The Vienna Nightrow is a fun tradition that defies preconceptions about rowing

Everywhere you look, long-established sports are getting shorter, sexier and closer to spectators. Cricket has Twenty20. Rugby has Sevens. Motorsport has Formula E. And rowing has started to pull its oars in the same direction – as fans of the Vienna Nightrow know all too well.

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Going from afternoon till just after midnight, the Nightrow ends just in time for a ripping after-party. // © Christine Miess

Now getting set for its seventh edition, this race defies a few preconceptions about rowing. For one thing, it doesn’t happen out in the middle of nowhere: You could trip over the event on a stroll around the Donauinsel. For another, it doesn’t take place at some unholy hour. As the name strongly suggests, this is an evening regatta, under floodlights. Climaxing late on Saturday, June 24, it ends just in time for a cracking after-party.

Nor does the action slide out of your sight after thirty seconds. The 350 m course might be miniscule in rowing terms (consider that London’s famous Boat Race is 6.8 km and lasts around 18 minutes) but it’s good news for spectators. Station yourself on Steinspornbrücke at the Neue Donau and you’ll be able to see the races from start to finish. They’ll usually last around one minute.

Diff’rent Strokes

“There isn’t much strategy,” says Clemens Auersperg, the Cambridge University rower from Linz who became the first Austrian to win the Boat Race in London last year. “Getting your timing right at the start is half of the battle. After that you just go as hard as you can. You can afford to not be as clean in this race, because it’s just about going as fast as possible. You don’t have to be energy efficient like you would in our usual events.”

A short race distance can also mean tight finishes, as Auersperg knows very well. His Cambridge Men’s crew won the 2015 -Vienna Nightrow by just two-hundredths of a second over the hosts Erste Wiener Ruderclub LIA.

But what of the challenges of racing at night? Vienna rower Mattijs Holler, twice a winner in the multicategory event, says it’s a tough ask.

“You can’t see anything, so you really need a lot of strength and technique. For the first 200 m, you’re in pitch dark before you get to the lights of the bridge. You can pretty much just see the guy in front of you, so it’s all about sound and feeling.”

The racers can at least see their competition, thanks to the lights carried by all the boats, some of which go well beyond standard requirements: There’s a prize for the best lighting scheme. Ditto for the best fancy dress outfits. After all, fun really is the name of the game at this event. The playful promotional posters, with their depictions of aquatic life that’s more Jules Verne than Neue Donau, certainly don’t shy away from that.

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The Nightrow is a lighthearted a air, with prizes for the best costumes and lighting scheme. // © Christine Miess

And whether it’s glow-in-the-dark face paint or pirate masks, you couldn’t call some of those getups shy either. “One junior team came dressed in a mankini a couple of years ago,” recalls Holler. Would his crew, always a serious contender, do something like that? “We’re the host club and probably wouldn’t do anything that would slow us down. The mankini was pretty amusing to see … but I think it would be very slippery in the seat!”

“We were a bit on the boring side last year,” says Auersperg of his crew’s latest wardrobe efforts. “But I think we should have done it! Credit to the crews who put in some effort, we certainly enjoyed watching that.” So will Erste get creative this year? “Never say never!”

Sculls in the night

With the race now an established tradition, considerable numbers will turn out to discover what bright lights and curious costumes 2017 holds. And if the objective is to reach a new audience whilst giving a bit of spice to the lives of athletes who really do spend a lot of time doing crack-of-dawn training all on their lonesome, then the Vienna Nightrow definitely succeeds.

“It’s a good format to make the sport popular because spectators can see the whole race without needing screens,” says Holler. “And good for people who don’t know rowing that well, with a great atmosphere.”

“This kind of race is fantastic,” adds Auersperg. “I did a similar event in Split last year and it was also wonderful. Racing in a city is fun. It’s also easier to attract attention from people who hadn’t planned to watch, and great viewing for the crowds. So it’s fantastic for the sport and for us.

“Racing in the dark is terrific. It really adds a lot of atmosphere and character. It’s a little bit like the Nachtslalom Schladming [a famous night skiing race in Styria]. There’s a different feel, an atmosphere we are not used to. We don’t see the spectators, for example … but we can hear them!”

And chances are you’ll hear the excited crowds too, if you’re anywhere in the vicinity. Why not get down there and have a look? You might end up a rowing fan for life.