Henley Royal has many moods and that of finals day 2019 was, surprisingly, serenity. Bubbling under the calm sunshine surface were the usual hope, despair, exhilaration and excitement of the crews and their closest coaches and supporters, but the regatta itself was even-tempered and calm despite the triumphs and tragedies being enacted out on the water.
The pinnacle of emotion came in the prime-slot 3pm King’s Cup, and it was a brilliant race, outstripping some of the supposedly better contests. The German Bundeswehr crew went early into the slenderest of leads, but only managed a canvas margin before the US Naval Academy in their shell named ‘Overlord’ pinned them down and stopped the rot. Stroke for stroke the two military crews fought their way up the course with the gap barely changing, until the US midshipmen (and women) mounted an inexorable push through Remenham which carried them straight past the Bundeswehr and to victory by nearly a length.
The roar and passionate shouts as they passed the Enclosures were easily the loudest I’ve ever heard in 29 years of coming to Henley. That includes your choice of any Princess Elizabeth race or the Brits beating the Germans in the 2015 Grand final. The purity of this event in which gender equality, commemoration and history merged was a fitting way to remember the 1919 Peace Regatta in which rowing’s positive values and spirit of community were restarted after the WWI armistice. Somehow even the fact that the Stewards’ band accidentally-on-purpose played the Dambusters March as the two crews raced along the Enclosures seemed to be a stirring and appropriate soundtrack to the race, rather than sarcasm.
The gorgeous new trophy, embossed with the winding River Thames and a diamond stud to mark the location of Henley, was handed over to the white-clad winning crew by Lieutenant-Commander Pete Reed (to give him his full title), and it was confirmed that the original gold King’s Cup will go on a world tour to the nations involved before it returns home to Australia to resume its duty as the prize for the interstate champion eight of that country. Meanwhile a ceremonial sword will be engraved for the US Naval Academy to receive, to mark their epic victory.
Around this emotive event 23 other trophies were awarded with the minimum of fuss. No appeals, false starts or disqualifications, and the few warnings were for coxless small boats which inadvertently had trouble steering. The wind was a bit erratic, but the Pimms flowed merrily, the riverbanks were packed tight and the racing was flat out and gutsy.
Boris Rankov, the lightning-rod Steward who has attracted most of the controversial umpiring issues of the last decade, retired this year on turning 65, going out with a Grand Challenge final which caused him no problems, but which he would probably have preferred to be won by Britain rather than a sprightly New Zealand crew. Thus did Kiwi Mahe Drysdale get his seventh HRR little red box, but this time without the pineapple cup and without a stressful singles race. Hamish Bond, sitting behind Drysdale, collected his fourth HRR win and encouragement that the New Zealand eights 2020 plot, resonating with the memory of the gold-medal 1972 mens eight, is on track. It was, incidentally, New Zealand’s first ever Grand victory.
After the ‘narrowest of margins’ verdict earlier in the week — now rebranded ‘1 inch’ in the programme results possibly due to a lack of space — the tightest gap between champion and has-been was half a length on Sunday, and the biggest gaps were a trio of ‘easily’ verdicts. It may be in bad taste to blast up the entire course non-stop against weaker opposition, but with the wind swirling around the steep Henley hills deciding to be cross-wind with a hint of head and tail, on minimal stream the temptation to try and chop down records was too great.
The GB Queen Mother quad, racing a bunch of former lightweights from Frankfurter, had a proper go at their record but missed the markers by 2, 3 and 7 seconds respectively, racing after the best of the wind had already died away. The Dutch national women’s four lowered all the marks including the course record for the relatively new Town Challenge Cup against the Chinese, and Kiwis Gowler and Prendergast equalled the Fawley and were within five seconds of the Hambleden Pairs finish time, during another ‘easily’ verdict and also late in the day. This was because they had already raced with the Kiwi women’s eight beating the British eight comfortably in the Remenham, making them two of a very small handful of people who have claimed a pair of trophies on the same finals day at HRR.
The most successful record attempt came courtesy of the British under-23 four, racing with smooth efficiency as Cambridge University & Leander against a hapless Nereus & Laga and crossing the line about thirty seconds before their opposition, equalling the Barrier and Fawley records and dropping the full-course mark by three seconds to 6-28. This was ten full seconds quicker than the official GBR M4-, who beat the ‘injury returners’ four with ease in the Stewards’. The under-23 quad (both are selected but neither have been announced yet), got a full-blooded revenge on two of the Dutchmen who had beaten them in the Prince of Wales final last year. This time Edinburgh University & Nottingham didn’t let Skøll & Orca get any big ideas, steadily drawing into a one-length lead which was briefly threatened when the Dutch crew pushed just after Fawley, but dealing calmly with the threat and re-establishing a clear-water margin without fuss. Sam Meijer, Josh Armstrong, Matt Heywood and George Bourne must be odds-on favourites for retaining the under-23 M4x title for Great Britain in Sarasota later this month.
One of the tautest races of the day came in the Double Sculls final, between John Collins & Graeme Thomas of GBR and John Storey & Chris Harris of NZL. Three of the four had won Doubles trophies before — Collins twice with other partners and Storey & Harris in 2017 — but Thomas put his name on the cup with a dogged race in which the Brits knew they would have to defend themselves against a Kiwi duo who had a lot to prove after a C-final appearance in Poznan. As expected, it was a tremendous battle in which Collins & Thomas led from the start and won by a length, but had to scull their very best to stay ahead of the insistent attacks of the determined Kiwis, who ended up rating in the late 40s past the Progress Boards in their attempt to find a hole in the British defences. Two exceptional doubles racing their hearts out: magnificent.
The Kiwis had better luck in the eights, completing the Grand/Remenham double achieved by Australia’s team last year by eating the Brits for breakfast in both events. The British women may be set for a seat reshuffle in response to a poor week where their own development eight pushed them much closer than should have been possible, and the British men will also have a great deal to do to ensure that their loss to the Kiwis doesn’t give their rivals confidence for the 6-lane racing. HRR and FISA races are very different animals, especially in the eights, so there is no reason for the results to be harbingers of doom, but this year’s eights racing is particularly intense given that only five Tokyo spots are up for grabs in Linz, so any bad race is a waste of time. Elsewhere Emma Twigg comfortably beat Lisa Scheenaard for the Princess Royal singles, and Brooke Donoghue and Olivia Loe beat the Chinese in the Stonor women’s doubles.
The other eights races had some predictability in them, as Oxford Brookes did the Ladies’/Temple double for the second time (the only others to achieve this have been Imperial and UL). Neither was a particularly complex race and they won by a combined total of 1.75 lengths, ten seconds apart in terms of finish time and either side of the lunch interval. The Temple eight barely dropped under 39 for the entire race, taking a quick lead over Northeastern which became clear water for a while before Northeastern’s gallant rally brought overlap before the line. The Ladies’ eight clinically took apart the Dutch under-23 crew, taking a length which they held for all but a brief moment in the Enclosures before drawing out again, and becoming the first crew in 39 years to successfully defend their club’s Ladies’ Plate title. They were also the fastest crew on the course for finals day, a second outside the Ladies’ Barrier and Fawley records and one second quicker than the winning Kiwi Grand eight.
The Princess Elizabeth school eights came down to a match between Eton, who had been improving every race, and Scotch College, who had made getting to the final look a lot harder than their 2017 crew did. Eton were particularly speedily away from the start, but Scotch were not about to let them walk away, and some of the most forceful finishes seen on finals day were employed for the next couple of minutes. However, Eton’s slightly smoother long strokes started to tell, and over the middle third of the course they slid away to nearly a length’s lead approaching the Enclosures. They didn’t quite escape though, and scenting an opening, Scotch took it up again, but Eton had the challenge covered and were able to move out to clear water as Scotch lost heart having been led all the way for the first time in the week.
There was a famous row-through in the Thames Challenge Cup, Thames’ club eight using a hard start to taking a three-quarter length lead over on-paper favourites Okeanos and raising Remenham hopes of another trophy for the Putney club. But the Dutch crew were unruffled by being on the back foot and began to slowly claw back the length, making the big move approaching Upper Thames and surging inexorably through Thames to win by a length. The effort took its toll on Thames bowman and deputy captain Tom Foad, who lay flat with complete exhaustion for minutes after the race, but recovered after getting on-site medical attention.
The Wyfold and Prince Albert fours went abroad (to Sydney and Harvard respectively) but the Britannia did not, a cracking race in which Molesey went clear-water down to aggressive starters Mercantile before barging back in a campaign which took from the Barrier to the Mile to move them from lagging to leading. The eventual margin was only half a length, and the Australians looked threatening throughout, but Molesey’s well-deserved victory was one of the best races of the day. Less exciting were the Diamond Jubilee junior women’s quads, in which Latymer demonstrated yet again how hard it is to beat them when they get to the final. This time it was Headington, for whom it was not to be third time lucky: they have yet to win this event despite perennially being amongst the top schoolgirl programmes. In the Fawley JM4x Leander finally won the trophy as a single club, beating Henley fairly comfortably.
Three more trophies went overseas, the Argentinian Goblets pair of Agustin Diaz and Axel Haack picking up their country’s first win at HRR since 1980, and China making history with the first Asian nation’s win at the Royal Regatta in the Princess Grace women’s quads. After the upsets in the other half of the draw it was no surprise to see Oliver Zeidler beating Guillaume Krommenhoek in the singles (by five lengths) — Zeidler was only a few seconds outside the Diamonds Barrier and Fawley records despite the margin, and becomes the first German to win it since Marcel Hacker in 1999.