The Rhine has a riddle for the rowers
International top rowers and their boats will be within almost touching distance for the spectators during the 6th Basel Head on the Rhine this Saturday, 14 November. And it looks like the “brook” will show a new aspect to both participants and organisers.
By Martin Pütter
As Halloween was only a few days ago, Martin Steiger is using a term difficult to translate to English: “The spook [meaning spectacle] will last an hour and a half”, says the joint president of the Basel Head organising committee. This Saturday (14 November), this against-the-clock race for eights will be held on a 6.4 km long stretch of the Rhine in Basel, with 86 boats from 9 countries. The start is at 2 p.m., the last boat will cross the finish line between Mittlere Brücke and Johanniterbrücke at 2.30 p.m.
This rowing “spectacle” is certainly quite popular; the organisers believe there will be again more than 10,000 spectators along the race course, between the start (and finish) line and the turn mark below Birsfelden hydro-electric power station – the aspect which makes this event so unique. “It’s the only major sport event in Basel that spectators can enjoy for free”, says Sabine Horvath, the other joint president of Basel Head. And if you believe the weather forecast, it is going to be a sunny race day.
Basel has enjoyed quite a lot of sunny and dry conditions over the last few weeks and months – as a consequence, the Rhine shows a new aspect that is a riddle to all the rowers. “The water level was never that low during previous races”, Steiger continues. At the monitoring station Rheinhalle, the Rhine currently flows at a speed of less than 500 m3 per second. The comparatively modest current may make it easy for the participants to row upstream along the right bank of the river, “but downstream the current is not as strong as it has been previously. It’s completely open whether we will have a new record for the course”, Steiger said at the press conference on Tuesday. The current record is 19 minutes and 00.86 seconds and was set a year ago by the winning French crew of Pôle France Aviron Nancy – and then the flow speed of the “brook”, as Baslers lovingly call the Rhine, was significantly higher than 500 m3 per second.
Within touching distance
Apart from the unique turn just below the power station, this race against the clock for eights – the fastest boats in rowing – has another aspect that makes it so attractive for the spectators. The boats fly past almost within touching distance – whether that is at Mittlere Brücke, where they pass below the first arch next to the Kleinbasel banks, or between Wettsteinbrücke and the Tinguely Museum, where so far most of the overtaking manoeuvres have taken place in the past. Going upstream, the boats try to keep the flow resistance as low as possible – the closer to the banks, the better. However, too close to the banks could lead to the oars scratching the gravel near the banks – as a consequence the coxes have to be at their most alert on the Rhine.
To do the importance of the turning point justice, the organisers will be introducing live commentary over the loudspeaker at this spot (apart from the commentary at the start and finish line) because “this 180 degree turns below the Birsfelden power station requires huge skill and can be a deciding factor who is going to win the race”, as the organisers wrote in the press release this week.
The participants are trying something new as well. The Swiss Rowing Association is sending three boast to this event – a men’s lightweight and heavyweight boat, plus a women’s eight. “Basel Head offers a welcome distraction from our winter training”, says Simon Niepmann who is a crew member of the lightweight eight. The Basler who this year became world champion with Switzerland’s lightweight coxless for, has one goal: “We finished third once, another time second with a Swiss eight – this time we want to win it.”
There are a few very hardy people living in Basel. No matter what the weather, no matter what temperature – they like to swim in the brook. The organisers have a special request for them: to make sure their swimming does not coincide with either training or the actual competition. They have sent the same request to anyone on the Rhine, with dinghy, canoe or kayak – and there will be no commercial shipping on the Rhine during those times, either.
Translated to English and proofread by Martin Pütter & Andi Curran