This is a short, biased (partly fictional) account of The 1998 I-Lan
International Collegiate Invitational Regatta, based on the experiences
of the Melbourne University Boat Club's lightweight (style) VIII.
This annual event is held in the North-Western side of Taiwan in I-Lan
county on the Tung-shan river at the beautiful Chin-shui Park rowing
Taiwan is a small island in the South China Sea once known as Formosa,
which means "beautiful Island". Taiwan is a fledgling democracy but is
not yet recognized by the UN - previous motions before the UN have been
rejected under pressure from China.
The event is officially for "lightweight style" crews - which can mean
a lot of different things to different people, but Melbourne's
Gravitational Selection Committee considered "have rowed, are rowing or
planning to row lightweight real soon" to be sufficient.
This year there were 12 International and 2 local teams with crews
competing from Fu-jen (Taiwan Catholic University), NTOU (National
Taiwan Ocean University), Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Keio,
Waseda, New Zealand ("allied universities"), Leiden, Hamburg, Toronto,
Sydney and Melbourne.
Taiwan is a 9 hour flight from Sydney, which is less time in the air
from Australia than most other international destinations - at least 3
hours too short for Robert Spinks (Robertus Maximus), crew liaison
officer, who is calibrated on the 12 hour Bangkok stop-over. He has only
just warmed up chatting with hostess Naomi when the plane starts its
descent, he gets a second prize phone number.
>From the airport in Taipei we go by bus to the hotel in I-lan. I-lan's
commerce is based mainly on agriculture - the flat landscape is a
patchwork quilt of watery squares: fish farms, rice paddies and, until
recently, countless duck farms. The Boat Club's Amateur Aquatic
Agricultural Sub-committee has a number of theories regarding the demise
of the white duck: last year these tenacious feathered beasts were
everywhere we looked. This year we encountered the "Thirsty Duck"
restaurant (oddly leaving us feeling anything but thirsty) and flattened
duck for sale in plastic bags (don't take these through customs -
they're on the "rubber-glove list"), but only a few of the natural duck
farm variety. We propose a duck-free-I-lan theory based on a rotational
agricultural system of fish, rice and duck. A less well supported
theory that (somehow) made unseaworthy, the white ducks sank, has been
discredited, but seemed (unusually) funny to us at the time.
Rising abruptly from the sea of rice and fish (and missing duck) farms
is the Chinatrust Shandori Hotel. The hotel is so new that we could
still feel the excitement of the owners peeling off the plastic.
Allocation of boats is done by lottery: the local rowing federation owns
a fleet comprising 5 well kept Empachers, 7 Ted Hales (Australian) and
one crusty old Vespoli. The Melbourne coach Paul Reedy (Mr Lucky),
draws the lucky 7 ping-pong ball. Not so lucky: Mr Lucky will spend the
next 4 days trying to rig Ted Hale number 7. Our expected main
opposition - Sydney and Hamburg, draw Empachers.
That night, to celebrate our selection of rowing shell, and to live up
to our national stereotype as larakins, we visit I-Lan (and discover the
"Thirsty Duck" restaurant). Everywhere we go we are greeted by
enthusiastic locals who make paddling gestures. We respond with
drinking gestures. They soon get the idea.
Some of the Sydney delegation who are also in town take the Australian
reputation too seriously (strike one), and fueled by a bottle of gin
(strike two) take a joy-ride on a moped (strike three).
The moped is the Taiwanese vehicle of choice - one shouldn't mess with
another's national identity... especially if labeled with "Soon strong
and feel well". Beaten up by emotional moped owners, the ensuing drama
labels all Australians with a reputation for being arrogant when drunk
and also for nude street dancing. We still can't understand the nude
dancing thing. Every where we go we are warned not to take our pants
off. Of course we would take our pants of if encouraged, but none of us
can remember having done it in Taiwan... yet.
So we form the Extra-Ordinary Cross-Cultural Awareness Committee, and
try to divert attention from our drunken arrogance (and nude street
dancing) by organising a range of Australian cultural events: we try to
re-introduce the (republican) Roman toga for young men (toga virilis).
Tom Paul (Mr Wide Eyes) manages to tie the techno-toga - complete with
butt-flap. Alan, the sensitive interpreter for the Sydney crew from the
William Shakespeare School of Literature at Fu-jen University, takes
more photographs of the butt-flap than he would ever need for most usual
On Saturday morning of the aptly named heats it is hot and relatively
still. Melbourne is wearing high-tech ice-jackets. The main point of
the ice-jackets is that we have them and no one else does. An American
voice is heard: "Why don't we have them?", "because you didn't think of
it" some malevolent imaginary voice replies.
Fitted with 4 freezer packs we use the jackets pre-race, during warm-up
and during warm-down. They reduce the body's core temperature and
improve the recovery after racing. The freezer-packs in the breast
pockets are also quite nice to fondle.
In the heat we meet Harvard, New Zealand and Cambridge. We take an easy
length by 300m and push to a lengths clear water at 900m, before
shutting down. Melbourne 1st, Cambridge 2nd, then New Zealand 3rd to
Harvard who appear to have paddled down after a disappointing start.
The heat winners are Fu-jen, Sydney, Hamburg and Melbourne.
After careful regression analysis of the times by our team manager Phil
Bell (Mr Hanky) it is clear Hamburg will be our main rivals - they have
very similar split times over the first 1500m. Sydney we agree appeared
to take their heat very lazily, perhaps the commotion of being labeled
nude dancing champions has drained them.
The repechages are in the afternoon and the results decide the
semi-finals: Our semi-final will be Fu-jen, Melbourne, Cambridge and
Leiden - the other will be New-Zealand, Sydney, Hamburg and Harvard.
Sunday morning is even hotter and waiting in the start area is stifling.
Our start is reasonable, and we again have an early lead. We conserve
energy as we watch Cambridge move to a clear 2nd in the last half. We
will meet them again in the final.
The other semi-final is a short tussle between Sydney and Hamburg.
Hamburg seems determined to win the semi, but when Sydney rises to the
challenge Hamburg settles for second.
The final will be decided between Hamburg, Sydney, Melbourne and
We cool down and make haste for the hotel to relax before the final.
Snoozing quietly the world starts moving. Initially suspecting Stuart
Peele (Mr Silent) of unnatural acts we soon realise this is an
earthquake (though "minor tremor" may be more accurate). We trip into
the corridor in our underpants and with the Kiwis form a chorus yelling:
"Aieeee, it's an earthquake".
Our race plan is relatively simple: we start relaxed, concentrate on
transitioning after 300m and make a push at 900m before the impressive
arched bridge. Bridges in Taiwan are almost always arched - they seem
to fit in better that way. The one near the 900m mark is red and
visible from miles around. We have no race plan in the last half -
it's too early in the season for us to practice such heroics, so we plan
on focusing on increasing (or maintaining) boat speed without being
diverted by concentrating on the rating.
In the afternoon a cross-head breeze keeps us cool before the race. Our
start is not as clean as usual, but we have a few seats advantage at
250m. We gradually take half a length on Hamburg and through 750m we
are in a comfortable position. Unwisely we start our 900m push early,
and we approach the bridge less composed than we planned. Hamburg
pushes hard from the 1000m mark and while we falter in the rougher water
in this section of the course they gain half a length.
With 500m to go we try to make an impression on Hamburg. Each push we
make is matched and we seem to be glued half a length down. With 200
meters to go we make one last attempt and take a seat or two, but we
cross the line 1 second behind. Hamburg become champions in 5:53,
Melbourne loses last years title in 5:54, Sydney third in 6:03 and
Cambridge last in 6:15.
After racing we collect loser medals and an enormous trophy (with a "2"
on it). The after party starts at the local sports stadium. To prevent
a recurrence of nude dancing the beer is warmed several degrees above
room temperature. At its conclusion we head back to the hotel. Ben
Cantwell (Mr. Invisible) has found some unclaimed cartons of warm beer
and we leave with 4 free slabs.
At the hotel there is much swapping of clothing, while our crew liaison
officer is trying to swap much more. The Hamburg crew's blond female
cox, Ricara, is extremely interested in the way Robertus Maximus' ties
his toga (toga seductia). Mr Hanky is nearly electrocuted hanging from
the neon sign atop the hotel trying to get a glimpse. Eventually
Maximus and Ricara spend a loveless night on the hotel roof when the
door is locked from the inside.
The next morning the organisers seek revenge for the previous night's
revelry. We are woken bleary eyed at 6:00am and pushed onto buses
for a day trip to the mountains. We spend four hours on a narrow
winding road blasted into the precipitous cliffs. The next day we
notice a story on the TV news - a part of the very road we travel on
collapses. We are not sure if there are casualties, but judging from
the images of squashed cars and motorcycles there must have been.
Eventually we find ourselves in a spell-binding gorge with a tumultuous
river carving the sides ever deeper. The depth of the valley and the
amazing steepness of the sides takes your breath away - even more than
dodging the cars, since in this steep gorge everyone shares the same
We lunch at a Buddhist temple - when we climb the tower we notice a
pool atop the local 5 star hotel on the opposite side of the valley.
Welcomed into the foyer (where there are shops) we sneak into the lift
and go to the roof. The pool is fabulous and a welcome retreat from the
humidity. Dripping and with contented smiles we squelch out to
reverently bowing door-men.
In any given 8 hour period on the roads in Taiwan you will expect to hit
one moped rider. Returning from the mountains we somehow narrowly miss
The next day is one of rest for the Melbourne team, but we visit the
I-Lan bowl-arama. Fueled with beer Robertus Maixmus challenges Bill
Peden (Tou-Tou) to a private bowling challenge - both 1st time bowling
novices the challenge seemed like a good idea at the time. Various
prizes are rejected as being too soft (crew motto "push the
boundaries"): eventually it is agreed that the loser will wear a toga on
the return flight to Australia (toga humiliatus). Tou-Tou starts well
with a strike but consistent bowling from Maximus whittles the early
lead until they are equal. With 4 frames Tou-Tou has a spare that could
end the competition, but squanders it when his next bowl hits only one
pin. With one frame to bowl the scores are Maximus 82, Tou-Tou 77. In
his final frame Tou-Tou's first bowl knocks down 6, leaving a tough
pattern, but manages to get 3, for a round of 86. Maximus celebrates
early with taunts of "You're going home in a toga". But the game is not
over yet: Maximus' penultimate bowl is a gutter ball. His final bowl
goes far to the right, spinning it recovers but hits the pins on the
right side, knocking 3 down, with 2 more precariously wobbling - but
they stay upright. A breathless Tou-Tou celebrates on a chair with
Leaving Taiwan was a little sad - Mr Hanky will miss our interpreters
Shenna and Vanessa greatly, Alan will miss Mr Wide Eyes and Andrew
LaTreille (Latts). But we left with many fond memories, and the
great expectation of witnessing Robertus Maximus' entry to Melbourne.
On the final Sydney to Melbourne leg of our journey, Maximus donned his
toga (toga melbournus) and walked reverently around the 767. Causing
surprisingly little commotion in steerage he visited business class -
interrupting many games of laptop solitaire. Leaving the plane with the
dignity of Agrippina carrying the ashes of Germanicus, he went on his
way to collect his luggage and to await the next exciting adventure.
The Melbourne Crew was:
bow: Andrew LaTreille (Latts)
2: Sam Golding
3: Jon Stone
4: Bill Peden (Tou-Tou)
5: Damian Barlow
6: Tom Paul (Mr Wide Eyes)
7: Robert Spinks (Robertus Maximus)
stroke: Stuart Peele (Mr Silent)
cox: Sam Pullin
reserve: Ben Cantwell (Mr Invisible)
coach: Paul Reedy (Mr Lucky)
manager: Phil Bell (Mr Hanky)