Patricia Carswell |

‘It was just so nice to be able to reconnect with fellow rowers in a social setting’

We’ve all been using Zoom for training workouts and committee meetings over the last year, but some clubs have taken it further and have held their club dinner virtually too. Patricia Carswell finds out more

After many months of lockdown, we’ve all got used to working and training via Zoom. Most clubs have online training sessions as a regular feature of 2021 club life. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and what rowers are missing most is the company of their club mates. So, step forward the annual dinner on Zoom. Three very different examples of successful dinners demonstrate that the small matter of the pandemic isn’t enough to keep us away from the fun of a Big Night Out – even if it has to be a big night in.

Vesta RC annual dinner

Famed for its lively dinners (“they can be pretty messy”, according to one member), Vesta was inspired to hold a Zoom dinner when they heard that clubs such as Leander had hosted a successful one. As the organiser of the dinner, Francesca Lidlaw, put it, “At Vesta we’re very hard-working on the water, but also very sociable and when we get the chance to let our hair down…”

In a normal year there would be drinks, speeches, awards and dinner at a venue large enough to accommodate everyone, with the hard core returning to the club on coaches for late night high-jinks. “A lot of my friends met their other halves at Vesta parties…” says Vesta member, Martha Walsh.

“Crucially, people could switch rooms to reflect the moving around that happens in real life at a dinner”

This year, everyone came together on Zoom at the beginning for an intro (with photos from races shown on screen) and speeches by Frances Houghton and James Haskell. Then guests were split into different breakout rooms for each course. Crucially, people could switch rooms to reflect the moving around that happens in real life at a dinner – Francesca highly recommends this to ensure nobody feels isolated. There was plenty of chat and banter on the side via WhatsApp, and an optional drinking game.

There was no prescribed menu – everyone did their own thing with some cooking their own meals and others getting takeaways. Francesca had arranged discounts on some local take-outs in Putney and members could get wine delivered.


Holding the dinner over Zoom had some advantages. Social members like Martha, who no longer lives in London, were able to attend. “It was lovely to see a lot of faces that I haven’t seen for ages”, she says. The online format was handy, too, for out-of-towners who were spared a hefty Uber bill, and for parents of young children who didn’t have to hire a babysitter.

More than 100 members attended (“Get the word out as early as you can”, advises Francesca) and the dinner went on until midnight.

“It was a really good laugh,” says Martha. “It was very much in line with the fact that Vesta is quite a jolly club. We do celebrations quite well.”

North West Umpires annual dinner

Proud of the bond between them and their friendly style of umpiring, the North West umpires have enjoyed Zoom get-togethers throughout the year since the start of the pandemic, so it made sense to hold their popular annual dinner over Zoom as well.

According to organiser Mark Briegal, the usual dinner would be at a real ale pub called the Helter Skelter in Frodsham, Cheshire. They would hire an upstairs room, have a meal with between 30 and 40 people seated at two long tables, and hand out awards.

“Mark gave everyone silly titles as their display name – Bernie Sanders was added in a stroke of topic genius, by Phil Clements”

“One of the beauties of it,” says umpire Simon Reeves, “is that we try to make sure our partners come with us as well, so that they can see what we get up to when we disappear at weekends. I think it’s fair to say lots of friendships have grown from those dinners. Any allegation that we try to drink our way through the dozen taps on offer is entirely scurrilous!”


On the night, Mark gave everyone silly titles as their display name (Bernie Sanders was added in later, in a stroke of topic genius, by Phil Clements). Everyone thew themselves into the event and dressed up in black tie – “above the waist, anyway”, according to Mark.

They went into breakout rooms for each course, convening as a group for drinks in between each course. Mark’s top tip is to create a spreadsheet to allocate people to the breakout rooms, to ensure people were “seated” with people they knew and got on with. As with Vesta, some cooked elaborate three course meals, while others went for take-outs.

And the umpires’ verdict on the evening? An unqualified success. “It was great fun”, says Simon. “The only thing that was missing was the fact we weren’t all in the same room. It also allowed some of us to even have the usual hangover the next morning!”

Stirling RC Burns Night Supper

For a Scottish club such as Stirling RC, the idea of not marking Burns Night was out of the question, so this year’s was held over Zoom, complete with readings, poems (such as the Selkirk Grace and Immortal Memory) and even the piping in of the haggis. In a “normal” year the event would have been held in the boathouse, in the training and social space there.

An enthusiastic volunteer team garnered support for holding the event online. “Their enthusiasm rubbed off on the others”, says Club Captain, Graeme Duff. “This came in useful when they were dishing out readings and poems to deliver on the night.”

The haggis was then expertly piped in by one of the juniors, dressed in full Highland regalia

It being Burns night, there was only one possible menu, but unlike other clubs, Stirling went so far as to deliver the provisions for a set four course meal—with haggis or veggie haggis with neeps and tatties as the main, of course—to the door of each participant, strictly in adherence with Covid restrictions. The haggis was then expertly piped in by one of the juniors, dressed in full Highland regalia.


Like other clubs, they used breakout rooms for each course, and then reconvened in between courses, with poems, readings and live music to entertain the guests.

“It was fantastic fun,” says Graeme. “Most of us found that you quickly forgot that we were dining staring at your club mates on Zoom. It was just so nice to be able to reconnect with fellow rowers in a social setting. Our club has been great in terms of the programme of Zoom training sessions delivered by coaches, but chatting with club mates socially was a nice change of pace.”

And for any club considering doing the same, Graeme has some encouraging advice. “Just go for it. It’s a great way to get your members together.”