With the Nepean River dominating the geography of the Penrith, it is little wonder that water sports have played such an important part in the lives of the local people. Indeed, the first recorded boat race was said to have occurred in the early 1850s, when a race was arranged between the local amateurs and two rather more professional oarsmen from Sydney. Michael Hogan, a local storekeeper set up the match – his whaleboat with four men against two men in a skiff. The race was three miles long with a purse of two hundred dollars a side and there was heavy betting on the outcome. The skiff led all the way and finished a quarter of a mile in front.
One-on-one competitions of this sort were very popular, with hefty purses and heavy gambling on the outcome. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred when Australian oarsman William Beach from Sydney challenged the current world champion Edward Hanlan from Canada, for the championship of the world, on Saturday 26th November, 1887. To the delight of the local crowd, Beach won by three-quarters of a length with the fastest time on record. The winner received prize money of four hundred pounds at a reception the following week, which was held at the Town Hall in Sydney.
Perhaps as a result of the interest and enthusiasm generated by this race, the Penrith Rowing Club was opened in March of the following year to great fanfare. By October however, a second club, the Nepean Rowing Club had begun, after dissatisfaction had been expressed regarding the sorry state of the former. Whatever the problems though, the Penrith Rowing Club was still able to stage its “First Annual Regatta” on 29th December that year.
Over the years, these Clubs disappeared and the birth of modern rowing in the Penrith area occurred on 11th April 1928, when the current Nepean Rowing Club was formed. The incentive was the rowing of the famous King’s Cup on the river in May of that year. With the help of public support, two blocks of land were purchased fronting the Nepean River and a wooden boatshed and clubroom were erected. Established Sydney clubs donated equipment to help the fledgling Club get on its feet.
When the fate of the Club seemed dire in the mid 1930s, the announcement that the Empire Games –now known as the Commonwealth Games – was to be rowed on the Nepean in 1938, served as a welcome boost to the club. Interest in rowing has continued to this day, with the Sydney International Regatta Centre being recently completed for the 2000 Olympics.
Penrith’s first Olympic rower was Max Annett, who was one of the coxed fours team which finished 5th at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Since then the depth of rowing prowess has been highlighted by the Club’s successes in NSW competition, and the selection of numerous local rowers, both men and women, to compete for Australia in international competition. The introduction of rowing into local school sporting curriculums has also provided additional depth.
The prestigious King’s Cup, an interstate competition of eight oarsmen, was rowed several times on the Nepean, when it was contested in New South Wales. The race was initially over three miles, but was changed in 1960 to 2000 metres. The annual GPS Head of the River competition between Sydney’s private schools was also rowed on the river for many years. In recent times it moved to Penrith Lakes and is now held at the newly opened Sydney International Regatta Centre.
The awarding of the 2000 Olympic rowing events to Penrith is a fitting climax indeed to over 150 years of rowing competition in the region.
Ryan, J.T. Reminiscences of Australia, 1895.
Nepean Times, 3/12/1887.
Nepean Times, 10 & 17/3/1888.
Nepean Times, 13/10/1888.
Penrith District Star, 31/3/82, p.23.
Sydney Morning Herald, 1/5/58.