Going for Gold in Avondale
By John Subritzky
Tucked away at the end of a no exit street, down a secluded driveway on Rosebank Peninsula, is a hidden treasure house that produces gold. To get there, you have to navigate through industrial streets where local recreation often involves doing burnouts to the sounds of boom boxes.
But down that secluded driveway is recreation and sports of an entirely different kind. That almost mythical place is the West End Rowing Club (WERC). They came here in 2000, in search of one of the few stretches of water in Auckland that is suitable for rowing.
The Whau river was an important route for waka on the portage between the Waitematā and Manukau harbours. Early European settlers used it as a heavy transport route to move bricks and pottery products from New Lynn and Avondale to the city. Then, in the 1930s, crowds gathered for rowing and powerboat events. Today, WERC is the only regular organised water user of the Whau River.
Saunders Reserve is the fourth base in the Club’s 137-year history. They moved here from Westhaven as the growing marina restricted the training area available. As one of a handful of rowing clubs in Auckland, they attract members from across the city. Training is usually done in the early morning - around dawn in winter. Like any sport at elite level, training in the gym and on the water is not for the faint hearted.
Mahé Drysdale represented NZ in his 21-year rowing career. Mahé says, “The medals are a bonus, but rowing has provided me so much more over the years. It was West End Rowing Club that got me off the couch and started me in this wonderful sport. The club have supported me my whole career and given me lifelong friends”.
WERC’s Stephen Jones has been selected to compete in the Men’s 2 at the Tokyo Olympics this year, while former member Charlotte Buck has been selected for the USA Olympic Women’s 8+.
It all starts with 17-24-year-olds being introduced to rowing through the Club’s ‘Learn to Row’ program.
WERC has established a novice and intermediate club program this year and it is being run by coach Hasan Pathan. At just 19, Hasan is already a familiar face at WERC having served the last two years as an assistant coach at Mt Albert Grammar School, coaching their U15s and U16s.
Hasan says, “I'm a strong, practicing Muslim, born and raised in NZ with ethnic Indian heritage. I'm very fond of where I come from, being able to converse in four tongues and really embrace my identity/religious roots. Getting into the sport of rowing was a complete accident. Following the stereotypes, I accidentally went to the wrong sport academy signup area at Mt Albert Grammar School… was meant to go to cricket academy but walked into the rowing one instead. From that point on rowing has been such a positive influence in my life.
“Being a person of colour coming into a rowing environment which is traditionally white dominant, you'd expect colour to play a part in how successful you are. Flat out wrong. Hard work determines how successful you are, and I could truly thrive in that environment. Leading on to this I rowed for a year and a half, then coxed for another year and a half.”
In the last few years WERC has faced challenges from some locals who are opposed to the renewal of their lease at Saunders Reserve. Like hundreds of other sports clubs and organisations, WERC has a lease on public land for their clubrooms. Councils have traditionally granted these leases in recognition of the work the clubs do to promote active lifestyles.
Whau Local Board (WLB) had a public hearing on 30 June to hear submissions. Donna Cooper for Auckland Council summarised the situation and answered questions from board members. Catherine Farmer asked several questions until eventually Susan Zhu objected. Chair Kay Thomas moved the proceedings on, saying that the issue of the lease would be covered in submissions. The rift between other board members and Farmer was more evident than usual.
Three objectors appeared in person. Steve Bradley said he was an experienced boatie and asked about public access and signage. He did bring some humour to the room when he misspoke about bollards, calling them ‘bollocks’. His suggestion was 5-year renewals for the Club and the progressive conversion of the clubrooms into a public facility.
Jenny Pullar submitted that the reserve space is dominated by the Club, and it does not adequately serve local people. Zhu asked if by that logic, when she goes to a sports club outside of Avondale, whether she should be excluded for not being local? When Pullar was asked by Fasitua Amosa what her dream vision of the reserve space is, Pullar said she would go back to 2000 with no club building.
Robin Brehmer gave her conservation credentials and questions WERC’s commitment to the environment. Like others, Brehmer was concerned about access to the Kurt Brehmer walkway that goes past the club building. She had an interesting variation on NIMBYism, in that she alleged that the club was wealthy and served wealthy people from the eastern suburbs. I got the strong impression that there was resentment against perceived ‘rich pricks’. Brehmer said that WERC needs to accept that the lease is over, pick up their building and go away. When given a patsy question from Farmer about environment work by the club, Brehmer asserted that WERC had done nothing to improve the environment but had rather degraded it. This was later refuted by the WERC.
Other submissions from Freya Brehmer and ‘Anonymous’ were read out as they did not appear in person.
But, as a proverb says, the person who tells one side of a story seems right, until someone else comes and asks questions.
Harry Waalkens and Club captain, David Vallance appeared for WERC. During the last two decades, thousands of adults and school kids have utilised Saunders Reserve for rowing. They countered the accusations that Club activity was illegal. Waalkens said that the Club was not elitist as half the members were school students from diverse backgrounds, and the three schools that are affiliated are all state schools.
WERC cannot simply pick up its building and go somewhere else. There are only four suitable water locations in Auckland: Tamaki, Henderson Creek, Upper Waitematā, and Whau. All those locations already host rowing clubs.
The Club has lifted its game with environmental work in recent years. Contrary to the accusation that it does nothing, it participates in the annual Whau River Cleanup organised by the Whau River Catchment Trust (WRCT). General manager of the WRCT, Gilbert Brakey, says that involvement of the Club in the annual clean-up has been incredibly helpful. WERC provided their seven chase boats as safety boats for the clean-up, manned by volunteers who have H&S certification. All the rubbish is brought back to the Club, who pay for disposal in a commercial skip bin. The Club hosts a BBQ for all the volunteers to round off the day.
WERC members have also turned out for tree planting days. Around 1,000 trees are planted each time. Brakey points to the involvement of local clubs like WERC, Te Atatu Boating Club, New Lynn Sea Scouts and Rosebank Speedway in helping achieve the ecological goals of the Trust.
The outcome of the WLB hearing into the Club’s lease was yet to be determined at the time of going to print. It is great to see clubs nurturing young people into successful sports careers and looking to be better citizens of their local communities.
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