George Hammond talks to Junior Rowing News

Junior Rowing News sat down with the Chairman of the National Schools’ Regatta, George Hammond, to discuss his personal take on the largest junior regatta in the world, his plans for expansion and his idea on where junior rowing needs development.

 

Last year’s regatta was a notable one for the move to Dorney. How happy were you with that transition?

It was somewhat stressful, but so far as the regatta was concerned it went well. I have to confess I used it to stretch the system a bit, event-wise, so have been a bit more conservative this year. However, people seemed to enjoy it.

 

Were there any new challenges that Dorney presents as opposed to Nottingham? Additionally, how do you mediate between the Northern clubs who want a more central location?

Dorney doesn’t have much of the infrastructure that Nottingham has, so a lot more preparation goes into making the regatta happen beforehand. That obviously means that more time is demanded of the volunteers, which I suppose is just one of those things.

In terms of Northern clubs, we’re trying to help. We’re working on an algorithm at the moment and want to financially help clubs who struggle with the costs of coming down to Dorney. Naturally though, a bit of financial help doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s going to take them twice as long to get here.

On the other hand, we’ve made it a lot easier for other schools. Crews from the West Country think it’s wonderful!

 

How much have you seen the event grow, particularly over the last ten years, and could you forecast growth in the next ten years?

The event has grown enormously to be fair – it’s virtually doubled in the past decade. When I take over as entries secretary in the late 1980’s, we had 200 entries and it was all over in just a day. Since then, we’ve peaked at Nottingham with just over 1500 entries. We’ve cut down events though, which hopefully means more people get more races.

In terms of growth, I’m not sure there is a finite limit. School entry hasn’t grown a great deal, but clubs have expanded hugely. Whether they’ve reached their limit, as obviously each club has a quota on how many athletes they can take, we shall see.

 

Picking up on that idea of club growth, is there any potential to expand the regatta to another day?

Well, it’s getting there! There’ll probably be a rebellion from my committee though. It’s also getting volunteers across the weekend – three days is tough, but you’d probably be asking too much to go across four. It is possible, but you need a lot of good will from helpers and volunteers.

 

In terms of the depth and breadth of entries into the regatta, there seems to be an increasing number of girls taking part. Do you see that eventually there will be an equal number of men’s and women’s events?

It’s a supply and demand type thing. We’re offering women’s events up to a point, but there’s no logic to staging a category for two people. It’s a conundrum that junior rowing can’t quite figure out; we get a huge number of J14 and J15 girls entered, but the drop-off after that is huge. It’s a real challenge for schools and clubs alike to keep them in the sport – that could be down to exams, other sports, vanity.

At senior level, the girls entries haven’t altered much – the increase has come in the younger years. At senior level, there seems to be an issue with competitiveness – the championship eights are always dominated by the same schools. It’s puzzling because they seem to leave the sport around the age of 16, before taking it up again at university.

 

That’s a good point as there are a certain number of schools and clubs which dominate the scene. Where is the incentive to row if you don’t compete for them?

Well, exactly. Henley is a case in point. They’ve got phenomenal depth and strength at J15 level, but don’t really have any senior girls. Theoretically, with the number of J15’s they have, they could have a couple of very competitive eights if they carried on.

 

The National Schools’ Regatta obviously has a number of funding programs. Would that drop-off be something you could explore? 

This year, we’ve given away the best part of £30,000. What we tend to do is wait for requests, usually from clubs starting up junior projects who need capital. We’re trying to focus on the poorer clubs to ensure they can compete at the highest level. All that money comes out of our shop profits – the regatta shop tends to be quite successful and that generates around £25,000-£30,000 a year which is pumped straight back into junior rowing.

 

Rowing is obviously built and maintained on the good will of volunteers. Why did you first take up the position on the National Schools’ committee?

Desmond Hill started the regatta and his son Jonathan and I were at school together. One day he asked me to come and lend a hand and I did for a few years. Then I got a call telling me they’d put me on the committee, and that’s sort of how things work!

To be honest, it’s good fun. We do it with friends, we go up there and enjoy it all. The thing with the National Schools’ is it’s very much family orientated – there’s that community environment which makes it more inclusive and far more enjoyable to work on.

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