Thrills, spills and collisions — with the woodwork and with carbon fibre — were the order of the day on Thursday at Henley Royal Regatta 2021, along with the first near-Island disqualification of a coxed boat for so many years that I can’t count them. It’s more common in the coxless events, particularly the Wyfold and Visitors’ men’s coxless fours (for club and elite M4- respectively) but the coxed boats tend to have victories awarded by red flag either near the finish or more often after the race.
The race was Agecroft against London A in the Thames Cup, the time the first race after the end of the tea-break. It started smoothly enough, although London took a line which saw them surprisingly far from Temple Island on their bowside, rather ignoring the recent rules which require crews to stay in their half of the space. Agecroft meanwhile were well on the Berks station, spoons a couple of feet from both the buoys and then the booms. To understand the next bit viewers of the YouTube footage need to remember that it’s being edited on the fly by the production team, so even though two cameras were in use at the start (one on the umpire’s launch and the other a long-range view from above the stakeboats), what happened next wasn’t fully visible on-screen during the live race.
Along the island, the two crews started moving together in the middle, London in the lead by about 3/4 length, and umpire Richard Stanhope got his flag busy warning both. It looked as if they moved apart and in one TV shot it seemed as if the London stroke was urging his cox to steer back onto station by jerking his head. The bit which was only visible once the long-range camera clip was shown was that immediately after this Agecroft rather suddenly started moving towards London, perhaps trying to defend their water having had London push the boundaries for the first minute of the race. Stanhope was very quick off the mark, warning Agecroft immediately, but although they did steer away, the bowman’s blade caught the London strokeman’s, the latter catching an immediate over-the-head crab which completely disrupted the boat. Red flag time, and the umpire had to explain to Agecroft that their disqualification was his only choice, having warned them just before the incident occurred.
To some extent Agecroft were unlucky: whilst they reaped the consequences of being briefly foolhardy, other crews had an easier time, though this may have been because they earned a bit of generous grace through being coxless. Nottingham, whose Wyfold four’s card was already marked after having steering issues against Upper Thames the day before, were entangled in a clash with City of Bristol and the two crews allowed to restart. [The Nottingham backup team hope that after several hours work in the afternoon whatever was causing the steering trouble has now been fixed.] A restart was also given to Thames/Leander composite and Henley in the Visitors’ fours after they had a barney early in the race. A variation occurred in the Prince of Wales elite quads when Craftsbury Green Racing Project (USA) and Hinksey Sculling School collided with one another at the quarter-mile marker. They were also permitted to begin again but with Hinksey given a substantial head-start to reflect the race situation when they clashed, which led to a clear win for the Oxfordshire quad over the US scullers with national team aspirations.
In other mishaps possibly caused by a swirling wind, Vesta’s Wyfold M4- hit the booms at Remenham while already down to the Lea, and Oxford Brookes University B did the same against TBC Racing in the Visitors’ after lunch. Durham University’s Stonor W2x had a similar problem against Nottingham, allowing the Midlanders an ‘easily’ verdict (ie more than five lengths). In the other side of the Stonor draw Rio GBR W8+ silver medallists Katie Greves and Jess Eddie soared out of retirement to grab an ‘easily’ verdict against Hinksey Sculling School which means they are now matched against GBR’s current LW2x double of Emily Craig and Imogen Grant on Friday. Hard one to predict: Craig and Grant are fearsome racers, ended in Tokyo 0.5 seconds off gold in a motivational fourth place, and have had two weeks not worrying about weight. But they do still have the usual disadvantages of lightweights racing even retired heavyweights, especially if the headwind continues.
The best race of the day was a humdinger between Greenbank Falmouth’s Tim Wilkinson and Cambridge ’99 boathouse manager William Young, who were brilliantly matched, leaving the result in doubt until the last photofinish stroke. Exhausted, the two collapsed over their oars for several minutes until Wilkinson was announced as the winner by two feet, earning him a race on Friday against Hugh McAdam who was set to be the USA’s LM1x at the non-Olympic world championships before they were cancelled.
A blustery, chilly, drizzly sky had greeted the early arrivals but racing was fully up to scratch and the spectators stalwartly lined the banks to cheer until the sun came out later in the day. Parents balked by this year’s COVID-separation arrangements of the right to go and shout to the sky as their schoolkids boated had to be satisfied with forming a celebratory pack on the bank where the crews shoot across the course and into the warm-up lane down to the start. Not as stirring a moment as carrying the boat out through an honour guard of elderly be-blazered alumni, but possibly less pressurising for the racing generation. Several Stewards have assured me that the boat-tent displacement is temporary and they will be back in place beside Henley Bridge next year, you’ll be glad to hear.