Henley Downpours Dampen Friday’s Festivities


4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 06.07.24

As the UK woke up to a complete change of government after the 4th July general election, racing continued at Henley Royal Regatta, umbrellas and raincoats replacing the strapless dresses and sunglasses of the day before. The racing sharpened considerably, with fewer close verdicts but more intense racing, as another 85 crews were knocked out of the draw. Amongst them were Temple hopefuls Nereus, who last won the event in 2015, the year Sir Steve Redgrave started as Chairman. They leapt ahead of Harvard off the start, but the IRA lightweight champions were unflustered, levelled the Dutchmen at Fawley and then turned the screw until they had a fairly safe two-thirds of a length margin. Harvard lightweights, who last won a Henley trophy in 1971, now meet Brookes A in their semifinal.

Friday packed in at least three different seasons, starting with light misty autumnal-style drizzle for the early races, drying up to sunny and summery in mid-day, and then bucketing down with wintry pelting rain from tea-time to supper, reaching deluge point at times. This caught Wycliffe College B dashing up the course, beating Leander by two-thirds of a length in the Diamond Jubilee junior women’s quads. The rain eased slightly then hardened again as another Jubilee race saw Marlow beat E.L. Crossley School from Canada, by which time Temple Island was nearly invisible behind more mist and rain.

Never let it be said that the Stewards don’t admit their mistakes: Wycliffe B had been forced to go through qualifying for the Jubilee this year despite being one of the more impressive UK quads behind their excellent A crew, but were then rewarded with selection, presumably through putting in a very fast time-trial. Despite being kept away from their A crew in the draw until now, the two finally meet in Saturday’s semifinal after national and Henley Women’s champions Wycliffe A disposed handily of Hartpury.

The Princess Elizabeth junior men’s eights battle tightened up, Radley vs Shiplake delivering a mid-afternoon epic just as the rain began. Radley took the first lead, and tried to break Shiplake’s spirit at Fawley but the attempt backfired. Shiplake won the mental battle and steadily closed the gap until they were level by the grandstands and flew past a dispirited Radley for a two-thirds of a length win. They now meet Eton, who held off a sustained assault from Southport School Australia over the whole course. It would be a major upset for late-blooming St Edward’s to overturn St Paul’s on Saturday so an Eton/St Paul’s final (as in 2018 and 2021), or Shiplake/St Paul’s (which has never happened before) are the most likely outcomes. 

An even better race was staged by Thames and Princeton University in the Ladies’ Plate, the Tigers’ varsity unit undefeated this season and up against an ambitious and experienced club crew including several previous Thames Cup winners. Thames, who haven’t had the best of seasons, pulled out their best and never let the Americans escape, but despite some superb pushes, could only close to half a length down by the line. Princeton now have the likely British under-23 eight to contend with, made up of eight oarsmen all of whom are studying (and rowing) at US universities. The winners will race the final against the victors of a tasty Saturday semifinal between Cambridge’s near-varsity and Oxford Brookes’ second-best boat.

It’s a difficult time to be an up-and-coming Dutch sculler, with huge strength in their senior team blocking development, but under-23 silver medallist Lucas Keijzer is doing everything he can to gain experience. He gave Craftsbury’s newly-qualified Olympic single sculler Jacob Plihal a run for his money in the Diamonds until the Progress Board, where the American jacked up the rate and pushed on, rowing Keijzer to a momentary standstill until the Dutchman got going again and finished over three lengths down. 

In the other half of the draw Germany’s world, Henley and would-be Olympic champion Olli Zeidler is by far the biggest individual name racing this year. Up against Poland’s obviously talented departee from crew-boat racing, Szymon Posnik, Zeidler was like a sneaky cat playing with a mouse, and took his time. They zoomed off hard and Posnik stayed close until Fawley where without apparent effort Zeidler broke contact and could then step his rate down to a comfortable level. The most exciting sculling race — and the closest finish of the day — was in the Princess Royal, where American Cicely Madden held off British Henley Women’s runner-up Sarah McKay by a mere three feet. 

Thames A in the Thames is one of fifteen crews (give or take a composite) who are defending titles won last summer, and have got to the weekend — semifinal time — without missing a beat. They are now husbanding their resources, so took their rate right down after the barrier, letting Marlow A come back, but never in danger.

A superb race lit up the grey skies at teatime, Durham and Newcastle Universities’ women’s eights meeting in the students-only Island Challenge Cup, the Blue Star brigade from the Tyne duffing up Durham for the second time since losing to them at the British university championships. The Palatinate crew didn’t make it at all easy, Durham coming roaring back from a three-quarter deficit early on, to level twice, at Remenham and the Barrier. In a superb display Newcastle piled on the power again and pulled away to regain their early advantage by the line.

The personnel for two of Sunday’s finals are already decided: the sole Stewards’ (top men’s coxless fours) is a straight final between Oxford Brookes and Leander, while Brookes are already assured of one trophy since their A and B crews will face one another in the Prince Albert men’s coxed fours final on Sunday after defeating the universities of London and Cambridge respectively in Friday semifinals. 


Oxford Brookes University are defending all seven of their 2023 trophies, albeit sometimes with different composite partners, and have several other entries including Stonor women’s doubles sculler, Jenny Bates. She is rowing with Freya Keto from Thames and aiming to add a Royal trophy to their W Peer Cup from Henley Women’s and a victory at the Holland Beker. Bates and Keto sailed through against Reading University’s under-23s, and another ten crews also won, putting Brookes in a total of nine semifinals plus the two already raced. Their most dramatic and best contest of the day was against Dutch crew Orca in the Town women’s fours, with Brookes stalking them up the course before putting in a very well-timed push past through the Enclosures, to win by a length.

Deference for age was in evidence in the Ladies’ Plate where holders Oxford Brookes were drawn against a vanity project of ex-Olympians, California, for their first race. Brookes were untroubled by the weight of (now gently ageing) pedigree against them and shot off to record an ‘easily’ verdict dropping to rate 24 for most of the course while their opposition mustered an energetic thirty. The students then stopped at the finish to applaud their opposition — who have five Olympic medals between them — and went to shake hands after disembarking.

In the Brookes-free zone of the Prince of Wales elite men’s quads, however, experience had the upper hand. Star and Arrow (aka a collection of former GB internationals) cannily bided their time against the Tideway Scullers/Proteus-Eretes composite and put themselves through to the semifinals with an extremely well-judged burst to the line from the Milepost. Grandstanding and crowd-pleasing? Yes. But also effective, and every race is giving this wily combination more time in the boat.