29th October 2011 sees the 100th anniversary of the boathouse of Royal Sport Nautique de Bruxelles

29th October 2011 sees the 100th anniversary of the boathouse of Royal Sport Nautique de Bruxelles, situated on the Willebroek Canal in the Northern outskirts of the city. How do we know? Because an architect’s plaque proudly announces the fact. The grand building, set back from the canalside road which the rowers and their boats must cross, accommodates not only boat storage, gym, changing facilities and clubhouse, but a vast table-tennis room with five competition tables. Out back is a basketball court, a tennis court and a nearly-new sports hall for tennis, basketball and badminton. The Royal, as it is known, is not just about ‘le sport nautique’.

The club itself predates the building by many years, having been founded in 1865, the first rowing club in Brussels and the third in Belgium. It ‘lost’ its earlier home, closer into the city, when the Canal was realigned and the section of canal on which it stood was filled-in. That earlier building still stands, but where there was water is now an urban throughway, although nearby streets attest to its history – rue des Rameurs (rowers) and rue des Régates (regatta).

It was from this earlier era that the Royal achieved a unique distinction – it was not just name-checked in a literary classic, it got a chapter all to itself. In 1878 Robert Louis Stephenson, with a companion, undertook a long trip through Belgium and France in camping-canoes, and wrote up the story in ‘An Inland Voyage’, his first celebrated book. In it, he describes the warm welcome the pair received in the chapter The Royal Sport Nautique. At that time, the Royal was evidently used to success: “We have gained all races, except those where we were cheated by the French”.

A little bit later, but still in the era of the old boathouse, the Royal was noted, at least as much for its rowing, as for its artistic and theatrical exploits. Club members were active in the revues and cabarets which helped to define Brussels’ Golden Age, ‘La Belle Epoque’, and talented artists amongst them recorded events – rowing, socialising and sometimes misbehaving – in a series of 45 silhouette pictures which nowadays decorate the walls of the clubhouse.

The Golden Age was cut brutally short, however, and the Royal’s nearly-new boathouse found itself serving a very different purpose – as stabling for German cavalry in the First World War. Longer-serving members recall that, before the changing facilities were renovated in the mid-1980s, they used lockers still decorated with German military markings.

Between the wars, the Royal’s fortunes fluctuated, as rowing clubs always do. A high spot was when a coxed four, nicknamed the ‘Big Boys’, were selected for the Berlin Olympics in 1936. A member of that crew, Réné Vingerhout, was a club regular until his death three years ago, and even into his nineties was coaching scullers who carried off three Belgian Championship titles in 2003-4. His name is proudly carried on a quad scull and recalled too on a racing single, called ‘Revi’.

The Royal was pleased to extend its hospitality to another celebrity in 1948, when John B Kelly Jr, a four-time Olympian and brother of Princess Grace, based himself in Brussels as part of his Olympic preparations. In one of those coincidences, an Irish relative of his is married to one of the club’s stalwarts – on the basketball side.

And so to the present day. While the focus is mainly on recreational and Masters rowing, the club’s star performer, Jean-Benoit Walschaerts, was 2010 national Junior singles champion and last year represented Belgium in the World Juniors in the Czech Republic and the Youth Olympics in Singapore. Superstars apart, the regular membership is made up of about 50% Belgians and 50% expatriates, from the widest range of countries imaginable.

With the Royal’s 150th anniversary just over the horizon, plans are afoot to give the boathouse another facelift. Recognised by the City of Brussels as part of its cultural and sporting heritage, the building will hopefully begin its second century is fine shape.