WEHoRR – Guin Batten on making tough decisions
The cancellation of the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (WEHoRR) this weekend was inevitably disappointing. All the preparation and anticipation came to nought after the prediction of high winds for Saturday forced the organisers to finally cancel the event on Friday evening. Saturday morning we awoke to images of a flat Tideway on social media with thinly veiled criticism of the decision. By midday however, it was clear even to the naysayers on home waters, that the right call had been made.
Guin Batten, WEHoRR Chairwoman is no stranger to strong winds having rowed the Atlantic in a Force 11 gale. She sits at the head of a formidable and experienced volunteer event committee and is acutely aware of the duty of care they hold towards the nearly 3,000 athletes competing in the event.
As anyone who has raced a Tideway head will attest, it’s a large expanse of turbulent and often unpredictable water. The obvious dangers range from the wind blowing 320 closely marshalled crews on top of each other to multiple sinkings overwhelming limited safety boats.
Consider also the fate of the young Irish sculler Amy Mulcahy of Athlunkard Boat Club who is still in hospital three weeks after getting her hair caught in the riggers when her quad capsized in February. It’s also worth flagging the extraordinary number of crews who hit bridges, banks and other boats (despite a massively extended timing gap) at BUCS head on the Gloucester canal two weeks ago.
WEHoRR chairwoman Guin Batten
“Event organisers are highly exposed,” says Batten. “British Rowing has a fundamental role and has a safety management system in operation for the sport. The first line of the Row Safe document states “Everyone involved in rowing is expected to ensure their actions or lack of action do not compromise the safety of themselves or others”. Liability is massive and every event has to have insurance, a safety adviser to advise the committee and a risk assessment plan as well as a raft of documents setting out how the event is to be run.”
“The WEHoRR committee meets once a year before Christmas to prepare and review all our safety documentation. We then meet with the Tideway Heads Group, the RNLI, the Port of London Authority (PLA) and we pool all our knowledge so that we are aligned in our thinking. One month before the race we submit our safety plan to the PLA and to the British Rowing regional safety adviser, Tony Reynolds”.
The Committee has to sign an agreement with the PLA confirming that they take full responsibility for everything that happens on the river. Quite an undertaking for a group of volunteers, especially when you consider the many factors outside of the organisers’ control that could happen on the river, despite it being closed for the event.
“In the lead-up to the race, the Weather Team of the Committee will feed any concerns into the Silver Command (made up of the Chief Marshal, the Chief Umpire and the Safety Officer) and myself. I was looking at 5 weather models during the week and by Monday last week we were regularly briefing Silver Command, the Entry Secretary and the Communications Secretary.”
“In the week of the race, the Weather Team were communicating twice a day and would agree on what aspect of the weather patterns it was appropriate to track. They would set update points during the day at which time they would update the plan, get the update signed off by the Committee and communicated out.” Batten is immensely proud of their communication structure and says, “Communication is vital because there are lots of people making lots of decisions.”
Because of the detailed nature of the Risk Assessment document, the Committee is bound to follow the terms of that document. “If we don’t do what we say we’re going to do in our paperwork and something goes wrong the PLA will want to know why. There’s no reacting from the hips here, this is really quite good, quality decision making in a really controlled environment. So when people say there’s the pressure to go out and race, I never felt any pressure to run the race, the pressure was to make a really good, non-emotional decision that would protect everybody.”
“The funniest thing is that the easiest thing to do is cancel. But it would have taken one person to have had a heart attack or an epileptic fit that we couldn’t have predicted that would have put us in a beyond-safe position and you always need to have a little bit of a safety margin. One little incident, not a problem; two little incidents, pretty serious; three incidents and we’re in a life or death situation.”
Many crews already in London were able to disperse to private matches elsewhere. Oxford Brookes hosted the Chinese national team and Newcastle University back at Wallingford. Meanwhile, the committee and volunteers were left to clear up from the party that never was, including re-distributing 170 pre-prepared volunteer meals, to the Whitechapel Mission.