Martin Owen

Above: Martin in the two seat of the 1974 National Championships lightweight eight


Martin is one of the great life members of the Club. This highly intelligent, enthusiastic, motivating, energetic and driven man kept the Club as a senior Club at a time of its greatest need, when it lost most of it’s oarsmen through retirement and the boathouse through fire. We are indebted to his great work as Captain through this period.


Martin was also a successful oarsman as well as an Australian senior team coach.


This story of Martin’s work starts is the 1960s when Club experienced a period of great success with many superb oarsmen in both the heavyweight and lightweight divisions. (The Club did not have women rowing at that time.) Sadly there was a lack of recruiting undertaken in the late 1960s and it was not until the early seventies when John Burford restored it, that new members started arriving.


Above: The boathouse after the fire – Warwick Hutchins inspecting the damage

In 1972 Martin Owen was elected Captain. In May 1973 the Clubhouse was burnt down by a fire lit by an arsonist. Martin had the unenviable task of leading the rebuilding a boathouse, recruiting many new rowers and doing so with a limited fleet of boats. For anyone else, these efforts would have been too much and limited success at one of these endeavours would have been expected. No so with Marty Owen, he led both activities well and both were successful.


Fortunately he was not alone in these endeavours. The Club rallied to Martin’s, and his Vice-Captain Ian Duthie’s, call and unbelievable work was undertaken by so many members.


With no clubhouse to evidence the Club, Marty recruited a National Championship winning junior eight and also a National Championship winning lightweight eight in 1974. These crews were the basis of the Clubs revival as a senior Club.


The Club history records:

It was a credit to the club’s administration and particularly to the young captain of this time, Martin Owen, that the club was still able to achieve success on the water despite the considerable effort of active members in assisting in rebuilding the clubhouse. The intense club loyalty and spirit that was developed in the many working parties overcame several of the impediments to success created by the club’s commitment to the new clubhouse.


Above: Martin as Captain


So what is Martin Owen rowing story?


Martin commenced his rowing career as a coxswain in 1963 whilst at school when he steered John Bostock and Ted Johnston in a coxed pair. He was introduced to the Club by fellow coxswain and school mate Simon Tulloh. Martin could not get onto the MGS rowing list. He had an excellent first season coxing lightweight crews. Martin recalls getting a detention for rowing with Mercs instead of playing cricket.

Martin coxed the lightweight eight in 1964, stroked by Penry Green (it included the Mercantile captain at the time, Jeff Wylie, who was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident one Saturday night). His mate Simon Tulloh coxed of John Thomas’s maiden eights which had included notable Brighton Grammar luminaries of the time which included Roger Wilson, John Burford and Phillippe Batters.  


In the following season 1964-65, Martin coxed many successful junior crews. These crews contained some of the great Mercs members such as Warwick Hutchins, Barry Gross, John Burford, David Palfreymen and Dick Garrard. Martin had still not made the MGS rowing list.


In the 1965-66 season, Martin coxed many crews at the State Championships including a senior four which dead heated with Banks on the Lower Yarra. He also coxed the victorious National Champion Mercs junior eight.  Yes, he had finally made the MGS rowing list after winning numerous Championships including the 1966 National Championship. He coxed the fourth crew at MGS for a win at the Head of the River regatta.


By 1968, his school years and coxing career were coming to an end and his rowing career was blossoming. At school he was give the choice of coxing the second crew or stroking the fourth crew. He took the latter finishing second. At Mercs he successfully raced a lightweight maiden pair at Henley with David Baxter with Mark Connolly as cox. He also honed his winning ways with a Morrell Eight win that year in the two seat.


Despite his retirement from coxing in 1968, he was brought back for one last race in 1969 for the Victorian Penrith Cup crew despite struggling to get down to weight.


After leaving school, Martin joined the coaching ranks of his school and then other schools, recruiting Mercs rowers as he went.


By 1971 Martin was elected to the Club Committee and he subsequently became the youngest Chairman of Selectors, youngest Captain (in 1972) and youngest VRA representative. The story of the Mercantile resurgence in 1974 under Martin’s leadership is mentioned above. Martin credits his mentor John Burford with showing him how to recruit and motivate oarsmen.


The influence of lightweight rowing on Australian rowing from the early 1970s through to the mid 1980s cannot be understated. The lightweights set the world standard and so performed successfully at World Championships. Locally they competed against open weight crews and often beating them. They were responsible for lifting the standard of all rowing as a result. The lightweights were hungrier for success than their heavier counterparts – they trained hard, chased competition interstate and led the way in nutrition and out of boat training and were uncompromising on technical skill.


At the Mercantile level, Martin credits the lightweights with keeping the Club alive during the dark days of the rebuilding. The lightweights were the ones who trained without compromise then turned up for working bees to rebuild the Clubhouse.


Martin won National Championships in lightweight eights in (1974-77 inclusive), a remarkable effort. He had two selection disappointments in those years. The first was in 1976 when the Australian Rowing Council (now Rowing Australia) failed to approve the selection of the Mercs lightweight eight as the national eight. Despite great international lightweight success in 1974 and 1975 and considerable depth in Australian lightweight rowing, no lightweights were selected for the world Championships that year. Mercantile won the National lightweight eight and four that season and the all Mercantile Penrith Cup crew won their race by 8.5 seconds.


The next selection disappointment was in 1977 after performing well as a member of the winning lightweight eight. The Australian selectors preferred others in place of Martin for the Australian eight. Sadly the justification for that decision was weak.


In 1978, the Mercantile lightweight eight suffered a serious car crash at the National Championships in Tasmania which left Martin with a broken back and internal injuries. Fortunately he recovered and was able to race again in 1980 for his final season. He rowed as well as coached in 1980 taking the lead with the Club lightweights.


Coaching beckoned again and he coached Mercantile lightweights to great success in the period 1980-8. During this period he made some strategic decisions for the Club including the recruitment of Noel Donaldson and the pair of James Tomkins and Chris Gilford. This was the beginning of yet another great era of Mercantile in heavyweight rowing.


In 1989, Martin was appointed coach of the Australian lightweight four which race at the Bled World Championships. His crew made the final but finished sixth.



Above: Martin with another National Championships coaching win for Mercs in 1990 with a lightweight pair of Richard Wraith and Simon Morrison


Sadly words cannot describe the devotion, energy, drive, skill and motivation that Martin brought to the Club and the legacy he left behind. However just ask anyone who was around the Club during those years about Martin and the responses will give you give your an inkling of the influence he had on our Club. He had an enormous influence on the author.


Martin is now retired from his successful business career and continues to enjoy the company of those with whom he spent his youth at Mercs.


Andrew Guerin 2017

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