Day one in Lucerne at World Rowing Cup II

Lucerne, Switzerland

4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Steve McArthur and Benedict Tufnell
Published 25.05.24

Two days after the emotional end of the Final Olympic and Paralympic Qualifying Regatta in Lucerne, the lake bloomed with rowers once again, this time vying for the second set of world cup points (arguably not that important) and pre-Olympic bragging rights (much more crucial) in what is likely to be the last well-attended regatta before both the Paris Games. Then the racing got ruined by a Lucerne special rainstorm, before restarting on an innocently placid lake in the late afternoon.

Between the first World Cup (Varese) and this one, about half the nations involved here have also fought it out for European championship medals, whilst those not involved got on with selection and training. Chapter one of the story of rowing’s summer 2024 is therefore out of date, and we were always going to expect some changes in crews and form. 

Not all of them were predictable. After silver at the European championships three weeks ago the reigning Olympic singles champion Stefanos Ntouskos found himself facing his first ever D-final on Saturday after fading into oblivion in the quarter-final. It will be his first time out of the A-final since he raced the exact same event in 2021, though look how that turned out a couple of months later. After the race Uruguay’s Bruno Cetraro Berriolo, who came second in a fetching Uruguay-blue bucket hat, looked as if he was checking if the Greek former lightweight was okay.

The Dutch and Lithuanian women’s doubles had a bewildering morning, coming an unexpected fourth in their heats and then sneaking back into the competition via third and second respectively in the repechage. That’s what repechages are for, right? But they both look off their best and we might see some withdrawals in due course. By contrast the Dutch men’s double posted the quickest time of the day by a sliver, and their women’s pair were unassailable. The Dutch have done their altitude camp already, just before this, so are also slightly ahead of the curve compared with some other altitude-addicted squads which are yet to go up the mountain pre-Paris. 

Ireland’s small boats had a lovely time of it, with first places for their women’s pair, women’s double and (of course) lightweight men’s double, though the latter were beaten to the best lightweight time of the day by the ever-buoyant Swiss, who are becoming a force to be reckoned with. The last ever lightweight men’s Olympic final is shaping up beautifully.

It looked on paper as if two of Britain’s flagship boats, the men’s four and men’s eight, were in the doldrums, being beaten by Australia and the USA respectively. The first result does have potential significance, though the Brits said afterwards that they haven’t yet tuned up their start and sprint, and they were certainly underrating the triumphant Aussie quartet the whole way. The eights’ result was hazier: both crews virtually even-splitted, weren’t racing quite full throttle at the end, and it was a preliminary race, in which top seeds rarely show their full hand. 

To add to that the new US eight, featuring five of the crew which came ignominiously sixth at the 2023 worlds final but have just redeemed themselves with a stonking win in the FOPQR, are on a mission and considerably further through their peaking cycle than the Brits. The most irritated crew will be the Dutch, who were clearly racing harder but fell more than a length short so will be out for blood on Sunday. 

Normally preliminary races aren’t much cop, since they aren’t obligatory and don’t lead to lane selection. However the PR2 mixed doubles was a corker, possibly better for the absence of the unwavering British para-double (the GBR para-squad isn’t entered here), and featured four crews finishing within 4.5 seconds of one another, a rarity in para-events. The quad preliminaries were dressage wins for the British women and Dutch men, while the US women’s eight did a demolition job rowing through the Aussies and Canadians. The GB women’s eight, no longer doubling up, were a puzzle, apparently racing it right out but a length back on the leaders by the end. Their women’s four, however, hit their stride and looked triumphant, qualifying straight to the final in a very fast time compared with other heat winners the Netherlands.

The rainstorm swept through during the early afternoon, strong winds and rumbles of thunder segueing into relentless rain for the best part of a couple of hours. As whitecaps chased one another down the lake racing was suspended for 90 minutes and drenched rowers, coaches and umpires hurriedly left the water while a haze of rain hung over the boat park and first 1000m. Normal service eventually resumed at 16:15 with the reps and quarter-finals,

Lucerne has never been immune from illnesses and injuries, as regulars will know, and by the end of the first day there were already five in-competition withdrawals for medical reasons including Belgium’s sculler Tim Brys, and four pairs from four different countries, kick-started by Germany’s M2- pulling out after the strokeman Marc Kamman had to be sucked into the eight in place of Mattes Schoenherr. Germany’s women’s sculler Alexandra Foester was having trouble on Friday too, spending forty minutes after her race talking to her support team on the finish pontoon, and clutching her stomach before climbing back into her boat and gingerly sculling off. Let’s hope she’s okay for Saturday’s semi-final, for which she had qualified after sticking closely to Emma Twigg’s (NZL) coat-tails. 

By contrast it was good to see British lightweight Emily Craig thoroughly back on form, justifying her taking a regatta off to deal with a minor medical issue, as the more important goal this year is Paris, not a European medal. She and crewmate Imogen Grant cruised to victory in the first LW2x heat, the second being won by the newly reselected US duo Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford with open water over Canada’s Jill Moffatt and Jennifer Casson. 

In other news the top three women’s singles had speed in the exact same order as the last time all three raced one another (the 2023 worlds), with Karolien Florijn (NED) a smidge quicker than Tokyo champion Emma Twigg (NZL), herself a little faster than Tara Rigney (AUS). In the men’s event Oli Zeidler (GER) came through both rounds unscathed, while Individual Neutral Athlete Yauheni Zalaty appeared bent on annoying more experienced hands by going under seven minutes twice in very dodgy conditions. The usual suspects won the PR singles heats and got straight into the finals: more about them later this weekend.

So finished day one. The local cows are in good shape — much bell-clanking from the vertiginous fields opposite the finish grandstand — and the Swiss air force display unit did a few donuts in the sky during a training day at the nearby Emmen military airfield, proving they can beat both the train and the crews to the finish line while deafening everyone for miles around. 

Saturday may be another fairly grim day weather-wise, and the poor C and D M1x/W1x/LM2x finals will be raced after the lengthy Lucerne lunch break and two full hours after the medal finals for the non-Olympic/Paralympic events. It will be a mercy if anyone is still there to watch them, apart from the press and the cows. 

Before that though we have some pitiless semi-finals and a few potentially close repechages, to decide the cast list for Sunday. The number of sleeps and races to the Olympics is starting to run very low, and every race will count.