Kōrero: Rowing

Whārangi 3. Competitive rowing in New Zealand

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Regional Performance Centres

Four Regional Performance Centres (RPCs) set up in 2005 supplement the national training academy at Lake Karāpiro, a $4.3-million high-performance facility opened in 2009. Of the 72 men and 49 women who attended these centres in 2009, 33 were chosen for the summer elite squad and 25 made it to the world championships.

With the RPCs dominating the annual national championships, these attracted fewer competitors, and clubs focused more on social and school rowers. In 2013 there were 10 local associations with 62 affiliated clubs, of which nine were schools. As with many sports, the focus on high performance risked alienating the volunteer base.

The toughest sport?

Is rowing the most gruelling sport? The huge amount of training can lead to rib stress fractures, and vomiting from exhaustion during races is not unknown. Cycling is perhaps the best comparison, but Hamish Bond, double world and Olympic rowing champion, said after competing in the Tour of Southland in 2009 that while the week-long cycle race knocked his legs about, rowing strained his whole body. Olympic champion Sonia Waddell said that in the last part of a race the body is in such pain that to keep going ‘you’re entirely brainwashing yourself.’1

Waikato club stalwart Chris White won a record 38 national titles. He also rowed for New Zealand crews from 1981 to 1996. Waikato won the national eights title 16 years in a row. Caroline Evers-Swindell has won the most women’s national titles – 33.


Rowing training and competition can be disrupted when strong winds whip up waves or favour crews on one side of the course. Early regattas were raced on harbours (such as Auckland and Lyttelton) and lakes (such as Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore), and along relatively straight stretches of river (such as the lower Whanganui). The latter could be improved: Christchurch’s lower Avon was widened in 1950 to provide better rowing conditions, forming Kerr’s Reach.

Even more suitable – though still exposed to wind and weather, and remote from population centres – are the artificial lakes created for hydroelectric projects. In the 2000s the national and secondary school championships were held alternately at Lake Karāpiro, on the Waikato River upstream from Cambridge, and Lake Ruataniwha, near Twizel in the Mackenzie Country. New Zealand has no purpose-built courses like those now required for the Olympic Games.

Women rowers

Women occasionally raced each other in whaleboats in the 19th century, and there was usually a race for women at regattas in the late 19th century, but rowing was essentially an all-male sport until the interwar period, when the Whanganui club was one that accepted women rowers. The first women’s title at a national championship was contested in 1967. A women’s association formed in 1966 merged with the men’s in 1974, when about 100 women rowed and there was one women’s club, Auckland University. In 2008–9 there were just over 2,000 competitive rowers of each sex, more than 75% of them under 18.

A niche sport

A 1924 survey by the Census and Statistics Office found that New Zealand had approximately 2,400 male rowers, organised in 50 clubs. A year later there were 1,916. Rowing was the 12th-most popular sport. In the early 1960s there were about 1,500 active adult rowers. In the 2000s fewer than 1% of adults took part in rowing in a typical year, and the number of adult club members was about 1,000; some 3,000 teenagers rowed for schools. With so few participants, New Zealand’s international success has been astonishing.

Age-group rowing

Boys at Wanganui Collegiate took up rowing in 1885, and the first inter-school race was rowed on Wellington Harbour in 1889. Quadrangular tournaments involving Wanganui Collegiate, Christ’s College, Christchurch Boys’ High School and Waitaki Boys’ High School were held before and after the First World War. Regional schools’ associations were formed from the 1930s.

School rowing flourished after the Maadi Cup (won by the New Zealand army eight in Egypt) was donated for competition between eight-oared crews in 1947. Since 1965 the Springbok Shield has been contested by fours. The first girls’ race at a Maadi Cup regatta was rowed in 1973. The week-long regatta is said to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere. In 2009, 1,864 rowers from 106 schools took part.

A championship meeting is run annually by University Rowing NZ. Representative crews compete in world university championships. Nathan Cohen won New Zealand’s first gold medal at a world university championships in 2006. Masters championships for rowers aged 27 and over are held annually.


Māori rowed whaling boats, and staged impromptu races with whalers, from the early 19th century. Colonists’ regattas often included waka races, but few (if any) Māori joined rowing clubs.

John (Hoani) MacDonald of Rangitāne won gold in the fours and silver in the eights at the 1930 Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was a member of the eight which finished fourth at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, in which he was New Zealand’s flagbearer. In 2012 he was the only rower to have been inducted into Te Whare Mātāpuna o Te Ao Māori / the Maori Sports Hall of Fame. Recent prominent Māori rowers include Ngāi Tahu brothers Storm and Jade Uru, Whanganui rower Paparangi Hipango and Nikki-Lee Crawford (Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāti Apa).

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Peter Bidwell, Reflections of gold: a celebration of New Zealand rowing. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 9. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

David Green, 'Rowing - Competitive rowing in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rowing/page-3 (accessed 22 June 2024)

He kōrero nā David Green, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 19 Sep 2016