GUYANA: MEMORIES: The Demerara Rowing Club – By Geoff Burrowes

— By Geoff Burrowes

Little known, the Demerara Rowing Club was hidden on the East Bank of the Demerara River at the end of a dirt road running down the North side of the La Penitence Police Station. The Club was flanked on the North by one of the many Bookers wharves, on the other side of a drainage trench and on the South by a mangrove swamp with a float plane ramp.

I think it belonged to the flying pioneer, Bungles Clavier. It was perched on the edge of the khaki coloured river, surrounded by mangroves, their long crooked roots thrusting up from the river water.       

The Club House was a well built old wooden building, two storied, with the entrance from the end of a long, thin, railed wooden path from the parking lot at the end of the dirt road. The building was painted white with a red corrugated roof and a second floor gallery looking over the ramp used to launch the long slim row boats into the river.

Every clubhouse has to have a bar and during my time at the club the bar was on the ground floor, well patronized and presided over by a jovial empathetic barman named Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh who was industrious and very intelligent, lived in La Penitence village, across the public road from the Police Station and he had a stall in La Penitence Market.

I was never sure whether he was a barman who had a market stall on the side or a stall owner who kept the rowing club going on the side! Anyone who belonged to the club was attached to and valued Mr. Singh as a confidant, keeper of secrets and generally wise man! He managed the bar with the ease and aplomb of a very accomplished barman.

I don’t know when the club was founded but I saw mention of a Georgetown Rowing Club in a copy of a 1910 newspaper. This may have been the precursor of the Demerara Rowing Club but I don’t know for sure.

In my time as a member we had some well respected older gentlemen who still rowed: Mr. Rolf Paireadeau who was the Secretary of Hand in Hand Ins Co, Mr. Dallas V. Kidman, founder and owner of Dallas V Kidman and Co. and Mr. Eddie Gonsalves the mayor of Georgetown.

I also know that my father Tommy Burrowes and his brothers were all oarsmen and active members of the club as were Dawdy Pairaudeau, and Frank Gomes. I can’t speak to what went on in earlier days but none of the members in my time had any aversion to strong drink and the bar therefore did very well.

But the Rowing Club was primarily, as its name implied for rowing and its ground floor had long, sleek rowing boats on stands against the walls. When I first joined the club I assumed I would be rowing one of these beauties but quickly found out that I had to serve an apprenticeship on a fat clinker-built dinghy which was known as The Tub, under the tutelage of one of the veteran oarsmen before I could take a place of honour in one of these beautiful craft.

The Tub had two sliding seats opposite the oarlocks which held the long oars on the port and starboard sides of the boat. The first thing I discovered was that the boat, held alongside the ramp that sloped into the river from the ground floor verandah, rocked alarmingly when a novice stepped clumsily into it and the cox, coach, seated comfortably on a seat in the back of the Tub let the novice know in colourful terms not to be so clumsy next time, if there was going to be a next time!

Once you were gingerly seated on the sliding seat with your feet in the “stops” at the end of the rails the cox started to teach you the finer points of rowing, how the boat slid effortlessly through the water when the oars were correctly dipped into the water and you pressed your feet evenly against the stops and used the slide to pull the oar straight through the water and then feather the oar, turn it flat, so that it offers no wind resistance as you slid  back up the slide into a crouching position, ready for the next stroke. A lot to remember though it was made a little easier by following the stroke who was in front of you and who was normally an experienced oarsman.

I was very fortunate to have excellent coaches who combined patience, rowing knowledge and the ability to impart it: Ken Potter, a QC old boy and and civil engineer and Tony Crum Ewing, a barrister at Cameron & Sheppard. Tony was, in addition to being a good coach, a sweet storyteller who interspersed his stories with exclamations of “You follow what I mean?” He whet my appetite for rowing by describing a rowing race as “starting off like you’re running a 100 yard dash and then continuing as if you’re running a mile race, with another 100  yard dash at the end!” “Man you gotta be in condition, you follow what I mean?!”

Our other coach, in the early days was Joseph Arthur King, known as Joey who was a solicitor at the law firm of Cameron & Shepherd in Main Street, across a trench from the imposing Victoria Law Courts.

I knew Cameron and Shepherd well as my aunt’s husband Mr. J. Edward De Freitas  ran the firm, along with his brother Herman, who travelled everywhere in a Bookers Morris Minor taxi.  I spent one August holiday as a bicycle courier for the firm, taking court documents from clients to Cameron & Shepherd and from the firm to the courts and back again!

At lunch I took great pride in looking after the large, ancient switchboard at the bottom of the wooden stairs to the second and third floors:  “Cameron and Shepherd how may I help you?” and then pushing the plugs at the ends of the long cords in to the right holes in the bulky board to connect the caller to his or her lawyer.

Joey was tall and light haired and funny in a very sarcastic way. Since he was generally right his comments had a bite to them that he used to great effect in his coaching “Young Burrowes, that’s an oar not your mother’s wooden spoon, row harder, show some effort!”     Between them, Ken, Tony and Joey, my cousin Archie and I were able, after six hard months, during which our hands became sore, blistered and then calloused and our muscles became supple and powerful. A strange thing though, I was very fit for rowing but that didn’t translate to rugby fitness as I had to work just as hard to get fit for rugby at the beginning of the season!

Our caches agreed now that we were ready to row in the fours, long sleek craft that were powered by four oarsmen, a stroke who sat at the back of the boat, just in front of the coxwain (or cox’n) and who translated his orders into short, quick choppy strokes, designed to make the Four accelerate quickly, or long, strong, powerful strokes to cause the boat to glide smoothly over the surface. Then there were the two and three oarsmen who were normally the strongest in the boat and who supplied the power and then the bow, whose job was in some ways the hardest of all as he worked with the three oarsmen behind to make sure that the boat was balanced and moved smoothly through the water.

Anyone who has coxed a well rowed boat knows the surge of power as the oarsmen power the boat with their strong stroke through the water, the run as they come smoothly up their slides and the back-bending power as they start the next stroke – and for the oarsmen the joy of a sweetly running boat under them.

I have rowed with some very fine oarsmen and developed friendships that have lasted over the years: Ken Potter, whom every man who knew him wished we could be like him – strong, forthright, honest, kind, thoughtful and generous. A great two in any boat! Tony and Pat Crum Ewing, both very powerful and Tony rowed with great finesse  while Pat made up for style with his great strength. Tony idolized his family but particularly his older brother Pat and was always telling stories about his prowess as an all round sportsman.

I was also very proud to know and row with Brian Pairaudeau my friend, Archie Burrowes, my cousin, my sister Mary, Ed Gordon, Desmond Andrade, Max Jardim, Jerry and Alvaro Gouveia, my cousin Arthur, my cousins Penny and Wendy, and Jill Wong. I know tomorrow I’ll remember at least 5 other people – if you are one of those please forgive me my faulty memory.

The final recollection that I am going to share with you is a very personal one, as I had been attracted for some time to a tall beautiful grey eyed girl/woman named Norma Abdool who finally  agreed to go out with me to the Rowing Club Old Year’s Night dance. It was an elegant affair with all the men in suits and the ladies in formal dresses and at midnight, as was customary, the music stopped and we exchanged new years greetings and kissed. I felt as though the back of my head had been blown off, in a very exciting way!

We have been happily married now for 50 years, have four great children and 6 fine grandchildren. (This is personal and has little to do with the Rowing Club.) I hope the people still alive, who have their own memories of the Club, will enjoy reading this story.

Thank you Lord! Thank you Demerara Rowing Club! Thank you Norma Patricia!

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  • George Jardim  On 11/11/2020 at 7:44 am

    Geof, Great article. My memory of DRC isn’t as complete as yours. I was a Sailing Club member, 1960, but never rowed. Need a refresher: there were 2 “Fours”, Joe Nunes and Jock Campbell? Not sure of that second name. I remember the “Tub” very well. Was there also a “Pair”? All those sculls ended up at Percy Corsbie’s place at Soesdyke, after the club folded in the seventies. Also remember Lakhan, who was the caretaker, who had a small boat with a Seagull outboard, which he used to mop up the stragglers after our sailing races (one time we broke our Snipe’s rudder and couldn’t get back to the club). There was Spencer who had a boatbuilding operation behind and to the South of the club, who built runabouts and cabin cruisers for members. Can you email me directly? Regards.

  • Detow  On 11/11/2020 at 10:12 am

    Was only for the rich and famous, eh?

    • geoffburrowes  On 11/11/2020 at 11:22 am

      I am exceedingly rich, but have never been famous! Did you ever show any interest in rowing?

  • Pat Dial  On 11/11/2020 at 4:57 pm

    A fine historical article which should be archived. I knew several of the persons mentioned such as the Abdool family. Joey King who is 90 years of age is still alive and well. Was the article speaking of Joey King’s father? The milieu depicted is the Guyana for which many people have a nostalgia and which many
    think could be recaptured. Thank you Geoff Burrowes for taking time off to write.
    I am quite old and do write these days with some effort.

    • geoffburrowes  On 11/12/2020 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks Pat! If you see Joey – would you give him my regards!

  • wally n  On 11/12/2020 at 4:15 pm

    Oh we remember Norma well….kiddin.. very interesting, closest I have been to rowing was stealing workmen kureall??? at demba. Like someone mentioned, I heard of the DRC but I assumed it was for rich people. Good read.

  • Tony Bollers  On 12/03/2020 at 12:12 pm

    Geoff: My family were long time members of the Club. I have a trophy presented to my Grandfather John Bollers and crew: The Sendall Challenge Cup – dated 23/07/1903 . T Mew Stroke, J Bollers Bow , H Solomon Cox.
    My Dad Louis also rowed after his return from rowing at the University of Pennsylvania in 1932. He also sailed as he had Lightning sailboat at the Club along with a small speed boat there! I recall during the early 1950 of crewing with him on the sailboat as we took part in sailing against the Stafford sailboat. I also remember swimming from the Club on lots of occasions up and back to the Grumman Aero Plane ramp, and not to mention the social dances there!
    I departed Georgetown in 1959 to live in the USA!
    Growing up I enjoyed my time at the Club with all of you and never forgot it to this day!

  • Dean Smith  On 01/05/2021 at 2:07 pm

    I have a medal from the club dated 1908 which can be seen in the link below.

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