On the first balmy Sunday of 2018, the oldest and most prestigious student rowing event in the Netherlands took place. The event is known as Varsity and for the country’s most ambitious rowers, this is the pinnacle happening of the sport. For everybody else whose name is on the roster of a rowing club, Varsity is the pinnacle of drunken debauchery. An extravagant afternoon of gentlemen rumbling about in the mud and the blood and the beer, as Johnny Cash put it.

Collared shirts, white trousers, and boat shoes are part of the standard dress code for both men and women at Varsity, with each rowing club donning a different coloured blazer and tie to stand out from one another. Even for the spectators who haven’t brought a blazer, there’s a tent where a Gordon lookalike sells old ones for cheap. The entire event feels as if it were staged in a Ralph Lauren Polo commercial, except those commercials don’t feature the spectacle of inebriated men from rival rowing clubs ripping each other’s coats and getting body slammed into the mud.

A Gordon lookalike Image credit: Jack Parker

Tossing mud

“Oh don’t worry, they’re just doing something called brassen,” says Maxime, member of the Erasmus-affiliated rowing club Skadi. “You challenge someone from a different rowing club and try to drop them on their back. If you lose, you have to buy the winner a beer. It’s friendly.”

The rules to brassen are simple: opponents may only grab each other by the jacket. If a woman battles a man, the man can only use one hand. Other rules include no kicking and no touching of the hair or face, naturally. Every time a lad is lifted by his blazer and slammed against the ground, the massive crowd lets out a long collective “ooooooh,” drowning out the sound of the chattering commentators chirping over the intercom. Meanwhile, above the brassen, half-empty cups of beer and balls of mud are slung back and forth between the different rowing clubs.

“I didn’t plan on fighting today, but this lad kept tossing mud at me,” says Ralf, whose filthy green blazer signals that he is a member of the Argo rowing club from Wageningen. “He was acting egocentrically and I wasn’t going to let him keep get away with it, so I thought ‘I need to take him down.’ But I lost, and now I have to go and buy him a beer.”

Rowing is life for us

While Skadi is racking up victories on the brassen battlefield, on the waters of the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal where the row boats are racing, the Rotterdam club isn’t impressing. The favourites for this year’s contest, Nereus from Amsterdam, are apparently running away with the competition for the third year in a row and there’s seemingly no chance for Skadi to repeat their shock victory of 2015. For some of the Skadi lads, coping with losing is a struggle.

“Let’s be honest, we love beering more than we love glory,” admits Alex, who hasn’t set foot in a boat all day. “Skadi don’t reach for the stars you know. We knew we weren’t going to win, so our game plan was to get as drunk as possible. I think it worked because I can’t stop speaking Dutch today and I’m actually British. Holy crap.”

While Alex is amusing himself with the revelation that he has finally become fluent in Dutch, his fellow Skadi member is busy telling EM about the Skadi lifestyle. “It’s about 99.9 percent drinking beer and 0.1% percent rowing,” says Willem. “I think I’ve been in the boat about twice so far this year.”

Willem’s estimates aren’t exactly a factual representation of the whole Skadi squad. The rowing club is divided between the drinking rowers and the serious wedstrijdniveau rowers, who can easily be identified by the lack of a drunken smirk on their face and the blue/black Skadi badge embroidered on their blazers.

“Rowing is our life,” says Ruben, a business administration student whose blazer is unscathed. “We train seven days a week and we don’t drink at all during the competition season, which lasts six months.”

The end of the race Image credit: Jack Parker

The final race

After spending hours and hours trying to get a grip on the outlandish phenomenon that is Dutch rowing culture, it becomes apparent that one thing is missing from the afternoon: an actual focus on the rowing. But at some point late that muggy afternoon, the mud slinging stops, there is a break from brawling and the bars shut down – to many people’s dismay. The spectators whose backs have been turned away from the rowing action most of the day are suddenly bunching together and yelling rambunctiously for their clubs. The final race of the day, the Oude Vier, is underway, a 3 km race that determines who takes the crown for this year’s Varsity.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is incredibly exciting. Have you ever seen a race this tight before? The difference between first and second is just half a boat’s length…” the announcer roars in Dutch.

Along the canal, a peloton of cyclists keep pace with the rowers, trying to follow the action. The commentator’s scratchy voice gets higher and higher as the boats near the finish. As the rowers pass by the spectators, the Skadi club members collectively cheer “Allez Skadi! Allez Skadi!” Could Skadi pull off an upset? Could they slip in front and nip a shock victory to everyone’s surprise? “Here they come. It’s a close one, but it looks like it’s going to be…Nereus!” the announcer shrieks.

Unfortunately, no victory for Skadi. The Rotterdam boys finish seventh out of the seven clubs racing in the final of the Oude Vier. Not great, but by no means a surprise. While the members of Nereus plunge naked into the canal to celebrate, which is a Varsity tradition, a few Skadi lads remain alongside the canal, nonchalantly sipping more beers.

“We just come for atmosphere anyway,” shrugs Skadi member Hugo. “You know, sometimes losing can be fun too.”