to eight months of house arrest. It is appalling that the international community can apparently do nothing about the situation. I stand today to generate some publicity, I hope, so that people are aware of the direness of the situation in the country,” he stated.

“We will only get changes in the Maldives if there is public awareness of what is going on. Similar things are happening in many countries across the globe, but I am not prepared to just stand back and let these things happen.”

Glen added that, “people often ask why the Member of Parliament for Salisbury is so concerned about the smallest Asian country.”

“I am concerned because the ousted President of the Maldives has a strong association with my constituency,” he said. “He was educated just outside it and has spent a lot of time in exile there. Since I came to the house, I have taken a great interest in the Maldives. The situation there is dire and appalling, and it deeply concerns me. I am also very worried by the reaction of the international community.’

The European Union (EU) has also earlier this month declared that it would be “difficult” to consider the Maldives’ upcoming presidential elections credible unless former President Mohamed Nasheed is allowed to contest.

Following the EU’s comments, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad tweeted on March 16 that “it’s not proper for governments to discredit the independence and integrity of our judiciary. Doing so is undermining Democracy in Maldives.”

Masood added that the 2013 elections would be free, fair and exclusive, but would be “exclusive” of individuals who did not meet the legal criteria.

The Salisbury connection

Glen’s predecessor in the Salisbury seat, UK Conservative Party MP Robert Key, first brought the Maldives to the attention of British parliament prior to the country’s first democratic elections in 2008.

In an interview with Minivan News in 2010, Key described his first encounter with the self-exiled Maldivian activists, including Nasheed, who had established the Maldivian Democratic Party “in a room above a shop in Millford street in Salisbury.”

“[Nasheed] walked in through the door with his school-friend David Hardingham (Nasheed attended Dauntsey’s school with the founder of the Salisbury-based Friends of Maldives NGO), and said: ‘I have problems. I have problems with visas, I have problems with police, I need some advice from police about how to protect my little office in Salisbury’ – all these sorts of issues.”

“There were bigger problems: such as how to engage the British government ministers and the Commonwealth with what was happening in the Maldives. He quite rightly, as a good democrat, used the democratic system in the UK to pursue answers to his problems,” Key said at the time.

Unsettled by the political opposition growing overseas, the then Gayoom government in the Maldives commissioned private investigators to investigate Hardingham and the MDP’s Salisbury origins, in a project dubbed ‘Operation Druid’.

“When there was emergency rule here, there were a number of concerns as to who was funding the MDP. The government wanted to know who was behind it, and whether it was a foreign government,” Gayoom’s (and later Nasheed’s) Foreign Minister at the time, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, told Minivan News in an interview in 2011.

“The government may have wanted to see what was going on. What these operations did was try to see who was who. And a lot of the operations the government felt were against it came from Salisbury, and I think the government of the day felt justified in engaging a firm to look into what was going on,” Dr Shaheed said.

“We’re talking about people who they had deported from the Maldives for proselytisation, people involved in all sort of activities. They felt they needed to check on that, and what came out was a clean bill of health. Nothing untoward was happening, and these people were by and large bone-fide.”

After the investigators failed to turn up anything untoward, Hardingham and MP Key were vilified by Gayoom’s government as ‘Christian missionaries’ intent on building a church in the Maldives, on behalf of Salisbury cathedral.

“Well I recognised it as a political ploy. But we had to take it seriously as a threat because that was how it was presented – that Salisbury cathedral might become a target for some kind of activity. It was very specific,” said Key.

“The actual threat was that Salisbury and Salisbury Cathedral were trying to convert the Maldives to Christianity. Which was absolute nonsense but had to be taken seriously, because quite obviously in the Maldives that would be seen as a significant threat in a country that is 100 percent Islamic. I understood that straight away.

“It was not true, and therefore we had to say ‘It is not true.’ The Dean of Salisbury Cathedral understood the issue, she took it at face value, and we sought security advice as necessary. But it was never a serious threat. It was a juvenile political ploy.”

“It was just a mischievous suggestion,” said Dr Shaheed, in the subsequent interview. “At the time everyone was accusing each other of being non-Muslim, and this accusation that the MDP was non-Muslim was getting very loud.”

Meanwhile, following the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012 and the resignation of Nasheed, the Salisbury-based Friends of Maldives NGO reverted from health, education and sports development to advocating human rights and democratic restoration.

“FOM’s focus has been forced to revert to protecting human rights and promoting social justice until safety and democracy is restored,” the NGO states on its website.


Maldives rowing represented at Olympic regatta in South Korea

A renaissance of rowing in the Maldives continued this week as two students from Addu Atoll travelled to Chungju, South Korea, to compete in the Asian 2012 Olympic Qualification Regatta.

The pair, Ibrahim Sharu-u from Feydhoo School and Fathimath Hasna Hassan from Addu High School, are competing in the men’s and women’s singles sculls events which began on Thursday.

The team’s coach Natasha Howard, former Olympic rower for Great Britain and World Championship bronze medallist, hopes the event will enhance the competitor’s knowledge of their own sport as well as raising international recognition of the Maldives’ potential as a rowing nation.

“Both athletes are really enjoying themselves and getting the most out of being surrounded by professional sportsmen and women, asking lots of questions and building their knowledge of the sport,” said Natasha.

“I hope our invitation to participate in the 2012 Asian Olympic Qualification Regatta will raise awareness not only within Addu but also within National bodies such as the National Olympic Committee (NOC), that the Maldives has the potential to compete on an international level through rowing,” she continued.

The successful teams at the South Korean event will go on to compete in this summer’s London Olympics. Competition has been hard with Hasna and Sharu-u competing against teams able to train full-time using professional equipment.

Additionally, many of the athletes are 20-40 kilograms heavier than their Maldivian opponents as well as often being a few inches taller – a great advantage in the sport.

Natasha believes the event’s real importance lies in terms of the sport’s growth in the Maldives and the personal development of the athletes involved: “Experience and knowledge gathering is what this regatta is about for us so that we can begin to build a truly competitive Maldives team over the next four years.”

“The great thing about being here is that every country has started in a similar fashion to the Maldives – coming to take part in their first ever international event when facilities and knowledge were still in their infancy so they can remember what it was like and are incredibly supportive of our team,” said Natasha.

“We will get to race four times over the next four days which is a fantastic opportunity for both athletes to build on each race. Our aim is for them to come off the water and able to say that they had nothing left to give and that was their best race to date.”

Long term development

The re-birth of rowing in the Maldives was given initial impetus after the British Olympic silver medallist rower Guin Batten became the first person to cross the Maldives’ Equatorial Zero Degree Channel in March 2010.

Batten became the first person to cross the 60 kilometre channel between Huvadhoo Atoll and the island of Fuahmulah. She holds the record for the fastest crossing, completing the feat in 7 hours 16 minutes.

The world-first attempt at crossing was supported by British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.

Batten subsequently arranged for two four-person ‘quad’ rowboats and several coaches to be brought to Thinadhoo and Ghadadhoo in 2010 with the support of BA, British Rowing and Westminster School. The Maldives High Commission in London also held a fundraising event to raise funds for the purchase and shipment of the equipment.

The first local rowing association had been set up in Thinadhoo after the then Province Minister for the Upper South Province, Umar Jamaal, visited the World Coastal Championships in Plymouth in October in 2009.

The following year, after Batten’s record-setting, the Maldives was welcomed as the 131st member of the International Rowing Federation (FISA).

“My ambition is to see [rowing] take off again in the Maldives, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other,” Batten said at the time.

Rowing was once the primary form of transportation between islands in the Maldives before the widespread introduction of diesel engines to the country during the 1980s.  Most Maldivians with practical rowing experience are now in their sixties.

In November 2011, the Maldives first ever inter-school rowing tournament was held in Hithadhoo, Addu Atoll, to coincide with the SAARC summit celebrations. Five local coaches were trained in order to facilitate the event which included all 12 schools in the atoll. Another inter-school competition is scheduled for this July.

The subsequent interest in the sport prompted the start of swimming classes for those wishing to begin rowing but who were unable to swim. Classes for around 100 people began in the months following the SAARC summit.

Swimming courses have also been held in Hulhumale’ in preparation for the sport’s introduction in North Male’ Atoll. Three boats arrived in 2011 and a boat house has been constructed. There are plans for a new coach to come out in 2012, according to the Maldives NOC.

In the long-term, it is hoped that local coaches will be able to continue to develop the sport. The International Rowing Federation (FISA) assists in such courses as part of its Olympic Solidarity programme which aids the global development of sport. It is hoped that courses to train 20 to 25 new coaches will take place in June or July of this year.

All expenses for the athletes competing in South Korea are being covered by the FISA and the South Korean government.

Secretary of the Maldives NOC Marzook said that Olympic Solidarity will provide $10,000 for the training. Marzook explained that rowing was a very expensive sport for a country like the Maldives: “Normally US$6000 is allocated for training in other sports.”

“Olympic Solidarity know we really need the money. They really want to develop rowing in the Maldives,” said Marzook.

Funding and equipment remain scarce while the sport continues to find its sea-legs in the Maldives. Natasha works on a volunteer basis and has her expenses are paid by Addu City Council. All the equipment used has been donated from clubs in the UK or bought with the proceeds from fund-raising events.

“We have four doubles (two man boats), one single and one quad (four man boat). We have no rowing machines. All the rowers are very aware of the need to treat what equipment we do have very well so that it lasts as long as possible. The quad we currently have we cannot use because it is too heavy to lift and requires a trolley to move it,” Natasha said.

The team are said to be taking full advantage of the equipment available in South Korea as well as learning from other athletes about how they train for competitive rowing.

Fortunately for the sport’s future, there has been no scarcity of enthusiasm for rowing in Addu. Training sessions are constantly oversubscribed with Natasha having to facilitate nearly 200 students with only nine operational seats.

The NOC’s rowing report described the plans to expand the sport from the student community to include greater sections of society.

“The future long-term sustainable success of rowing in the Maldives lies with having well trained enthusiastic coaches and involving all sections of the community within the sport,” said the report.


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.