By the time racing at Maadi comes around later this month, the racks at Lake Karāpiro will be groaning with the weight of boats in every size, shape, age, and colour. 

Each rower hoping their boat will add some special speed as they aim for their best performance of the season when it matters most.

And then there are the boat’s names. ‘Ex Animo’ (from the heart), ‘Father John’, ‘Ad Surgo’ (to soar), ‘Brother Terence’, ‘Lesley Milne’, ‘Michael Brake’, ‘Juliette Haigh’, ‘Skate Millar’, ‘Dimity’. All names with special meaning to their crews.

And as two Auckland schools showed at the recent Head of Harbour regatta, sometimes the name of a boat can bring out the best in a crew.

For sibling schools Sacred Heart College and Baradene College of the Sacred Heart it turned into a monumental weekend, both their U18 eights getting gold at the famous regatta which has been held since 1937.

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Since that time, the area around venue Lake Pupuke has become more built up. With more traffic, more competition to book the lake on a Saturday in summer and more resistance from residents to the noise and congestion. And let’s be honest, the weather doesn’t always play its part.

So it almost seems like a miracle, considering recent rain events, that by the time the U18 eights hit the water for the final two races at Pupuke there was only a “light-ish” tail breeze and the famous bank at Sylvan Park was soaked in sunshine.

Baradene walked their boat down to the dock in the late afternoon motivated by a special spirit at the school. They only launched it in November and while they’ve boated it a few times, they’d never had the chance to race it in front of the woman whose name is scrolled in beautiful cursive writing on the bow.

Up on the hill by the finish line, Sister Anne de Stacpoole was perched eagerly on a deck chair, watching on.

The Baradene U18 eight at work in the Head of the Harbour race. Photo: Conrad Blind/ Picture Show Ltd

She joined the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1948 and six years later went to the convent on the site of the college where she’s been a huge part of school life ever since.

At 94, she still hits the exercycle and swims at the school’s outdoor pool. She rates the rowers – for their discipline and dedication. Being a sports nut herself also helps.

“Sister Anne watches the girls train after school and always has an interest in what they are training for. She’s always keen to know the outcome,” says Baradene principal Sandy Pasley.

The outcome can often be a bit sketchy at Pupuke, the finish line is a bit unclear and there are no individual lane markers. It’s a mad 900m dash to a line you can visualise but can’t really see.

It’s a great visual spectacle for the crowd though; they can see down to the start and it’s not too hard to follow the race for the short few minutes.

But in the girls’ eight, identifying separation was a bit trickier, with Baradene and Westlake Girls’ going bow to bow from start to finish.

Here’s how stroke Emma Gerrand and cox Natalie Salmon remember it on ‘Sister Anne’:

Salmon: “It was amazing that wind we did, it was like the last 300 metres. [From the video] it looks like we took them in three strokes.”

Gerrand: “We got off the water thinking [there was] a smidgeon of hope, like ‘Did we take them?’ But then they were celebrating. We were like, ‘Oh, we got taken, we got second’.”

It took a few minutes after they got off the water before the official result came through.

The girls U18 eight race in the 2023 Head of Harbour regatta

Gerrand: “As we’re putting the boat away, Mike [coach Mike Burrell] was like sprinting, and holding up just one finger and it was just like ‘The hit, like we did it finally’.

“So, we put the boat down and sprinted to Sister Anne and all gave her hugs, and she was a little overwhelmed.”

Salmon: “But she was so happy. And we knew we’d done something for her.”

Last weekend, they finished third in the U18 eight at the North Island secondary schools championships, and they’ll be taking Sister Anne (the boat) – and the spirit of her namesake – to the Maadi Cup, starting March 27.  

Schools’ boats racked up at Lake Karāpiro before a Maadi Cup regatta. Photo: Art of Rowing 

The same year Sister Anne was joining the order in 1948, Sacred Heart boys were cementing their place in schools rowing history, winning the esteemed Maadi Cup/Head of Harbour double.

No one was surprised to see Sacred win the U18 four at Head of Harbour this year – they are one of the Springbok Shield favourites for Maadi. But it’s been a long time since that last Head of Harbour win in the eight of ’48.

“Seventy-five years and we haven’t had one eight that can just beat eight other crews, seven other crews,” says U18 eight cox Jacob Avery. “And then for us to come along in a makeup boat and just win it is quite crazy.”

The crew included one novice rower and they’d never rowed the boat together before. “Our coaches, Brent [Leach] and Mike [O’Brien] come up to us and they’re like ‘This is probably the last time some of you guys are gonna run that 18 eight except for like maybe one or two of you.’ And so we took that to heart.”

Avery took the boys through a few practice starts which he reckons were pretty scratchy, and then they got in the blocks in their boat ‘Chris Klaassen’.

“We did our race start, and that was probably the best we’ve ever done,” he says. “Like, maybe 10 strokes I’m on [Auckland] Grammar’s bow ball and in [another] 10 strokes I was on King’s [College] two seat. It was just an unbelievable race, really.”

The Sacred Heart boys U18 eight after winning the Head of the Harbour for the first time since 1948. Photo: supplied. 

Like the girls’ race, Sacred weren’t totally sure they’d pulled it off either.

“We’d crossed the finish, but I wasn’t sure, I started second guessing myself because I heard a buzzer and I was like, ‘Maybe that’s my mind playing tricks on me’. So we just kept going and then once we saw King’s and Grammar stop, we just started splashing around.”

Sacred Heart couldn’t repeat their win in the eight at the North Islands, but they did pick up five other gold medals in the Under 18 division.

Chris Klaassen started rowing at Sacred Heart in 1973. He’s been involved with the school’s rowing programme in some shape or form ever since. What better way to celebrate 50 years, than by having the boat named after you get the win after such a long time.

Whether Sacred boats the ‘Chris Klaassen’ in the 18 eight at Maadi is anyone’s guess. But it will definitely be on the racks at Karāpiro at the end of March. Just like the hundreds of other boats waiting for another crew to add something new to the story of a boat and the name behind it.   

* This story is published with permission from Rowing NZ.

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.

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