Somehow, I pictured my first boat race differently. I would have thought that in order to race a boat you needed a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, and teeth straight out of a Colgate commercial. I would have also guessed that the occasion came with complimentary champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and the light of the sun glinting off of so many Rolexes.

Not so.

Not in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia — mate.

Henley_690x355Elements of the Henley on Todd “fun crowd” arrive.

Here, a boat regatta is run on a dry river bed, in the ancient sand of the Todd River. Here, you put on a wig and a dress, be you man or woman, and lace up your sneakers. Because there is no water to speak of, these boat races are powered by the feet of people dressed as Vikings and pirates. All of the sunlight and the absurdity make the Henley on Todd event a comical show in the desert — and it was my first boat race.

We did not win.

AECOM sponsored this event because nearly 100 percent of the contribution goes to local charities, which benefit many aboriginal communities. Alice Springs is nuts over sports (because there is nothing else to do) and sponsorship of sporting events is a big deal.

I and seven other people were picked by the project manager based on the fact that we looked like we would not have a coronary running 100 meters. It was a mix of Aussies and Americans, six males and one female. I took over the captaincy of the vessel based on nothing but my own slightly aggressive personality and my poor background in team sports (motocross, son!). My first act as team captain was to dictate a practice time, to get a feel for the trim of our new vessel. My second act was to dismiss an Aussie runner (my friend) and try to replace him, for insubordination and poor moral. My third act was to rehire the dismissed Aussie, and apologize for the “misunderstanding.”

It was going great. Hearts were being bruised, tempers were rising – we were becoming a team.

AECOM_4_690x355AECOM sailors, calmly facing the raging sands of the Todd river. ‘Holdfast ye lads!’

Race day: First we wandered through the Todd Mall in a mini parade, carrying our freshly minted boat proudly, looking like fit and handsome men and woman of the sea. The AECOM corporate brass beamed, the pure white banner with the AECOM logo shining bright and true. We started our warm-up by hydrating, then doing lunges.

Our first heat consisted of three boats. There was a barrel about 30 meters out that the boats had to race to, around, and back from — in ankle deep sand. We smoked ’em. No problem. The final consisted of us, a group of teenage boys, and a crew of Australian Navy men and women. We were in the center lane. We got a good jump, and had the lead by a nose over the teens. We had the Navy boat by half a boat length going into the turn. We started our turn, it looked good – for about a step or two – then the Navy vessel started to swing around in order to make their turn. Boom! Our metal framed bow (front) smashed into their portside stern (left rear). There was a loud clash of metal and we staggered back. The Navy vessel, wobbled, lurched and sank. We did not stop to pick up survivors. Instead, like true competitors, we ran hard to catch those dang teens and ended up with second place for the day.

Battleboats_690x355The grand finale featuring the pirates versus Vikings versus the Navy.

It was a fun and amusing time, and even though AECOM didn’t take home the gold, it was all for a very good cause – to help the Fred Hollows Foundation in its fight to end trachoma by 2020. We also made a name for ourselves as those guys who sank the Australian Navy — and then gave them high fives.

Below is a short Vine clip from the Henley on Todd event.

Matthew_89x100Matthew “Captain Bligh” Butcher is an environmental engineer with AECOM management services group, currently based in Australia. He is an avid motocross racer, staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, and would-be sports writer.
Matthew Butcher


Originally published Sep 17, 2015

Author: Matthew Butcher