When an army of rowers marched on water... | Sunday Observer

When an army of rowers marched on water...

4 July, 2021
1982 Sri Lanka Army Rowing Team (from left) Lt V Welikala, 1 CR, Major PMK Wickramaratne, SLASC, Major TD Rajapaksa, SLCMP, Major OKP Goonasekara SLAOC (Team Captain), Capt. PP Fernando 1CR, Absent – Lt N Fernando, 1CR
1982 Sri Lanka Army Rowing Team (from left) Lt V Welikala, 1 CR, Major PMK Wickramaratne, SLASC, Major TD Rajapaksa, SLCMP, Major OKP Goonasekara SLAOC (Team Captain), Capt. PP Fernando 1CR, Absent – Lt N Fernando, 1CR

Rowing has a long and storied history. It is a popular, competitive and recreational sport around the world. Whether on the water, in a boat, or on a rowing machine in a fitness centre, rowing has long been championed by physicians and fitness experts as an excellent means of developing physical conditioning.

Many sports scholars and fitness experts are knowledgeable about the physiological benefits of rowing and about how to design effective exercise programmes. Let’s see how rowing evolved over time and made its way into the Sri Lanka Army.

The origins of rowing can be traced to ancient Egypt, Greeks and Romans and in their usage, which was more utilitarian, although the sporting element has been present.

In the 13th century, Venetian festivals called Regata included boat races among others. Nowadays, rowing competitions are still called Regattas (with a second ‘t’ added).

The first known ‘modern’ rowing races began from competition among the professional watermen that provided ferry and taxi service on the River Thames in London.

Amateur competition in England began towards the end of the 18th century. Documentary evidence from this period is sparse, but it is known that the Monarch Boat Club of Eton College and the Isis Club of Westminster School were both in existence in the 1790s. The Star Club and Arrow Club in London for gentlemen amateurs were also in existence before 1800. At the University of Oxford bumping races were first organised in 1815 while at Cambridge the first recorded races were in 1827. The Boat Race between Oxford University and Cambridge University first took place in 1829 and was the second inter-collegiate sporting event (following the first Varsity cricket match by two years). The interest in the first Boat Race and subsequent matches led the town of Henley to begin hosting an annual regatta in 1839.

In America, there is also a sizable rowing community. Ports such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia required the building of many small rowing boats, and competition was inevitable. The first American race took place on the Schuylkill River in 1762 between 6-oared barges. As the sport gained popularity, clubs were formed and scullers began racing for prizes. Professionals were rowing against clubs and each other before the civil war. Races were often round trips to a stake and back, so that the start and finish could be watched.

The public flocked to such events, and rowing was as popular in America during the 19th century as other professional sports are today. In 1824, ferrymen from the Whitehall Landing at Manhattan’s Battery raced a crew from the British frigate HMS Hussar for $1,000. Thousands bet on the event and the Americans won. In 1838, six men formed the Narragansett Boat Club in Providence and today Narragansett Boat Club is the oldest rowing club, and the oldest athletic club in America. In 1843, the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University. The Harvard–Yale Regatta is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the United States having been contested every year since 1852 (except for occasional breaks due to major wars, such as World War II and the US Civil War).

The oldest inter-high school competition in the United States also occurred on the water, in the form of a race in six-man boats between two New England boarding schools: Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire and Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Massachusetts. The oldest continuous rowing club in America is the Narragansett Boat Club, in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1838.

FISA, the ‘Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron’ in French (or the English equivalent International Federation of Rowing Associations) was founded by representatives from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Adriatica (now a part of Italy) and Italy in Turin on June 25, 1892. It is the oldest international sports federation in the Olympic movement.

FISA first organised a European Rowing Championships in 1893. An annual World Rowing Championships was introduced in 1962. Rowing has also been conducted at the Olympic Games since 1900 (cancelled at the first modern Games in 1896 due to bad weather).

Strong rowing nations include Great Britain, the United States, Italy, Netherlands, France, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and Romania.

Turning to the history of the sport in Ceylon, the Colombo Rowing Club was founded in 1864 and has laid claims that it is the oldest club in our island nation. It was one of the most prestigious and active private-member clubs. A distinctive feature has been that while the club’s main sporting focus remained in rowing, social interaction and fellowship was also an important aspect. Membership of the club was predominantly made up of colonialists affiliated with the many government departments and plantations in the island. With Ceylon gaining independence in 1948 the club was opened up to more locals and over the years has extended all levels of support for the development of rowing.

In the 1960s there were only two schools that provided facilities to do rowing as a recognised sport and they were Royal College, Colombo and S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. According to the assessments made at the time, the first known oarsman that joined the Sri Lanka Army was Officer Cadet OKP Goonasekara in 1968 with Regular Intake 1 of Officer Cadets, to the newly formed Sri Lanka Military Academy. He studied at Royal College, was a coloursman in rowing, and captained the College team in 1967.

During these times all of the regular Army Units had shortages of manpower and other resources that they needed. Furthermore, the junior officer voice didn’t go far enough to make an impact especially for a project in terms of introducing a new sport in that environment. There was the interest to introduce the sport in the Army, but it was not the opportune time.

Colombo Rowing Club was the only facility available in the country for the sport of rowing and was a membership-fee charging private club. The other known entity that existed was the Government Services Rowing Club, to serve the government employees and the undergraduate students of the University of Ceylon, Colombo campus. That too was based on the Beira Lake and had closed its operations in the late 1960s.

Around 1972, Officer Cadet. Percy P. Fernando was the second oarsman, also from Royal College to join the Army. He too was a coloursman and captained the College team in 1971 and ‘72.

Time passed by until 1981, when Major OKP Goonasekara was selected by the Commander of the Army, Lt. General JED Perera to serve on his staff as the Logistics Staff Officer 2 (S&M) in the Logistics Branch, Army Headquarters, headed by the Director of Logistics, Brigadier PKB Pereira, who was also the Chairman, Army Sports Control Board. It now seemed a good time to initiate the conversation of forming the Army rowing team and the idea was discussed by Major OKP Goonasekara with Captain Percy P Fernando.

On a beautiful and sunny day, Major OKP Goonasekara together with Major PMK Wickramaratne, Logistics Staff Officer 2 (S&T), presented the formal proposal to introduce rowing as a recognised sport in the Army. The presentation focused on the main benefits of rowing, of improved fitness, total body workout, using all of the body’s major muscle groups (arms, legs, back, abdomen, and buttocks) making rowing a superb aerobic and resistance training conditioner with low impact on the joints. The proposal was officially accepted with a lot of enthusiasm by the Chairman, Army Sports Control Board. In the following days and weeks, details were worked out with Major. T.D. Rajapaksa, SLCMP, who was the Army Sports Officer, and formalities were finalised. Major. O.K.P. Goonasekara was appointed the Founding Chairman and captain of the team that comprised Major T.D. Rajapaksa, Major PMK Wickramaratne, Captain Percy P. Fernando, Lt. Nalin Fernando and Lt. Vijitha Welikala.

In the following months, action was initiated to import two boats, for which funds were allocated and Tender Board approval obtained to import them from Australia. The tender provided by a boat builder in Australia was selected for the reasons that Australia is a strong rowing nation in the world, the boat builder has been building rowing boats for a long time, their confirmation to build the boats to our own technical specifications, and their price being competitive. By the time the boats arrived, the packages were damaged at the port of Colombo, as a result of an unfortunate accident caused by a crane operator who unloaded a heavier package on top of the boat carrying packages. The damaged boats were later recovered and handed over to the Colombo Rowing Club, for them to refurbish and maintain them for the use of the Army.

The newly formed Army rowing team took part in its maiden regatta in 1982, at the Colombo Rowing Club (CRC), with a coxless pair comprising Major OKP Goonasekara (Bow) and Captain Percy Fernando (Stroke) to compete in the ‘Firms Pairs’ trophy. The race was contested among many teams fielded by banks, tea brokers, plantations and agency houses. This event was won by the Army, thereby creating history by annexing the first ever rowing trophy for the Army.

This win is recorded at the Colombo Rowing Club boat house for visitors to see on their Winner Board. It is very important to place on record that rowing practices on the water, fitness and stamina building training toward competition were taken seriously and a diligent effort made during extremely challenging times when the country’s armed services were stretched to the limit due to the civil war being initiated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The rowing Chairman’s next important task and legacy remained to make the sport accessible to many and provide a platform for those, who would be enthusiastic and passionate to showcase their hidden talents, potential and thereby develop the new sport in a robust manner. The biggest hurdle that stood in the way revolved around the subject of membership-fees that had to be paid to the only facility that was available in the country. The options in terms of solving this issue seemed to work towards starting our own boat club in a central location or to encourage all three Armed Services to join hands, pool their collective resources and operate at a central location. This matter was to be carefully studied, discussed and resolved.

(Note: Major OKP Goonasekara was the first known oarsman that joined the Army. He spearheaded the effort and the activities that led to introducing rowing as a recognised sport in the Army in 1982. He was appointed the Founder Chairman and captain of the Army rowing team that took part in its maiden Regatta at the Colombo Rowing Club and won its first ever rowing trophy for the Army. OKP Goonasekara started rowing at Royal College in 1965, won his College rowing colours in 1966 and ‘67 and captained the College rowing team in 1967. He joined the Army in 1968 as an Officer Cadet with the Regular Force Intake 1 at the newly formed Sri Lanka Military Academy)