Masters row in paradise
A tropical island, a holiday, a rowing regatta, a fundraiser. The inaugural Masters in Paradise regatta hosted by the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu served a number of purposes.
Vanuatu became a member federation of FISA, the World Rowing Federation, in 2008 and with the help of enthusiastic residents, a container of boats and a coach from Australia and World Rowing backing the nation is helping to push for rowing into Oceania.
Port Vila, the capital of the 83-island nation contains a sizeable chunk of the country's 230,000 population. Port Vila also has a 4km flat water lagoon, Erakor. It was just a matter of time before the rowing potential was recognised and the Masters in Paradise regatta is one of the outcomes. Billed as an 'active holiday' participants enjoyed a two-day regatta (all boats supplied) plus a chance to spend some time in an inland paradise.
About 85 masters rowers and supporters made the three hour flight from Australia or New Zealand to take part. Some, like Sharon Bray and her doubles partner Mel Skelton of Mercer Rowing Club in New Zealand discovered rowing through their children and are now more hooked than their offspring.
Mark and Caroline Mussared from Pembroke Masters in Australia both rowed a University. A 30-year hiatus followed before their children rowing at high school reintroduced them to the sport. "We went with the kids to a learn-to-row day and got nabbed by the masters group," says Mark. Fifteen years later the Mussared's regularly compete and came to Vanuatu on the back of training four to five days per week.
The Mussared's left Vanuatu with an impressive number of locally crafted medals from the two-day regatta.
Ken Ambler from the Sydney Rowing Club in Australia readily admits that he's a little crazy. Ambler, 64, describes having a heart attack while rowing in an eight. At the time he did not realise what had happened but a medical diagnosis pointed to a major heart attack. Ambler describes being 'let go' by his first physiotherapist who couldn't comprehend why Ambler would not take it easy. "But I've got a race in two week's time," Ambler told his bemused physio.
In its short life the Port Vila Rowing Club has built a boatshed, toilets and showers and now brims with boats including 16 new boats from Swift that were used in a rotating fashion for the regatta. One of the club founders, Greg Pechan rowed at the under-23 level for Australia before moving with his family to Vanuatu. Pechan helped organise Australian rowing clubs to donate boats to Vanuatu and remains an avid club supporter.
Local, Ni-Vanuatu rower turned coach and boatshed manager, Tom Pata has already built up an international rowing record from competing at the 2013 World Rowing Championships for Vanuatu. Pata was one of the first locals to be involved in rowing. In a nation where water is viewed as fishing grounds, using water for recreational purposes does not come naturally for the locals. But Pata fell in love with the sport.
The Masters in Paradise regatta also served as a fundraiser for Ni-Vanuatu rowers with the club hoping to send their top rowers to a regatta later this year in New Zealand and help in the steps towards qualifying Vanuatu for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Masters in Paradise turned out to be successful on this front. "The regatta is a great idea," says Ambler. "Some of us are retired and we have the money. This is my first time in Vanuatu and it might not be my last."
The Port Vila Rowing Club now has 90 members with about 50 active local rowers. Among them is Luigi Teilemb. Teilemb remembers his first row being in a wide single just over two years ago. He also remembers ending up in the water. "I had my school uniform on," says Teilemb who persevered.
Teilemb was playing football when he took up rowing and, he says, the chance of travel was one of the draw cards. Teilemb has now stopped football as rowing training became, 'too hard' and he has now travelled to Korea for the World Rowing Championships, Australia for the World Rowing Cup and New Zealand for training and racing.
Teilemb's team mate, Stephanie Ephraim has been rowing for two years. She came to rowing from beach volleyball, a major sport in Vanuatu. Ephraim, 19, competed at the World Rowing Cup in Sydney earlier this year. Being at an international rowing event Ephraim says was overwhelming. "I thought, 'I can't do it, I'm rowing with people who have rowed for ten years or more!'" But, she says, while sitting nervously in the starting blocks she realised everyone else was nervous as well. "It was the first time I'd heard a starting horn," says Ephraim. "It was also the first time rowing in a lane."
Both Teilemb and Ephraim say rowing is not something their friends and family know about. "Neither did I," says Ephraim. "Now my friends know because they have seen me in the newspaper and on TV."
Teilemb and Ephraim both have their sights set on further international competition and the Masters in Paradise regatta plans to become an annual event to help fund the local competitive rowers.
Organiser and Port Vila Rowing Club life member Lee Spear already has plans to make the 2015 event even better. "This year I expected 20-25 people," says Spear. "I want to keep it at about 60 and take entries from wider afield."
"We see greater possibilities and potential," says Spear. "It's a great opportunity to have a holiday and get to row on a gorgeous lagoon in paradise."