Rowing is Jeff’s life – it may have even saved his life

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Jeff Sykes was 10 years old when, in 1953, he tried the sport of rowing.

He approached Corio Bay Rowing Club where his parents were social members, thinking of being a coxswain in a crew.

‘What could be better than this?’: Corio Bay Rowing Club veteran Jeff Sykes on the Barwon River at the weekend.Credit: Paul Jeffers

Instead, a club member found him an old timber boat in which Sykes rowed out into Corio Bay alone.

“He showed me the basics – how to get in, said ‘don’t let go of the oars’ and ‘go out and paddle around’,” Sykes recalls. “And off I went.”

Sykes remembers loving “the freedom of being master of your own destiny” and feeling like he was zooming across the water.

Nearly 70 years later, Sykes is still in love with rowing.

Jeff Sykes with boats named after he and his wife Joan Sykes.Credit: Paul Jeffers

He trains on the Barwon River in South Geelong at 6am or 7am, at least three times a week. He says that on a fine morning, “sometimes you think, what could be better than this? You’re gliding through the water, and there’s nothing to stop you”.

Sykes has got a lot out of the sport, from fitness to friendship and trophies. And he’s put a lot in.

In the 1960s and 70s, he won a string of national sculling titles, and he’s still a keen competitor.

Boats made by his company Sykes Racing, which he sold in 2000, carried several rowers to Olympic gold medals.

Jeff Sykes with the Australian Lightweight Sculling Champion Cup, 1974.Credit: Corio Bay Rowing Club

Then, he says, there was the time that rowing saved his life.

In 2007, he was thrown from his horse while riding near Apollo Bay, in Victoria’s south-west.

Sykes landed on his head and fractured his top two vertebrae. Sykes says doctors told him that he could have died or become a quadriplegic if not for “the fact that I had good muscular development in that area” from rowing.

Corio Bay Rowing Club president Rob England remembers, weeks after the accident, club members shaking their heads in amusement when they spotted Sykes in a boat, coaching a rowing crew on the Barwon River.

Jeff Sykes competing with his wife, Joan Sykes, in a Masters rowing competition.Credit: Jeff Sykes

Sykes himself resumed sculling within four months of the fall, and competed a month after that.

England says Sykes, now 79, is “incredibly driven”. “He’s an inspiration, with his steely determination to remain fit and strong. And to still compete.”

Sykes says he has “a fear of being beaten” in the Masters events he competes in, either in men’s races, or in mixed events with his wife, Joan.

“I try not to enter more than five events at the Australian Masters rowing championships,” he says. “But I’d be disappointed if I didn’t come home with three gold medals.”

Opening day at Corio Bay Rowing Club beside Barwon River in 1921 – the first of three moves between bay and river.Credit: Corio Bay Rowing Club

David Uren, author of A Good Course, a new book to mark Corio Bay Rowing Club’s 150th anniversary, said when it was formed in 1873, the club was based at Geelong’s Eastern Beach with many working-class members.

In 1921, 1932, and 1965, the club moved headquarters – from Corio Bay to the Barwon River, then back to the bay until settling in its current spot beside the river near Moorabool Street bridge.

Uren says Sykes is “a bit of a living legend”.

Sykes initiated and helped fund the Jeff Sykes Rowing Centre, beside Corio Bay clubhouse, which opened in February last year, for the use of students whose schools don’t have their own rowing facilities.

Sykes also coaches teenage Corio Bay rowing club members.

Sykes says rowing is “extremely good” for his health which he reckons is “probably a heck of a lot better than the average 79-year-old’s.”

He says: “A lot of people at my age probably aren’t quite as serious about their rowing. But I don’t like going out and not doing the best I can do.”

Details of Corio Bay Rowing Club’s 150th anniversary events will be posted on its Facebook page.

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