The dark waters of the Huon River flow from deep in the Tasmanian wilderness, beneath the bridge at Huonville and past the river town of Franklin. There, near the boat-building sheds of the Wooden Boat Centre and The Living Boat Trust, you can often see an all-female crew of world-beating athletes training on the river, propelling a graceful craft named Imagine with long, powerful strokes, rowing in perfect unison as they strive towards more success in the sport of international St Ayles skiff racing.
The five women in The Castle Forbes Bay Crew, all in their late fifties, are cox Barbara Dawson and rowers Claire Tierney, Karen Corbin, Carolyn Booker and Toni Wilson. They started rowing together for recreation and fitness in 2014 and soon began competitive racing their St Ayles skiff in local and national regattas. These 22-foot timber boats are modelled on traditional Scottish craft used for fishing and recreation around the Scottish Isles.
Stroke of the crew Claire Tierney explained that the St Ayles skiff is a stable and forgiving boat, making them perfect for community use.
“Our skiff lets us experience the joy of rowing on this amazing waterway in all seasons and conditions,” Claire said.
Imagine, the first skiff launched on the Huon River, was built by another group of passionate women at the Living Boat Trust, under the guidance of shipwright Peter Laidlaw and funded by a women’s health grant. The boat-builders became known as WOW – Women On Water. The Living Boat Trust was founded in 1998 and is dedicated to keeping Tasmania’s marine heritage alive.
The Castle Forbes Bay Crew found a dedicated coach in Tim who harnessed their skills and dedication, helping to mould them into a team that was ready to race on an international stage.
“Tim really made us much more competitive,” Claire said. “We needed to be pushed and he made us a very disciplined and skilful crew.”
Two of Tim’s favourite catch-phrases (which the women like to announce in chorus!) were ‘No-one ever died from pain’ and ‘If you’re talking, you’re not rowing hard enough.’
The crew first raced internationally at the SkiffieWorldscompetition in Northern Ireland in 2016.
“We were really keen to put a good show in Scotland against some serious competition,” Claire said. “The Dutch were very tall and lean and some of the Scottish girls had huge biceps – they’d polish off a few beers and a large bucket of hot chips before the race!”
The Tasmanian women raced against 45 other crews in their age group. In the final, 15 boats lined up across Strangford Lough and they came a very pleasing seventh overall. They also competed in the SkiffieWorlds in Scotland in 2019, coming tenth out of 56 teams.
In 2020, Covid 19 restrictions saw ‘virtual racing’ using an app-based time trial. The race was held on the fiercely competitive eight-kilometre Castle to Crane course in Glasgow. International crews raced against the clock on their own waterways.
“We competed on the Huon River with two other local crews,” the crew’s cox Barbara Dawson said. “We sent off our time of 53.27 in the 50 years + women’s class and were excited to learn that we had won the event!” The Five Mile Crew, also from the Huon, came first in the St Ayles skiff open competition.
The Huon River and its surroundings are scenic and spectacular in every season.
“Some days its mirror-calm and you think how lucky are we to be living here,” Claire said. “Then the wind can come up and we can be nearly surfing with the breeze behind us.”
Barbara’s memory of their roughest day on the water was competing at the Whangaparaoa Peninsula near Auckland in New Zealand, when huge swells were crashing into the boat.
But it’s not all hard work and wild weather, by contrast, Carolyn Booker said that they loved their annual Easter voyage, packing a picnic of hot cross buns, chocolate and bubbles, then joining other local craft on the short crossing from Franklin to the canal in the Egg Islands Reserve in the middle of the Huon River.
At 174 kilometres in length, the Huon River is the fifth-longest in the state, with its course flowing east through the fertile Huon Valley and emptying into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
“Some days, huge amounts of tannin-stained water flow down the river,” Toni Wilson said. “Heading upstream is like rowing in concrete!”
Toni Wilson explained that she was a little flat after her children left the nest.
“I had worked 24/7 in my own business,” she said. “I used to play golf but I was bored until I was invited to join the crew by my friend Claire. My physical and mental health improved significantly and I got to travel to Scotland, Hong Kong, the Outer Hebrides, Ireland, and New Zealand. Discovering St Ayles skiff rowing came at the perfect time for me.”