Serbian Olympic rowers sink in ferocious conditions on Rio waters

Spectators arrive at Olympic Park in Rio

But on the opening day of the regatta the dangers came instead from the ferociously high winds and choppy waters which ended up sinking the Serbian pair of Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedik and left several others struggling to stay afloat.

Vasic and Bedik, who were competing in the third heat of the men’s pair, capsized shortly after the 1,250m mark after their boat became unbalanced and flipped over. They tried desperately to flip it back but it was too late. Their Olympic Games are not over, however, they have been allowed into repechage, say Games officials.

It wasn’t as if both men weren’t experienced rowers either. The 25-year-old Vasic won a bronze medal at the 2012 European Championships in Varese, Italy, while Bedik has been rowing since 2001. But these were different conditions entirely, with the wind at full pelt and the water choppier than many rowers had ever experienced.

Earlier several other rowers had flagged up the dangers of a sinking. At one point the American sculler Genevra Stone nearly sunk like, well, a stone. While the Egyptian sculler Nadia Negm, reckoned the conditions were the worst she has ever rowed in.

As Negm put it: “I actually thought I was going to sink at one point it was so rough. At one point, just past 1,000m, there were these huge waves and a full one came right into my boat and the water was up to my seat. I was 100% sure I was going to sink, and then another wave came up and I just stop and froze. Thank God I didn’t go under. It’s the toughest conditions I have ever rowed in. It was really intense. I wish the rest of the racers good luck … if you are rowing this week you better know how to swim.”

The Irish rower Sanita Puspure, who finished in second - one place ahead of Negm - also described the conditions as “horrific”.

“It was like sailing, surfing, everything all in one and a bit of rowing in the end,” she said. “We wouldn’t be training in that water. By the time I got to the stand before my race my boat was half full with water so I had to get it all out so I could do another loop. I had to do it all over again. About 500 metres into the race it was the same. The water was up to my deck which, is like, my legs were in the water.

“The middle is absolutely horrendous. I was just thrown around with the wind. I couldn’t manage to get the blades in at the same time. At one stage I was blown parallel to the racing lane so I had to tack with one arm into the lane which is probably unseen before – a person doing one arm rowing during a race. It was fairly interesting.

“I was keeping an eye on the Egyptian girl – she did really well actually in these conditions. I said, OK, I know it’s going to calm down a little bit so I’ll catch her. So it was a bit of fun at the end to catch her and pass her. I couldn’t do anything. I was pretty helpless.

“I could do another race right now because I’m not tired at all. It’s really hard to put your physiology into a race like that, unfortunately. It was a survival. That’s not how you want to race at the Olympics, right?“

The British sculler Alan Campbell said the conditions reminded him of coastal rowing after he won his heat. “I once rowed across Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland in a coastal rowing boat for charity. It reminded me of that,” he said. “The 1km in the middle it gets choppy from the sides. I thought I must be losing time and I looked around and there was a blade in the air and one down there.”

“The wind comes down from the mountain,” he said, smiling, before pointing to the most famous landmark on the Rio skyline. “Christ The Redeemer needs to spread his arms out a little more.”

Normally when boats don’t cross the line they are given a DNF and not allowed to enter the repercharge. However in a statement Fisa’s Executive Committee said it had decided to allow the Serbian pair to race again.

Powered by article was written by Sean Ingle at Lagoa Stadium, for The Observer on Saturday 6th August 2016 15.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010