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australian rowers profiles and history

Rodger A Ninham

West Australian Rowing Club (WA) then Mosman Rowing Club (NSW)

1960 Olympic Eight with Rodger in the seven seat

The following profile of Rodger has been extracted from the Mosman centenary history "Red and White Hoops - One hundred years of Mosman Rowing Club" published by Jacobson Publishing Pty Ltd in 2011.

Rodger Ninham - Olympic Craftsman 

Imagine a race between history's greatest boatbuilding scullers. There are quite a few, and of course the modern day racer-builders-among them Jeff Sykes and Ted Hale-would have the advantage. But if their boats also had to win a beauty contest, Mosman's Rodger Ninham would be very hard to beat. 

Rowing Pedigree 

Rodger came to Mosman after winning the 1961 President's Cup for WA in Perth, and chatting with the persuasive MRC Secretary Eric Holford. Ninham was assured that the journey across the Nullabor would be worthwhile. Accommodation was found next to the Mosman Bay shed, and Rodger was put to work in-and on-MRC's fleet. 

Rodger in 1961 as the Western Australian Sculler

His pedigree was remarkable. The fourth of six children of Edna and Bill Ninham, Rodger served his boatbuilding apprenticeship with his father, who was known as a quality builder. Bill had stroked the South Australian eight in the 1932, '33 and '35 King's Cups and his brother Bob also rowed for South Australia in the King's Cup in 1933 and 1935, and the President's Cup in 1938. Rodger's eldest brother Barry was a stroke at the University of Western Australia. 

Sculling Pioneer 

Rodger went to the Rome Olympics in 1960 with the unplaced Western Australian eight, but from there most of his success was to be in smaller boats. For an athlete of that time to go from sweep oar to great success in small boats was very unusual, particularly in Australia. 

'Scullers were always considered a bit weird,' recalls Bruce Evans, who was rowing with Mosman in the early 1960s. 'Nobody knew much about small boats at the time. Rodger was a bit of a pioneer.' 

Pairing Up 

Rodger combined with stroke Peter Raper and coach Wim Sirks to win the National Coxless Pair title in 1962. Raper was replaced by Mosman's Bill Hatfield in the stern of the boat for that year's Perth Commonwealth Games, and they won bronze. 

The Touch 

Rodger Ninham wasn't exceptionally big or powerful. But he had what coaches call 'the touch', and was a very fine athlete. Through 1963 he began to build a rowing partnership with another of Mosman's greats, Bob Shirlaw. Critical to this combination was Wim Sirks, who came to Mosman as the club's first coach who specialised in small boats. 

The Boats 

Boats were Rodger's life. When he wasn't working at making them go fast, he was keeping Mosman's fleet afloat. It was an existence both beautiful and simple-a pure rowing life that would be very difficult for any modern athlete to emulate. 

Eric Holford insisted Rodger record each day's work in the club diary. This entry is from May 1962. 'Worked on (Bill) Mison's cedar scull, repaired broken part in that, the brass plate had worked loose when I was repairing the boat. I worked two hours on repairing that, it was all torn to bits. Worked on the Ken Preshaw-veteran's eight-four hours. Wal (Evans) asked us to fix the oars and fix diagonal in the 5 seat, fixed three more blades up, spliced one on the back-two hours.' 

Rodger was as fastidious about his boat building and repair work as he was about his rowing. Both required a relentless precision, and this observation from Bruce Evans sums Rodger up. 

'Rodger once built a four for MRC that was used for 30 years, and the hull was still good. Remember that all boats were made of timber back in the day, and the ply or cedar had to be joined along the centre of the keel. All other boat builders used tacks to do this job. Not Rodger-he used dowels. Just imagine what labour this entailed. 

First drilling the hole, then shaping a cedar dowel, coating it with glue, hammering it in, and then cutting the dowel off and sanding it back by hand. That's over 900 dowels, just along the keel. The sax board, stays, struts, and seat beds were done by the same method. Rodger boasted there was not one tack or nail in the boat, thereby avoiding what he called "nail sickness".' 

Olympic Selection 

In 1964 Rodger and Bob Shirlaw won the national coxless pair in Canberra, hammering away from Lotus Bay near Yarralumla towards the Black Mountain Peninsula in very poor conditions. This qualified them for the 1964 Olympic Games. Rodger Ninham was 23, Bob Shirlaw 21, and they were off to Tokyo. They finished ninth. It was a transitionary period for Australian rowing, which still lagged behind the world in equipment and training methods. 

Coxless Pair 

In April of 1966 Rodger and Bob Shirlaw won another Australian coxless pairs title on Lake Wendouree. This marked the beginnings of a tradition, as it was the race Craig Muller and Steve Evans, with coach Bruce Evans, would win for MRC 20 years later. By the 1990s the pair became an Australian strength with Olympic medals at every Olympic Games onward from those of David Weightman and Robert Scott in Atlanta, Matthew Long and James Tomkins in Sydney, Drew Ginn and Tomkins in Athens, and Ginn and Duncan Free in Beijing. 


After retiring from still water competition Rodger was very active in surfboats-both rowing and building them. He won an Australian surfboat title with Queenscliff in a boat he built. He and Ross Jorgenson were instrumental in introducing some scientific rowing principles into the rough and tumble surfboat arena. 

Too Soon 

Continuing to build boats into the 1980s, in 1985 Rodger was diagnosed with a brain tumour and passed away at age 43 on 19 May. His ashes were scattered near Killarney. Rodger's brilliance at racing and building boats will always be remembered at Mosman.

The details

1958 - WA Champion Junior Eight, five seat - First

1960 – Interstate Men’s Eight Championships seven seat – First

1960 – Olympic Games - Men’s Eight seven seat - eliminated in repechage

1961 – Interstate Men’s Sculling Championship (WA) - First

1961 - Trans Tasman, Men's Scull - Second

1962 - National Men's Coxless Pair Championship, stroke - First

1962 - National Men's Coxless Four Championship, stroke - First

1962 – British Empire & Commonwealth Games – Men’s Coxless Pair bow - Bronze

1964 - NSW Men's Sculling Championship - First

1964 - National Men's Coxless Pair Championship, stroke - First

1964 – Olympic Games - Men’s Coxless Pair bow - Ninth

Andrew Guerin
July 2021

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