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 center.
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 purposes.
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 Cambridge.
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 path.
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 ours.
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 uncharacteristic elan.
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)