If Henley Royal Regatta had a brain you’d say it spent half the day thinking up new ways to surprise us. The drama of Saturday was not on the water — though the racing was lively and passionate — but on the bank, where a mid-morning statement was issued by Regatta officials.
“It is the judgement of the Committee of Management that in Race 65 on Friday 13 August, a heat of the Island Challenge Cup between their ‘A’ and ‘B’ crews, Oxford Brookes University Boat Club’s conduct of the race was unsporting. The crews did not compete sufficiently for the outcome or verdict. This was, as a result, a breach of General Rule 42. Accordingly, Oxford Brookes University Boat Club has been given an Official Warning for unsportsmanlike conduct, with the effect that each crew remaining in the Regatta has been deemed to have caused a false start.”
The offending race is online, showing the start and then picking up from Upper Thames. By this point the Brookes ‘B’ crew has dropped its rating to 30, considerably lower than you’d expect an eight racing flat out to exhibit, and allowing the ‘A’ crew to drop theirs to 24. Whilst leading crews are welcome to lower their rate and save energy, the losing crews are not expected to do the same without a very good reason, such as equipment malfunction or a medical problem.
News of the false starts rippled around the regatta on Saturday, and it was perhaps unsurprising that when University of London’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ women’s crews had to race one another in late afternoon for the right to meet Brookes ‘A’ in the Island Cup final, they were elaborately careful not to give any hint of collusion between the crews. The UL ‘B’ crew raced flat out at 35-36 the whole way up the course, and the ‘A’ crew, whilst legitimately able to cruise un-pushed, stopped after the finish line so that they could cheer their club mates home in loud and pointed demonstration that they had raced properly.
Ireland’s LM2x Olympic champion Paul O’Donovan has been having a bit of fun at Henley, whilst introducing his doubles partner Fintan McCarthy to the delights of the Royal Regatta. He gave the most confusing quote possible to the HRR press office after the duo overhauled the Brookes partnership of Jamie Copus (GB lightweight) and Quentin Antognelli (Monaco’s Olympic single sculler) to claim their finals spot. “Yes, we had an interesting race, with Fintan doing a bit of a triathlon — fishing, swimming and rowing”, said O’Donovan. “And then Brookes had an excellent start, but then Fintan set his eyes on rowing again and laid down the power there thankfully”.
He may have been jokily alluding to the small crab and slight steering issues, which saw the Irishmen veer dangerously close to the white buoys before the wooden booms start after the Island, but they corrected quickly and caught back up with the Brookes combination who had taken nearly a length lead. However Copus and Antognelli gave them a very hard trial, leading until well past the Barrier and forcing the holders of the world’s best time to lay themselves out at full stretch to ensure the victory. “I’ve really realised that winning is better than not winning, and that’s what we’re going to try and do this weekend”, was one of O’Donovan’s tongue-in-cheek comments during their interview. Copus and Antognelli had a lovely way of indicating their national team provenance: whilst the front of their blades were painted Brookes colours, the back of Copus’s were the white with a red edge stripe of the GB team, and Antognelli’s were the horizontal red-white-red of Monaco’s Olympic colours.
As befitted semi-finals day there was plenty of very close racing, including a Prince Albert Cup M4+ banger between Newcastle and Bristol universities (won by Newcastle), and a belter in the Wyfolds between Lea and Northwich won by the Londoners and involving Northwich grazing the booms, though that was not how the result was decided. The Ladies’ Plate semi in which Leander were defeated by defending champions Oxford Brookes (different crew) went all the way to the last few strokes, as did the Remenham contest between Leander and Molesey/Leander, in which the Pink Palace crew, which includes plenty of the new GB Paris 2024 development squad, clung on to claim victory by half a length.
The evening Fawley semi-final between Tideway Scullers ‘A’ and the Lea was held up for a while as there were reports of swimmers possibly on the course, an increasing problem for those holding river regattas now that ‘wild swimming’ has lured more into outdoor waters. A boat was despatched to sort out the problem, but the crews were started soon afterwards when an all clear was declared. However, the swell left by the workboat seemed to affect Lea as the two crews reached that area, Scullers leading and riding it better, and the Lea bowman Harry Fletcher deftly re-caught his bowside handle after it slipped out of his hand, recovering well. It wasn’t quite enough to stop Scullers winning but the boys in orange made them work for every inch of the 1.25 length victory.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the finals schedule will have been complex to create, with half the Oxford Brookes ‘A’ Ladies Plate crew doubling up in the Visitors to race the M4- final against Leander, and six of Leander’s own Remenham crew doubling up into the Hambleden W2- and Town Challenge Cup W4-. Three hours, give or take, is what the Stewards have decided is about the right time between races for these combinations. There is every chance that the last race of the entire regatta, the Fawley JM4x final, will be the best of the day, after Windsor Boys’ School ‘A’ overhauled Leander in a tremendous battle: whilst their opposition, Tideway Scullers ‘A’, are slightly quicker on paper, anything can happen when little red medal boxes are up for grabs.