In 1965 a group of intrepid Cygnets decided they wanted to go to the European Rowing Championships in Duisburg. Looking for somewhere to stay they contacted the West German Rowing Federation who put them in touch with a rowing club in a Düsseldorf suburb called RG Benrath.
To cut a long story short, much beer was drunk, friendships blossomed and a strong relationship developed between Cygnet and Benrath that lasts to this day. Now, every March, Benrath come over to London to compete in the HoRR and the Vets Head and Cygnet go, with Barnes Bridge Ladies, every October to Düsseldorf to compete in the Rhine Marathon.
The Rhine Marathon is exactly what it's name describes; a rowing race, 26 miles (43 kms) long, on the Rhine between Levekusen and Düsseldorf. It's essentially a Head Race, each crew racing for a time and there are many, many divisions in which you can win, including the much coveted "closest to three hours" event. That's mostly because the prize is a crate of beer but the quickest crews will complete the course closer to two hours. The stream is very strong at about 5 mph so you could drift the course in 5 hours!
Boats are generally coxed fours although there is also the occasional triple or quintuple, some of which are coxless and the boats are much wider, touring sized boats than the fine boats that we use. They need to be this size to cope with the wash from the 8000 tonne barges that plough up and down Europe's busiest commercial river.
Watch a video of the 2015 race - with thanks to Lars Ludwig, RG Benrath
Only here for the beer
Although we obviously go to test ourselves on the river, the emphasis of this trip is very much a social one based around the consumption of local delicacies – beer and pork–based foodstuffs. On Friday night there is a spaghetti supper and Alt bier at Benrath boathouse. After the race on Saturday there is sausage, cake and Alt Bier at the finish during the endless prize giving ceremony. In the evening we all go out to a local brewery for something piggy to eat and Alt Bier followed by a cultural tour of Düsseldorf's Altstadt (Alt Bier breweries). Later, a visit to the Killepitch shop usually sorts the men from the boys and those who can will continue the tour of a city that lays claim to the longest bar in the world, which serves mostly Alt Bier.
Occasionally, our trip coincides with the Erntedankfest – Harvest Festival – which is taken very seriously in the southern suburbs of Benrath and Urdenbach. In this case we forego the delights of the Altstadt for a night in a huge beer tent featuring a funfair outside and much 'traditional dress' inside. There is also a live band and some Alt bier. On Sunday we are invited to join the parade with the Benrath float around the suburbs which is certainly an experience not to be missed. There are old tractors, horses, scarecrows, clogs, wheelbarrow races, an awful lot of straw, more traditional dress and guess what - some Alt Bier. What could possibly go wrong?
Benrath are very generous hosts and much of the weekend is organised for us, often including transport. Most of us stay at their well–appointed and spacious boathouse on the bank of the river (sleeping bag and mat required) whilst other stay at the hotel down the road.
The Whip is a magic system whereby you give all you money to the Whipman at the start of the trip and henceforth, everything is free for the rest of the weekend. Rule 1 of Rhine Marathon: Never leave your Whipman.