Heartbroken Huskies and three-peats galore


5 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 08.07.24

Henley Royal Regatta 2024 came to a thundering close on Sunday with a boom-crash in the Grand, appeals in the Temple and the Wyfolds, and a victory list in which three very familiar clubs claimed half of the 26 trophies and fourteen wins were by defending 2023 champions. Perhaps it looks like stagnation, but with only eight titles going overseas, it’s a far cry from the relatively recent early 2000s when British crews struggled to win more than a handful of events, and sometimes none in the open categories. British club, school and university rowing now holds its own against all-comers, as was demonstrated this week, mostly by Thames, Leander and Oxford Brookes. 

The squad of the day was Brookes, putting their names back on five of their 2023 trophies and adding the Remenham Challenge Cup as a sixth, securing the unprecedented double of claiming on the Grand and Remenham men’s and women’s eights with club-level crews. Not only that, but half the Grand eight doubled up into the Stewards open coxless fours where they rowed through Leander and then were reprimanded for letting out an unfortunate swear-word picked up by the microphones at the finish line, which was uttered largely in sheer astonishment at what they had just achieved.

Internationals shared eight of the trophies, including Ruiqi Liu claiming China’s first ever singles Henley victory in the Princess Royal, and Niki van Sprang and Guillaume Krommenhoek (NED) turning a summer of Olympic qualification disappointment golden with the Silver Goblets and Nickalls Challenge Cup title against their German equivalents. Rowing Canada’s squad picked up the Hambleden Pairs and Town coxless fours women’s events, and the Stonor women’s doubles went to Paris non-qualifiers Sarah Wibberenz and Lara Gutfleisch, confidently defeating an up-and-coming British double. The last Paris near-misses to pick up loot at Henley were Canada’s Shawnigan Lake national team quad, with Carling Zeeman replaced by under-23 Grace Van Den Broek.

They defeated a boatful of recent internationals rowing as Lausanne/Shawnigan, and were watched doing so by His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, after whose mother Princess Grace the women’s quads trophy is named. He later presented the prizes, including a new base for the W4x trophy hallmarked by himself. Shawnigan Lake were joined at the prizegiving by Germany’s world — and he hopes soon to be Olympic — champion Olli Zeidler who won the prestigious Diamond Challenge Sculls for the fourth time in a flawless display of power. Zeidler has taken to using swivel footplates which give him more balance in rough water, such as at HRR and expected in Paris, and was one of seven champion crews to win a third consecutive trophy.

One of these, Thames RC, was able to hit the bar at lunchtime, having raced all four of its finals. Three were successful, the Thames Cup, Wargrave and Brit crews defending last year’s titles, an impressive achievement. Their Wyfold four however came up against the ambition of Marlow, on a very specific quest.

Marlow men have never won a club event at HRR, only juniors or open/composites. They broke that jinx against Thames with the most controversial sprint of the day. After trading warnings with Thames the entire course, they clashed in neutral water while the Thames crew was starting to blow, and ended up with the Putney club drifting over the line, hands held aloft for an appeal. No blame to either crew and the appeal was denied giving Marlow the win, though both were veering from the stations so much that had Thames carried on, it’s possible it could have gone differently. Marlow went on to record what was given as an ‘easily’ verdict, though it was really ‘not rowed out’ since Thames drifted across the line.

The Brookes vs Washington Grand race — the most prolifically successful British club of the last ten years versus the US student champions — was one of the most bizarre in history, but heartbreaking for Washington, who had a very bad day. A blue foam grip came loose on a Husky blade-handle before the start, prompting a rain-drenched equipment delay, during which Brookes head coach Henry Bailhache-Webb and director of rowing Richard Spratley, nervous about their doubling-up athletes, had to watch as the next four races including two of their other crews, went off the start. Their Visitors’ four lost to Leander, the Brookes Island women’s student eight beat Newcastle, a second Husky grip caused transient but quickly-solved problems, and then once all had been fixed and the Grand finally began, umpire Fiona Dennis had to warn the Washington varsity early on as they avoided the stream down the island and slid across towards the Berkshire station. 

By the Barrier Brookes had a very slight lead and both crews were looking strong, but a minute later disaster struck the race, as the Huskies, steering back courageously close to the Bucks booms to get out of the Fawley stream, veered a shade too far, suddenly hit wood with their starboard blades, and caught a hooking stroke which all but stopped them. A two-length gap developed immediately and though they restarted without delay, the damage had been done and the margin slowly increased. Brookes were able to relax from their peak tension and row a solid but unspectacular 36 to the line, unchallenged by the heartbroken Huskies. Speaking as a cox, the Henley booms are incredibly difficult to steer next to, drawing towards them even coxes who are sure their boat is running parallel: it’s a nightmare which haunts many a steersman whether facing forward or backwards. 

Sadly no Leander women won but the Pink Palace oarsmen claimed the Visitors’ trophy in a nip and tuck race over Brookes, and three men’s sculling trophies. They won the Prince of Wales elite club quads over Skøll, the Double Sculls by two members of the British Rowing Sculling Hub section of Project LA — Jamie Gare and Cedol Dafydd — and the Queen Mother open men’s quads in a tantalising race against Germany’s brilliant new development quartet. Unfazed by the Germans having beaten their own Olympic crew recently, Leander’s foursome edged through to a narrow lead then put in a beautifully timed push approaching Fawley and rebuffed further attacks to storm through the Enclosures two-thirds of a length to the good. A masterclass.

To prevent such stealthy erosion, two women’s crews fired themselves straight into the lead in what had been expected to be close races. Headington School took their Prince Philip eights race against RowAmerica Rye by the scruff of the neck before soaring away to reclaim the trophy they first won in its inaugural year, 2021, and Oxford Brookes in the Remenham did the same to the US development squad racing as Princeton Training Center & ARION, both against opposition which never gave up. Although the finals were not of the vintage neck-and-neck battle type seen in so many women’s eights match-ups earlier in the week, they sang of the mature resilience and fortitude so common in women’s rowing nowadays.

Resilience was also on offer in the two Princeton races, the Tigers meeting Cambridge in the Ladies’ Plate and Brookes in the Temple. The double win was not to be, but Princeton picked up a clean and powerful win against the Light Blues with their varsity crew in the morning, their first Henley trophy since last winning the same event in 2006. In the afternoon the second varsity had a much tougher time against Brookes’ top eligible student crew in the Temple, bolted off quickly but saw their short lead vanish under repeated assaults from the UK club. Brookes’ aggressive steering caused some warnings and a pause while the result was appealed, but was judged not to have affected the race, denying Princeton a rare Ladies/Temple double win. 


In the face of all this action the Princess Elizabeth junior men’s eights final was, unusually, far from top billing. Though Shiplake yearned to upset the form book, most onlookers knew that St Paul’s held more cards, and SPS coach Bobby Thatcher was able to celebrate his fourth Henley win in a decade after his boys kept their cool when Shiplake came back to overlap from two lengths down. The triple crown secured in a difficult and competitive year, St Paul’s are still the most consistently interesting boys’ school outfit, and a credit to their coaches, particularly Thatcher. 

Several other events went to form: JW4x favourites Wycliffe making up for last year’s Diamond Jubilee disappointment by winning the event for the first time, against Marlow. Windsor Boys competently defended their Fawley junior men’s quads title, also against Marlow, and Brookes were always going to collect the Prince Albert student M4+ after their A and B crews made it to the final. Thames’ men’s coxed four kept hold of the Brit Cup for the third year running, a dispirited Chester crew broken before passing through the Enclosures and unable to find one last gear to deny the Tideway club its historic victory. This is the first time anyone has won three Britannia Challenge Cup three years in a row.

So that’s it. Six days, 50+mm of rainfall, 772 entries from 27 nations, nine of which ended up winning. Thousands of Rower’s Breakfasts consumed at the regatta cafe, a million puddles walked through, and 817 beeps at the finish line.

Twenty-six trophies and one hundred and thirty-seven little red boxes given out by His Serene Highness. The rain’s gone, the sun’s out again and Henley’s done for 2024. See you next year.