The performance of the Jeppe rowing team at the SA Schools Championships in March was the best by the school in many years. Overall, they finished in fourth place in the boys team competition, the best of any state school. They ended up seven points behind St John’s and 14 behind St Stithians with St Benedict’s, as usual, well ahead of the pack.
Jeppe crews made it into 17 A finals – the races in which points are scored – and won seven medals. The first eight was one of the boats that made their final. They won their heat and finished fourth in the final, missing out on a medal by a narrow margin. It was an impressive performance and the school and the rowing community, including old boys who were oarsmen in their time, were rightfully proud of them. One of those old boys, Greg le Roux, dug a little deeper and was amazed to find out that the 1st eight had earned their fourth place in a borrowed boat, one that they only had a day to practice in.
“The school’s eight is quite old,” I learnt, “and we would not have been competitive in it,” Greg said. “The obvious question was, could we not have done even better if we had our own, modern boat?”
Greg spoke to another old boy, Chris Midlane and was told that the entire Jeppe fleet needed upgrading but there were no funds for that and earlier fund-raising efforts were not successful. “We started what we called the 88 Club last year to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the club,” Chris said, “but things were going slowly. Greg and I decided that we needed to make a new, concerted effort and so we started the Boats and Blades trust, aimed at supporting Jeppe rowing financially, starting with raising funds to buy a new eight.”
They decided to formalise things and create a properly constituted trust, so they got Jeppe old boy Graham Carrington, a lawyer, to draw up a constitution with Graham himself, Greg and Chris, Mr Gittins representing the school and Michelle Kirby, a rowing mother, representing the current rowing fraternity, as trustees.
“Chris was very much our ideas man, and he came up with all sorts of initiatives to raise funds,” Greg said. “We auctioned items of Olympic kit that belonged to Peter Lambert, a Jeppe old boy; sold merchandise; and raffled items. In addition to that there were lot of generous donations from old boys, parents and others connected with the school.”
The bottom line was that the R500 000 was collected and the boat was ordered. It will arrive shortly before Christmas and be unveiled early in the new year. “We were worried about the effects of the pandemic, but it actually helped in that we had time to focus on this and to come up with ideas that worked,” Chris said.
The boat is a Swift Full Carbon Upgrade. It’s a state-of-the-art design incorporating the same technology as the boats used in the Olympics. It will be the most competitive boat on the water in SA schools rowing next year. In keeping with the tradition of naming Jeppe boats after swords, the addition will be christened Damascus. Damascus steel was famous for its strength and flexibility. “Damascus steel is forged in layers, with various other alloys to make it unique,” Chris said. “It’s a fitting name, reflecting the many different people pitching in the fund the boat.”
Boats and Blades will continue its work, and aims to upgrade the entire Jeppe fleet of boats with time. “We also want to contribute to transforming the club through bursaries for rowers from underprivileged backgrounds,” Chris said. “Jeppe has made a significant contribution to diversity and we want to continue that.”
The project has brought the rowing community together and it has resulted in a unified club, which is good for the future of rowing at the school, Chris said.
Michelle explained that the plan is to unveil and christen the new boat at the school on 28th January next year. “That’s two days before the VLC Regatta where it will be seen in competitive action for the first time, although we will have been training in it before then.”