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Wanganui Rowing Community - Resiliant and Passionate

  • 09 Mar 16

On 20 June 2015 the vibrant Whanganui rowing community was left devastated following the worst floods to ever sweep through the city. Steve Landells talks to Wanganui Rowing Association vice-president Bob Evans to found out how they have bounced back in the wake of the disaster.

It says much about the resilience and passion of the Whanganui rowing community that life on the water has once again returned to relative normality.

The city’s three clubs - Aramoho Wanganui Rowing Club (AWRC), Wanganui Collegiate School Rowing Club and Union Boat Club – are currently all in the midst of a busy summer campaign. Regattas are being staged and the Whanganui River is once again a hub of activity for the city's rowers.

Just six months ago it was a very different story as the city was hit by an unprecedented flood after one month's worth of rain fell in 24 hours. More than 100 households were evacuated as the Whanganui River burst its banks and the rowing clubs were left exposed and unprepared for the devastation that followed.

Vice-president of the Wanganui Rowing Association and Union Boat Club member Bob Evans recalls the feeling of helplessness he experienced during the floods when the pontoon bridging structure became detached from the jetty and drifted downstream.

“That is the moment when you realise there is nothing you can do,” he adds. “You just hope there is going to be something left of the club when you return.”

The full horror of the damage sustained by the three clubs was revealed in the cold light of day. The two Union Boat Club buildings were flooded to a depth of 1.2m. Besides the pontoon bridging structure breaking off and the pontoon being holed, in the main building wall linings and panelling needed to be removed and replaced and the club faced a bill of about $50,000 to repair the damage. Given the cost of insurance the club had elected not to insure either the pontoon or the gym buildings, and apart from a $2000 grant from council has had to fund repairs in those two areas itself.

The lower floor of the Aramoho Wanganui club shed had been completely submerged and silt and water levels had reached knee-high on the second storey, flooding the gym, club lounge and other amenities. The main pontoon cracked and broke way and the club’s ergometers, gym equipment, kitchens, bathrooms, soft furnishings, carpets and coaching equipment were damaged beyond repair.

Wanganui Collegiate School Rowing Club suffered major damage to its boats. Ten were damaged beyond repair, six more required repair-work and one coach boat and all the coaching electronics were destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, the Whanganui River winter series of regattas were immediately cancelled in the wake of the flood but the rowing community rallied to the cause. At Union Boat Club working bees were arranged every Saturday and Sunday for the first four weekends following the flood.

“It was great to see, and even people who weren’t involved in rowing turned up with shovels and spades at the boat shed to help out,” adds Evans, who is also a board member of Rowing NZ.

The cleaning-up process was long as the wall linings and ground floor needed to be stripped and sanitised at Union. The re-establishment of the boat shed could only begin in August, yet on the water activity with the masters rowers tentatively began the preceding month.

Slowly life has returned to normal.

“Compared to other floods it has taken a lot longer, but the positives are that lots of people stepped forward to assist, so the flood has had some unifying effects,” adds Evans.

The Wanganui Rowing Association also owns facilities on the river-bank that were inundated in the flood. Repairs were quoted at $27,000. So in addition to refurbishing their own clubs, the members have also spent time in cleaning out and restoring the association’s facilities. In October the Wanganui Rowing Association staged its first post-flood regatta, “a really neat” memory according to Evans. Yet he is insistent the WRA and its member clubs must be better prepared in the future [IC1] . Global warming is a reality and future floods are inevitable.

“We have already spoken about having better plans in place by future floods to minimise our losses,” he explains. “Are there better plans for housing boats in the shed? Can we build with materials more resistant to water and line the walls with materials that can be removed more easily to be washed out?

“I do worry about whether staying on the river-bank is sustainable long-term,” adds Evans, who says a group has been formed to look into the prospect of a shared water sport facility in future.

“It is now no use us planning for the next four or five years. We need to plan and mitigate for the next 20–25 years.”

Wanganui Collegiate Rowing Club

With a 12m-high flood predicted, Wanganui Collegiate Rowing Club manager Gus Scott calculated the water might reach floor level in the boatshed. But after discovering water levels were already over the concrete some five or six hours earlier than predicted following his arrival on the morning of 20 June “it was pretty obvious things weren’t right.”

Scott, a conscientious and passionate rowing man, along with a team of club members and their parents, emptied out one layer of boats. Then, already wading in knee-deep water, he locked up and waited helplessly.

Some 36 hours later he returned only to find a whole level of boats twisted and cracked and full of silt. Ten has to be written off and a further six needed to be repaired.

“I was absolutely devastated,” he explains. “I’m an absolute fanatic about my boats. It was really depressing seeing them broken in two feet of mud – it almost made me want to cry.”

Yet the 76-member club rallied to support. Even the local air force fire brigade pitched in to help out.

It was the club’s good fortune that as rowing is a summer sport at Wanganui Collegiate School the flood did not disrupt the season.

“Other than having to share boats, it hasn’t impacted too much,” he says. “The floods have been manageable for Collegiate.”

Aramoho Wanganui

Of the city’s three clubs it was Aramoho Wanganui Rowing Club that suffered the greatest damage to facilities.

For club committee member Annie Pawson, who was flooded in due to road closures, her first reaction was one of “disbelief” when she viewed images on Facebook. “Water had never reached the top storey before. I was gutted for everyone involved at the club,” adds Annie.

Although the final figure has not yet been determined, the cost of reinstating the club will be in the hundreds of thousands.

In the wake of the flood a “Give a Little” page was launched to try and meet the $25,000 needed to cover the insurance excess for the building. It has so far raised around $9500. Past and current members, various rowing clubs, local businesses and the general public have all donated either to the page or directly to Aramoho Wanganui Rowing Club.

The clean-up operation has proved a demanding and ongoing task. Even today the silt keeps returning. However, the deep bond and camaraderie between members has been a striking element to life at the club post-20 June.

“The culture of the club is to do things together as a team and we engender a sense of ownership and a sense of family,” Annie explains.

The priority was to get the rowing skiffs, coach boats and safety gear repaired or replaced, ready for the new season. Replacement ergs and the reinstatement of the gym has taken place and normality is slowly returning. The shed is “not as grand as it used to be” but they are “a functioning club” once again.

“I’m just so proud that so many rowers are back at the club and we have had a huge intake of novice rowers again this season,” she adds.