May 8, 2016
There was only one thing wrong with the Beetzsee lake last weekend: the wind. The story of the 2016 European championships, it blew and blew, a gusting cross-head affair on the wide course which strengthened just in time on Sunday to create white-capped rolling sea-waves which turned the finals into a mere survival mission.
Crews from gold medallists to sixth place came off the water with sheer relief at having made it through to the finish line. Even the most technically skilled struggled, the smaller boats to stay upright against the slamming side-winds, the bigger crews to row while gale-force gusts were dumping bucketfuls of water into their shell both before and during the race. Those without enough weeks in the boat had no chance, some stragglers coming in a full minute after the winners.
Only six crews successfully defended 2015 titles: the German men’s eight and women’s quad, British men’s four (with completely different personnel), sculler Damir Martin, the Swiss lightweight four, and Britain’s women’s pair. All were world medallists last year. The men’s eight was a fabulous finale, crowned by Germany sprinting past mid-race leaders Russia to clinch gold in front of a delighted home grandstand.
Britain, dominant in this event for the last three years, were on the back foot mid-course and snatched a last-ditch bronze from the closest possible photofinish with Belarus, who have not yet qualified for the Olympics. Both countries were awarded precisely the same time of 6min 20.39sec but the photofinish showed the British bow-ball a few millimetres over the line ahead of the Belarussians. In a reversal of fortune from 2015 the British women’s eight grabbed gold, pushing hard in the second half of the race to overtake the Dutch, who together with Russia had been more than a length out in front earlier on.
Other crews were unassailable from the start. Single scullers Damir Martin (CRO) and Magdalena Lobnig (AUT) won by 14 and 17 seconds respectively, Martin from Lithuanian Mindaugas Griskonis and Lobnig from Latvia’s Elza Gulbe. Czechs Ondrej Synek and Mirka Topinkova Knapkova, each dominant for many years in the singles, had to settle for third and bronze.
Martin’s former crew-mates, the brothers Sinkovic, recorded one of the two other sizeable Olympic-class gold medal margins, whisking into an early lead to keep a stranglehold over Germany’s Marcel Hacker and Stephan Krueger in the men’s double. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning seemed to be making heavier weather of it in the women’s pair, but seized their chance with a few strokes of flatter water as they passed the shelter of the mid-race island, and suddenly doubled their lead to beat Germany comfortably.
Many crews gracing Brandenburg’s waters were preparing for the Final Olympic Qualifying regatta only two weeks away, but few looked like serious Rio medal prospects. Honourable exceptions include the Dutch LW2x, who beat Germany and Poland, and the Hungarian men’s pair who slogged it out against the British and Dutch, seizing victory on the line as the other two fluffed their final strokes in the worsening conditions. The Dutch women’s eight, German lightweight four and French openweight four should also be in with a good chance in Lucerne after respectable minor medals against strong opposition.
The openweight fours were particularly interesting, Britain’s new combination holding Belarus at bay with relative relaxation, while the Danish light men’s four, who were racing open-class to give Morten Jørgensen more time to get to weight after 2015 off due to illness, finished sixth but by no means off the back of the field.
What else the regatta can tell us is unclear. With the best rowers in the world wobbling up every recovery as they battled through the bouncing waves, nobody could make sudden moves so race plans and normal cruising speed remained untested. Lucerne’s Rotsee, Lake of the Gods and usually home to either mirror-flat water or smooth fast tail-winds, will reveal more at the end of May.