An enormous undertaking of 160 km

The world’s hardest rowing competition is Genevan

Olivier Dufour
Urheberrechte ©
Loris von Siebenthal / Société Nautique de Genève
Winter 2023-2024

Each year, hundreds of rowers flock to the Société Nautique de Genève in late September to take part in an unusual adventure, when Lake Geneva’s oldest and most prestigious yacht club organises the BCGE Tour du Léman à l’Aviron. It’s an epically infernal sporting challenge that takes place in very heavenly surroundings.

It’s the last weekend of September and the sun has just started to come up over the calm waters of Lake Geneva. Floating just offshore of the Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), a silent fleet of around 20 vessels calmly awaits their cue. One could almost think they were a small floating army, poised quietly, waiting for their signal to attack the city. But these troublemakers are not here for a siege (although they will suffer mightily in other ways), they are here for one of the world’s most unique and challenging sporting odysseys: the BCGE Tour du Léman à l’Aviron.

An unmissable event for lovers of long-distance challenges, this epic rowing tour of the lake was created in 1972 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the SNG, which had its beginnings in rowing before later expanding into three other sections (the Sailing Circle, Light Yachting, and Propeller). This 160 km long aquatic event both begins and ends in Geneva, passing Le Bouveret and multiple coastal check points, forming the world’s longest non-stop race on a landlocked lake. The event is a remarkable challenge, with a record completion time (set in 2011) of 11 hours, 43 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Every year, the race unites highly experienced rowers from all over the world. The majority of the competitors are from Germany, which dominates long-distance rowing and has won almost every edition of the event since it was created. Particpatants from other countries include Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Britain, and beyond. All of them are drawn here, for an epic race in the picturesque setting of this truly unique body of water. In 2022, during the event’s 50th edition and the 150th anniversary of the SNG, the regatta welcomed a fleet of 26 boats, nearly maxing out participation in the race.

Every vessel is accompanied by a small motorboat for both safety and logistics, so the organisers are obliged to limit the number of entries. However, not all who start will actually finish. Exhaustion forces many of the teams to abandon their quest in addition to the occasional boat that sinks because of wind (the number one enemy of rowers, which can form waves that threaten to fill the boats with water). Luckily, safety and rescue workers are on call throughout the race to keep a close watch over participants.

Occasionally the race will be shortened — or outright cancelled — due to inclement or extreme weather. In 2018, the entire event was (luckily and wisely) relocated to a section of the Rhône River because of intense sustained winds. It gave teams an opportunity to race in different waters (which although more discreet, are no less beautiful) and gave the Genevan rowers a slight advantage as that’s where the SNG rowing team trains for the 2,000 m Olympic sprint. And even though Switzerland isn’t known as a rowing nation per se, it does have a fair number of impressive wins and champions in its history books. Some of the biggest Swiss rowing stars are Andrin Gulich and Roman Röösli, the 2023 Coxless Pair World Champions who will be competing in the Olympic Games in Paris, along with Eline Rol, the 2019 European and World Champion in M23, who is also a leading light at the Société Nautique de Genève.

Even so, very few of these top calibre rowers are found at the starting line of the Tour du Lac, with the exception of Olympic rower Barnabé Delarze, who participated in the 2019 edition. This unique race can really only be tackled by those with a high tolerance for pain and suffering, who train rigorously and very specifically, as it requires consistent, near breakneck speed for almost an entire day and night. Challenge accepted?