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Field test in Italy. A rowingboat adventure

Our start-up company has turned 2 months old, our team has grown and we have found funding for our research and development. We have already built our 2nd set of prototypes of our product which will help rowers improve their performance. The water, however, continues to be frozen in Helsinki preventing the testing of our newest prototypes.  Additionally, Sulkava, is approaching fast, and we have people in our team with a strong urge to train for it, how else can they reach the ambitious target of stepping up of the podium at the biggest rowing race in Finland?

Therefore, we need to look abroad to find rowable water to train on and to get the first data from the new prototypes. The best Finnish athletes aiming for the Olympics in Rio, are training in Gavirate in Northern Italy, that is of course where we want to be!

The Finnish rowers in Italy are training in Olympic boats but in Finland there is also another boat class, the traditional wooden boat that we don’t want to neglect especially as we are competing ourselves in this boat type in Sulkava. Since there are no Finnish wooden boats in Italy we need to bring one with us, which means a 2600km drive, one way, with the boat tied to the roof of our car… an adventure.

The route takes us along the entire 970km stretch of Via Baltica first with ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn and then along ordinary roads and some express way to Warsaw.  After that there is another 1600km to go to the training camp taking place in Gavirate in Northern Italy.

long roadtrip with boat on the roof of the car

Driving with a  boat on the roof means we are met with lots of smiles and thumbs up. Although we are a bit slower than a normal car we have no trouble on the road and manage to drive 12hours from Tallinn to Lomza where we stay the night in a big hotel where we happen to be the only customers.

 An early start on day two takes us to Warsaw before 9am and with a positive mind set, although we manage to take some wrong turns with long detours around the complex motorways built around Warsaw, we think we can possibly reach Switzerland by nightfall.

 Polish roads are full of toll stations whereas in Germany we meet none. We timed the trip to the weekend so there was no congestion anywhere and the drive along the empty autobahn all the way to Southern Germany is a comfortable one, even with a boat on the roof.  What eased our driving was also the knowledge of a snowstorm (!) happening in Gavirate, we missed no time on water by being on the road with the boat right then. The boat was a rare sight it seemed because it continued gaining quite a bit of positive attention even if many people thought it was a canoe.

 Sunday morning we leave Ulm in Southern Germany early in the morning to enjoy the spectacular drive through the mountains and tunnels in Switzerland.

Our wooden boat is called "Tiira", which is Finnish for Tern, the seabird species found worldwide. We could tell Tiira was enjoying the ride as she was trying to take off flying into the mountains.

Finnish wooden rowing boat

There was lots of snow along the roads in Switzerland and had we planned better we could have brought some skis with us as well. Our first stop at a border control happened between Switzerland and Italy, no showing of passports had been required before then. The toll men just wanted to know how much money we were carrying, then we could continue the drive and we arrived at the Gavirate boathouse in the middle of the siesta, with no one anywhere to be seen, and the water beautiful and calm, no  signs of the snowstorm from the day before, except for some piles of snow in the shades.

Rowing on water after many long winter months of having been limited to Concept2 indoor rowing machines felt fresh and new and we rowed 12km including a 1km race on the first evening. We rowed very well, one reason most likely being that we had installed our latest prototypes to measure our rowing performance, each stroke was being recorded!

The Varese lake in Gavirate is known for being calm and wind free most of the time and because of that it is popular with rowers (except during the siesta) and you have to follow the traffic rules. We managed to learn the ropes quickly and in fact had no hiccups during the entire stay. Our wooden boat adjusted really well to the local community and was accepted among the flock of Olympic boats.

The normal daily rhythm at the boat club consist of a morning training session, a break in between to rest, and an evening session. Already by the next day we had adjusted to this local schedule and we did morningand evening training, with a long local lunch in between.

Our first proper training day we rowed altogether 33km, getting to know the Varese racing area as well as landmarks along the lake, not to mention that we measured our rowing performance with our own technology all the time. A long hard day and we could feel the effect of it in our bodies by feeling absolutely great.

The following day broke with completely flat beautiful water. It is enjoyable to destroy the silence and calm only with the rhythmic breaking of the surface of the water with the blades of the oars and the sound of the boat gliding during recovery. The early morning was crisp and the fingers were freezing until proper rowing made the blood flow. As the sun was rising higher we could dig out the shades from our bags and ditch the long sleeves.

In fact, after a bit of hard rowing we took a break in the middle of the lake for a bit of sunbathing, and we did have a few cups of hot tea with rum (in training, mindset is as important as taking care of growing your muscles). A great day.

Some great moments on water but also really useful data gathered for our start up. We rowed 80km during our 3 days in Italy and gathered data from many different types of rowing boats. Time flew fast and on the final morning, when we were packing up, the air was the coldest so far and there were snowflakes drifting down, but still we decided after some debate to take this chance to do a last short session of rowing. After all, there are months to go before the ice melts in Helsinki. Rowing proved the right decision, the water was the flattest so far and it felt as if our boat was gliding. We pushed the boat as fast as we could, who knows when we are rowing next time.

 Was it all worth it? (5300km of driving with a boat on the roof in order to row 80km during 3 days?)

 Writing this during our long drive back while the memories are still fresh in our heads the instant reply is "Yes, absolutely!". Time is of course crucial for start-up entrepreneurs, and that is a main reason for a journey which may look not so slightly insane at the first glance.  But by gathering data now we gain many valuable months of time for product development. By meeting with real customers in this early phase we get feedback that it is not too late to take into account when deciding which features we should implement first! The arranging of a boat to a lake in the Italian mountains many thousands of kilometres away is no issue when product development is involved. Because of this trip our prototypes are improving fast. Training for the Sulkava race and increasing our chances of success there was a nice bonus… we are all set for an exciting competition this summer in Finland!

PS. Our wooden boat Tiira made it back safely to her own pier. And yes, the sea is still frozen in Helsinki.