The minibus. A confined, restricted space. A meeting place of bodies and souls that generates an atmosphere like no other – it pervades all the senses. And smell more than any other. Removing yourself from its spell is difficult for young rowers looking forward with trepidation to their minibus trip. These days, journeys are marked by fingers moving across touch screens. But years ago they moved across guitar chords with the rest of the group singing songs about blond-haired, blue-eyed beauties and the like. It was also a chance to spend time with the driver. The man the rowing club had entrusted with their hopes, rowers and boats, in driving them to the regatta.
In my club, as in many others, this chap was almost always the coach. There were few resources available, and these men had so much enthusiasm and made so many sacrifices for our beloved sport. Back then, travelling in the minibus was magical. Events, misdeeds, ins and outs of races were relived in the coach’s stories. It was never boring, even if you’d heard it all before because they came from the heart. And we really listened. We were on the motorway going to Lake Varese. Bepi Altamura was in the driver’s seat. As night fell, the youngsters rested their arms on the backs of the front seats, so they could gather round him. At times, headlights lit up their faces, as if they had been suddenly illuminated by the flames of a fireplace. They were ready to listen. Bepi cleared his throat and, at the North Pescara motorway exit toll, he began his story.
“Since 1972, Lake Leman – also known as Lake Geneva – has hosted the world’s longest non-stop rowing competition on an enclosed lake. 160 kilometres. For safety reasons, it is restricted to twenty-five boats of various types. It means rowing for up to twenty hours and repeating the rowing movement at least 20,000 times! It is a mental and physical challenge that ultimately is won by the heart. In August 1982, I began training a crew selected for this endeavour which was to take place the following 2 and 3 October. It was a restricted Senior four crew, with five rowers who had already some experience of mid-distance racing. I discussed with them these past experiences, the difficult times that we’d encounter, how to deal with, manage and overcome the inevitable crises. It would be the first they would spend the night in a boat, in unforeseeable weather conditions, due to the changeability of weather in that region. In the 1977 and 1979 events, not one of the crews reached the finish and in 1976 none even started, because of the Lake’s tempestuous nature. I was taken aback at their reaction to this. They wanted to take with them four huge bags filled with 36 litre-and-a-half bottles of mineral water, 40 250-gram bars of chocolate and 6 kg of fresh fruit. I left them to it.
We arrived in Geneva by minibus on 1 October – the day before the race. The weather was autumnal. The sky was lead grey. Luckily, it wasn’t raining. Our accommodation had been arranged by the event organisers, and it was in a nuclear bunker. The prospect of being sent underground after the race wasn’t well received by the team. The 25 teams taking part in the 11th edition of the “Tour du lac” were lined up at 2pm on 2 October. Their objective was to return to their starting point, after circumnavigating the lake with the help of a compass and a map, as well as never losing sight of the occasional buoys positioned along the course. Jimmy, 22, was the largest in the crew and took charge of the flare gun – this was provided to signal an emergency. “I was scared most by the distance to be covered… and the bunker,” he said. “You won’t need the flare!” was my bold encouragement.
The restricted four’s start, with Massimo at stroke, was quite fast. Donato was the cox to begin with. The idea was that they would rest for one hour, after paddling for four hours, swapping rowers with the cox. It was an attractive prospect for all of them. It became the nearest objective to reach – distracting their minds from the overpowering thought of the long-distance – it made the final objective doable. Just for this reason, I formed the crew from five rowers. At 8pm – after six hours of rowing – the lads already had painful hands, even bleeding in some cases. The sliding seat stung, and the boat felt terribly heavy. They became aware of their two invisible enemies: tiredness and boredom. Night loomed, laden with mystery, it unsettled them. The growing wind whistled past their backs as they moved from one stroke to the next, making it all the more important to move the boat forwards. Some of the time, the rowers focussed on counting the number of strokes. It’s likely this nocturnal counting produced a soporific effect for ‘the Bull’. Noticing his weary breathing, Massimo turned and saw his woolly hat drooping down over his nose. The Bull was asleep, although still keeping perfect time with is crew mates! It’s true. You have to find the boat’s rhythm within yourself! In your soul. You shouldn’t need to watch, just feel it!
Restricted 4 that took part with their load of food and water. From the left: Donato D’Abbicco, Franco Piccolo, Antonio Formica (aka ‘the Bull’), Massimo Biondi, Michele Straziota (aka Jimmy)
It was a little after 2am. They were heading for sunrise, with another cox changeover. At this point the rowers sipped a little water. Added to their physical fatigue, there was the mental stress: “Who thought it was a good idea to bring all this stuff???” asked the stroke, rather put-out. He searched in vain for the guilty party responsible for the excess of food and drink on board. After a few reciprocal accusations and threats to retaliate on land, luckily harmony returned to the boat as it slid across the water, breaking the night’s silence. At about 4am, it was still dark. Because he’d studied the map well, Massimo was certain that the next buoy would indicate the start of the promenade along the lake front at Geneva. “Come on! Cox, count the last 120 strokes!!”. “Yes, of course. Let’s go! We’re nearly there. One, two, three …”, the Bull was the most determined but changed his mind as soon as he’d uttered the words. The buoy actually signalled the start of the promenthoux. There was still quite a distance to cover, thirty or even forty kilometres. That was more than three hours. The crew was in the grip of total agony. “Guys, we’re there! The Smurfs are there at the finish! They’re having a laugh with us! Bloody Smurfs!” Jimmy wasn’t joking, he’d completely lost it. “Smurfs?” Massimo was incredulous and turned round. He was worried. The others were tired, their minds were blurry but still lucid enough to see the paradox of this statement.
“There it is! What are you talking about?” (What? Are you being serious?) was the Bull’s challenging comment. “Yeees. That’s them. I can see them!” agreed Jimmy, at the mercy of his hallucinations. “Bull! Where did you buy the water?” Donato asked trying to defuse the atmosphere. They all smiled, except for Jimmy, who wasn’t with it enough to get the banter. The intense stress levels and lack of sleep were playing nasty tricks on them! “All right Jimmy, just row for now!” said Massimo, who was being prudent and reassuring without questioning these delirious misconceptions. For the last two kilometres, Donato was ready to give in. “Stop. Please, stop! I can’t bear the pain any longer! It’s got the better of me. I want it to go away,” he begged, breaking down in hysterics. When Massimo realised Donato had stopped rowing, he urged the crew on with his last scraps of energy, “No! Don’t stop! We’ll never start again. We have to go on. We have to do it!” He was resolved and convincing. Donato groaned as he joined in again. None of them had the energy to think and still less to suffer. But they still had the courage to believe in themselves, so they went up and down the slide transporting themselves away from their fear. “It’s over!!!” gasped Franco’s reedy voice. Yes, he was still there in the crew. He knew the race well, but he’d only learnt about the 160 km in Geneva from the posters.
At the start of the race and before his selective silence set in, he’d declared: “Why didn’t you tell me! I thought it was only 100k!” The restricted 4 from Bari rowing club, finished the race in 15 hours 59 minutes and 22 seconds, with destroyed bodies but fortified spirits. They were 18th in the finish order. In the sweep oar classification, they came second after a German boat that finished the course 15 minutes quicker. The difference was down to a navigation error made by the Bari crew in the last few kilometres. Possibly because of the Smurfs’ tricks. All the competitors were met by the organisers at the finish, whose job it was to help the ‘dead tired’ rowers from their boats, cover them with blankets and take them to the bunker for medical checks. Then sleep! A well-deserved rest!”. In the half-dark, the appeal of the story made the youngsters’ faces flushed, dumbstruck. Excitement grew from this silence. Bepi decided to stop at the next service area, near the exit for San Lazzaro, Bologna. He rolled down his window and lit a cigarette to enjoy the moment. Even today, he entrusts this story to his lads. Some of them have closed their eyes already – eager to dream.