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Rowing in New Zealand

Page 4 – The world comes to Karāpiro

1950 Empire Games

Lake Karāpiro is an 8 sq km lake formed in 1947 after the completion of a hydroelectric dam on the Waikato River upstream from Cambridge. Its potential to become the best rowing venue in a country with few straight sheltered courses was soon recognised. (Since the 1980s Karāpiro has been complemented by another legacy of the heroic age of hydro construction, Lake Ruataniwha, near Twizel in the South Island. The national and secondary school championships now alternate between these two venues).

After the 1949 Dominion championships was successfully held there, Karāpiro was chosen as the site for the rowing events at the 1950 Empire Games – despite being 150 km from games headquarters in Auckland. The course was laid out at the western end of the lake, with the finish line 400 m from the dam.

Olympic medallist and former world professional champion Darcy Hadfield was a member of the sub-committee that organised the rowing events. Another former champion, Billy Webb, also went into camp at Karāpiro.

The Australasian and South African competitors arrived a fortnight before race day, and the English a week later. Athletes, officials and support staff bunked down in army huts.

Raceday was 6 February (Waitangi Day), a Monday and not then a public holiday. The first of more than 20,000 spectators arrived in the early hours of the morning to grab the best positions. This was the biggest crowd at the Empire Games apart from those for the athletics at Eden Park, Auckland. The average admission price was 6s (equivalent to $20 in 2010, the price of the cheapest tickets at that year’s world championships). A ‘natural grandstand’ had been improved by bulldozer to give everyone a good view over the course, and huge white marquees offered refreshments and shade. The temporary arrangements made for the press also ‘filled the bill’.

Only one of the 51 oarsmen who competed in the five events missed out on a medal: the New Zealander who came fourth in the single sculls. The most exciting race was the eight, in which Australia overtook New Zealand (represented by the West End crew from Auckland) to win by a foot. Australia also won the pairs and both the double and single sculls. New Zealand repeated its success at the first Empire Games in 1930 by triumphing in the coxed fours.

1978 World Championships

Rowing’s governing body is FISA (the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron). This was founded in Europe in 1892, but British Commonwealth countries did not join it until after the Second World War. The first world championship regatta was held in 1962. In 1976 New Zealand was awarded the seventh (the first in the southern hemisphere). European rowers were keen to visit the small distant country that had surprisingly won gold medals at both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. FISA president Thomas Keller also backed New Zealand’s bid.

The world championships – usually held at the end of the European summer – were scheduled for November 1978 in the hope of better weather. The organising committee was chaired by Don Rowlands, who had won the single sculls at the 1954 Empire Games before becoming a coach and then president of the New Zealand Rowing Association. Rowlands’ team had just two years to prepare. Donated kitset houses did duty as their offices.

The start and finish towers and a temporary scaffolding grandstand were built by volunteers. The wooden benches perched on top hosted dignitaries as eminent as Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and Governor-General Keith Holyoake. Everyone pitched in. Rowlands spoke at the closing ceremony with an arm in a sling after an accident with a winch – and his back ‘buggered’ from lifting boats with one arm. A marine engineer, he had also designed and helped build ‘the best starting pontoon system in the world’.

With fundraising a struggle, the Sunday News launched a public appeal that raised $3000 (equivalent to more than $200,000 in 2022). But after every seat in the ‘grandstand’ was eventually sold, the regatta made a profit of $155,000 (more than $1 million) which was used to set up a Rowing Foundation. A season ticket for the grandstand cost $26 ($180).

The army did the catering. The competitors ate vast amounts of meat in the 1000-seat restaurant, and the spectators drank impressive volumes of ‘ales and wines’. Thirty countries were represented – Rowlands’ offer to buy their boats after the event for resale to local clubs eased the burden of transport costs. Nearly 100,000 spectators attended the four days of racing. The 34,000 present on finals day went away happy after the New Zealand men’s eight came third in the last race, winning the host country’s only medals. Sporting powerhouse East Germany won 8 of the 13 events. Keller called it the greatest regatta in living memory.

How to cite this page

The world comes to Karāpiro, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated