Peter " Mick" Ellercamp
Port Macquarie Rowing Club (NSW)
The following obituary was published on the Rowing NSW website on 31st August 2021 and updated on 29th September 2021. It was written by his nephew Paul Ellercamp.
1/6/1937 – 25/8/21
Shortly before his last regatta, in 2009, Mick Ellercamp tore his rotator cuff. He didn’t say anything to his crews, or to his brother, Don, with whom he did most of his rowing. He told his wife, Betty. Otherwise, Mick kept shtum.
Donny says now he knows how it happened. The pair were putting their double scull into the water in front of Don’s house on Black Neds Bay, near Swansea. Mick had an ulcer on his leg, wrapped in plastic to keep it dry, and it was difficult for him to get in.
‘He couldn’t hold onto the oar to steady himself,’ Don says. ‘When he was lowering himself onto the seat, he over-balanced and he just fell out of the boat.’
It was one of those freak injuries: as Mick, then 74, landed in the shallows, he twisted his arm and landed on his hand, in the process tearing his rotator cuff. But he got back into the boat, and the training session went on. Afterwards, Mick could row, but he couldn’t lift his arm.
Betty says Mick consulted a physio who gave him some exercises, because he didn’t want to miss the upcoming regatta, the World Masters Champs at Penrith. He carried the injury throughout ten events, coming away with a Gold and three Silvers.
Only afterwards did Mick tell his crews about his shoulder.
‘I’ve been carrying an injury for six months,’ Donny recalls Mick saying. It was the end of his career, and Donny’s, who’d been threatening to retire for years.
Mick Ellercamp died, aged 87, at home with his family around him, on August 25, in the middle of Covid lockdown. His funeral at Belmont was attended by 10 family members. Had the covid restrictions not been in place, it would have been one of those funerals that spilled onto the street.
Peter ‘Mick’ Ellercamp was born in 1934, in Maitland, just up the Hunter Valley from Newcastle, the fourth of five siblings – Harold, John, Doreen, Mick, and Don. He did an apprenticeship as a house carpenter, and he took up rowing with Swansea Caves surf club. At 21, he took off with three friends on an extended working holiday around Australia. He rowed for a season with Trigg Island surf club in Perth, then headed north to Broome.
It was in Broome that Mick was working as a carpenter on a pearling lugger. He was planing when the plane hit a knot in the wood, jumped, and sliced off half of the middle finger on his left hand.
After he returned home, Mick switched to the wharves as a bridge and wharf carpenter with the Maritime because it was better paid. By that stage, Mick and new wife Betty had two daughters, Maree and Julie, and had built their home, where Betty still lives in Caves Beach, on the hill behind the surf club. Mick built the house himself.
At 44, Mick secured a job as a carpenter in the pit at Wallarah Colliery, on the shores of Lake Macquarie. Everyone wanted to work at the pit for the money, the conditions and the security. Initially, Mick missed out on the job, but the fellow who’d won it was an epileptic. Below ground shortly after he started, the fellow fitted, fell into a puddle and drowned. So the pit called Mick and offered him the job. Mick worked there for 14 years, till the late 80s when he was ‘cabled out’ after the pit’s operator, Coal & Allied, closed it down.
In his last years there, Mick had become skilled in splicing wire ropes. He wasn’t ready to retire, so he accepted when offered a job by the wire rope specialists, Bullivants, who’d noted his skills from their own contracting work at the pit. Mick became go-to man when wire rope broke at pits and shipyards around Australia. He spent the last seven years of his working life travelling the country as the expert in splicing wire rope.
Mick was a stoic, as rocks are, and rather shy; not a natural raconteur, unlike brother Don, although he would open up after a beer or two. In normal life, he was reticence personified next to the extroverted Donny.
But he had his moments. Don tells of a marathon surf boat race from Palm Beach to Manly, in the ‘60s. When they reached the last rest stop at Freshwater, the Caves crew were ‘a mile in front’, Don says, ‘because we hadn’t taken any rests’. They also hadn’t drunk anything, the entire 20 kilometres down the coast. Hydration wasn’t a thing in those days. When they got to Freshwater, Don, as for’ard hand, or bowman, jumped out to steady the boat, and couldn’t stand up. Mick was frothing at the mouth. So when sweep Ken Murray accused the crew of malingering, Mick told Don later, “I was going to job him”.
Murray could be like that. He drove a crew hard from his position at the back of the boat, and relied on Mick Ellercamp, his stroke, to keep the stroke and crew going, to know when to lift the rating and when to ease back. A stroke is to a boat crew as Charlie Watts was to the Stones. It was a close relationship between Mick and Murray, with only a couple of hiccoughs over 70-odd years.
Surfboats were not just about racing, however. Sharp eyed observers with an eye for history will have seen the Movietone newsreel footage of the Caves crew, with Mick at stroke and Murray sweeping, conducting rescue operations in the Maitland floods of 1956.
Mick and Murray were seen as inseparable throughout their surf boat careers, even representing Australia together in a three-test surf series against South Africa in 1971. Murray was the guide; Mick was the engine room. Murray, known to Mick and Don as ‘Hot Dog’, died four days ahead of Mick, also at home, a few kilometres away in Blacksmiths, over the channel from Swansea.
After notice of Mick’s death was posted on the Australian Surf Rowers League website, one Chris Mercer, a Bulli junior at the time, responded, ‘As a 17 yr old at my first Aussies at Ocean Grove, (I) witnessed Caves beat Ballina in a hailstorm to win, with Ken Murray patting Mick on the head while still running down the face of the winning wave.
‘Hooked me on the sport forever.’
The brothers Mick and Donny rowed together throughout their lives, first in surfboats, then later in still water in search of competition, and ‘authorities’ had banned rowers over a certain age crossing the bar at Swansea Channel, something the Ellercamps and their crews had been doing all their lives.
They saw an ad in the Belmont-Swansea Gazette: Wanted: Rowers. No age barred, so they took themselves over to the Hunter Rowing Club (now Lake Macquarie club) at Speers Point, where they found a new club in the process of formation.
Don said in his eulogy at Mick’s funeral: ‘We found them rigging up the boats, so we stood there and watched. Eventually, the president came over and he said, ‘What do you pair of old buggers want?’
‘We said, We want to row.’
The bloke was sceptical and discouraging, Donny said, especially after they told him they wanted to row Doubles. But he took them out, maybe to shut them up.
‘We went for a row in a four up Cockle Creek. The president was the cox. We went about 500 metres, then he sung out, ‘Easy oar’.‘
In his voice, Donny had the lilt of the raconteur impersonating the object of his story: the ‘easy’ was strung out; the ‘oar’ on a rising inflection.
‘We kept on rowing. And he sung out again, ‘Easy oar’. And we kept on rowing.
‘He said it four times, then he said, ‘What the fuckin’ hell is going on here! What are you buggers doing?’.
‘He said, I should have explained… ‘Easy oar’ means ‘Stop rowing’.
In surf rowing, if you want your crew to stop rowing, you said, ‘Let ’er run’.
‘The club president said, ‘I can’t do anything with you blokes. You’re just racing up your slides… Look, don’t worry about it, boys. Go away and enjoy your retirement.’
The president had hit on a major difference between surf rowing and still water, which is the recovery. Surf rowers, with static seats that required greasing up your cheeks in order to slide, would put a lot of effort into a quick recovery, especially the Caves crews who were known for their fast stroke rating. But in still water, the recovery is more delayed, to preserve the run between strokes.
After his first regatta, at Taree, Don says he was given a masterclass from a Haberfield legend, Steve Roll: ‘He put me in the boat, in the shallows, and he held on to the back of the boat. And he said, Now, take three big strokes. And I did. And when I stopped, I was still sitting there.
‘He told me what I was doing wrong, all about the sliding recovery and preserving the run, then he got me to do it again. And I did. And this time, when he let the boat go, I just took off.’
In his eulogy, Donny said, ‘…to cut the story short, we won Australian titles and World titles, both of us, in the single scull. We won Australian titles in the Doubles, Pairs, Quads, Fours and Eights,’ and Mick won the club’s first world single scull title.
The pair loved their rowing. The greatest sight and sound in the world, they once said, was witnessing from behind the start of an Eights race: the power, the grunt, the communal exhalation from 128 lungs, the yearning of six or eight Eights, 48 or 64 bodies and oars, all slamming the water together from a standing start for that edge that would give them that canvas margin two kilometres later.
Mick Ellercamp was not, no doubt, the first or only rower to compete with injury, but what made him special was his longevity at the top of his sport, well before he moved on into Masters rowing in the surf – where he won many titles over 40-odd years – then in still water.
When Mick and Don were in the team that won the Australian March Past Championships, on the beach, in 2011, Mick noted proudly that it was ’50 years from my first Australian Gold (in the boat) to my last (in March Past)’.
At a surf boatmen’s smoko in Sydney in 1986, Don told the crowd: ‘The reason we won (so many titles) is because (… at this point, Don paused, as if for dramatic effect… The crowd hushed, expecting the great secret to be revealed) ‘… is because we wanted to win’.
Some of the younger, city boaties guffawed, in a bleeding-obvious kind of way. Don’s point was you cannot win if you don’t want to win; if you don’t yearn to win. And despite all the resources, the best boats, the gyms, the weights, the city sophistication, you cannot win without hunger and yearning. It applies to everything in life.
Donny tells of the wash-up from the 2009 Worlds at Penrith. Donny was always threatening to retire, and always coming back. This time, after the Worlds in 2009, he was determined it was permanent. But the brothers had a couple of rows in Black Neds Bay, in front of Donny’s house, just for the sake of it. In their last row, Mick’s shoulder was playing up, so they took it easy. But after a bit, Mick said, ‘Let’s have a sprint’. Donny reckons he didn’t want to; he suspected Mick was trying to entrap him into coming back out of retirement.
‘But we did (have a sprint),’ Donny says. ‘After it, Mickey says to me, ‘Gee, that felt good’. And it did, too.’
And that was it.
31 August 2021
We are saddened to learn of the passing of Peter Ellercamp, aged 87 years. Best known as Mick, he was an accomplished still water and surfboat rower.
He was one half of a formidable combination with his younger brother Don (both pictured above).
His still water rowing was at Hunter Rowing Club and continued as the name changed to the current Lake Macquarie Rowing Club where he had great success in Masters races domestically, nationally and in international competitions.
Above (L to R): Stephen Meisenhelter, Gary Freeman, Don Ellercamp, Francesca Kelleher, Mick Ellercamp, Natalie Meisenhelter, Bruce Sharp and Jeanette Beeton
Mick won 3 Australian Open Surfboat Championships and 8 NSW Open Championships as a surfboat rower representing his local Caves Beach Surf Life Saving Club. He enjoyed similar results in Masters Surfboat rowing. Mick was awarded Life Memberships of Caves Beach SLSC, Newcastle/Hunter Surf Life Saving Branch and Surf Life Saving NSW.
He was also made a member of the Hunter Region Sporting Hall of Fame, the Hunter Academy of Sport Hall of Fame and the Australian Surf Rowers League Hall of Fame.
His last still water rowing regatta was at the 2009 World Masters Games, where he successfully competed winning one gold Medal and three bronze medals.
Bruce Sharp, Gary Freeman, Mick Ellercamp and Don Ellercamp
Pictured above : Alan Minchinton, Mick Ellercamp and Bill Mison
Mick Ellercamp and Bruce Sharp
Mick Ellercamp, Don Ellercamp and Bruce Sharp
September 2021 (Extracted from Rowing NSW website)