A remarkably controversy-free finals Sunday capped a luscious week of high-quality racing at Henley Royal 2023. Whether it was the heinously high qualification bar or simply a reflection of the improvement in standard across ambitious crews since the pandemic, it was a year without a single genuinely duff crew in the main draw, and with plenty of evidence that the British are learning how to move boats.
As a result all but six of the trophies stayed in UK hands, and those crews which did carry off silverware overseas had to put out their best efforts to do so. The Brookes appetite for trophy-bagging continued (7 from 7 finals), Leander gave themselves plenty of gold-leafed engraving of names to do on their honours boards (8 wins from 15 finals, one of which was shared with Brookes), and Thames carted off three more with aplomb. It may not have been a good day to come from any other UK club, but some parts of British rowing are alive and well and truly kicking.
There were plenty of contenders for best final, one of which was the Ladies’ Plate edition between Leander and Oxford Brookes, a high-octane slugging match along the whole course, Brookes slightly ahead. Their biggest advantage was ¾ length at Upper Thames but then Leander started boring back and eroding the gap until they could charge full-throttle through the Enclosures. But Brookes had gears of their own and the Pink Palace narrowly failed to close enough, giving a three-foot verdict to the students, closest race of the day.
Britain’s national team had a mostly good day, helped by a medical issue in the Polish men’s quad which gave the GBR quad a golden opportunity. After going for a training paddle as a trio without Mateusz Biskup earlier in the week it was fortunate that the 2022 world champions were able to race their final against Nottingham & Leander, aka the beleaguered British M4x, who have not yet won an event this season. The visitors took a short lead early which they extended slightly but the British never lost contact and then sprinted like fury along the entire Enclosures to take a ½ length win.
When the Poles are back in full health we might reasonably expect them to take revenge, but it was still an excellent row from the GB quartet who now just have to do it again in Lucerne on a 112-metre shorter course and with four other crews alongside. “We’re still building as a unit and that race was almost like a physical representation of our season so far”, said George Bourne. “I see no reason why we can’t keep building but that’s an awesome moment for us. These Polish guys are lovely guys but they’re hard competitors so for us to come into that fight and win it on our home water is awesome.”
In other GB news the Town W4- had probably their easiest race of the season, trouncing the Leander aspirational club crew by something very close to an easily verdict, while the Grand M8+ were merciless and masterful against Canada’s latest line-up (three lengths to the British who are rapidly gaining an enviable reputation internationally this season). The British Remenham W8+ were the losers in a very uneven match against Maple Bay aka Canada, who were able to chug along at 35-36 mid-course while the Brits, who are trying to qualify as many crews as possible at the worlds, sat just over a length down unable to make any real impact. This will be a wake-up call for the nascent GBR W8+ plot, which is going to Lucerne as a serious bid with a full non-doubling up crew. The GBR W4x was in full charge against a very new Canadian combination racing as Shawnigan Lake, winning easily despite having to substitute Becky Wilde for Lola Anderson on the morning of the race.
Sadly the superlative GBR men’s four had only a Thames club crew to race, albeit of previous HRR winners, so had an “easily” Stewards’ Challenge Cup canter out against non-international opposition, who should be thanked for giving them a contest. The GB quartet will have a better test of their impressive abilities in Lucerne this coming weekend. Two under-23 W2x contenders had a good row to lose the Stonor by a respectably low 2.5L margin to Canada’s excellent lightweight double of Jill Moffatt and Jen Casson, while the early-season spare pair of Rebecca Edwards and Chloe Brew accounted for ambitious HWR winners Emily Lindberg and Elizabeth Witt to win the Hambleden Pairs.
Aidan Thompson and John Collins are a new GBR M2x combination, still finding their way. They had rather a sharp lesson from Spain’s European and 2022 world silver medallists Aleix Garcia Pujolar and Rodrigo Conde Romero, who took two lengths out of the British before halfway and never lost a firm grip on the race to claim Spain’s first ever Henley trophy. “It’s a dream for us to be here and to have won the title, so we’re very happy”, said Garcia Pujolar. “An incredible experience with the organisation, the crowd, it’s the best regatta we have been to so far. That cheer with thousands of people [in the Enclosures], it’s incredible.”
In the Goblets Tom George claimed his first Henley trophy with fellow ex-Radley and Cambridge oarsman Ollie Wynne-Griffith, beating the undoubtedly promising new Canadian duo of Jack Walkey and Joel Cullen without having to put out their full effort, and wearing their Cambridge zephyrs under their Leander all-in-ones. “[Henley’s] been a cruel, cruel mistress”, said George afterwards. “I’ve been here a lot of times on the Sunday, lost a lot of finals we should have won, so it’s special.”
An in-form Oli Zeidler (GER) added a second pineapple cup to his palmares with an ‘easily’ win over Piotr Plominski (POL) in the Diamonds while Diana Dymchenko (AZE) faced up to Marta Wieliczko (POL) in the Princess Royal.
The Polish oarswoman was the first to show her bows in front, but Dymchenko put in a strong push past the Barrier to reclaim the initiative and levelled her rival, grimacing with pain. Wieliczko pushed back a few hundred metres later, but as they entered the Enclosures they were level yet again, having traded punches most of the way up the course. The winner was Dymchenko, slightly higher-rating and slightly stronger as the two duked it out in the last thirty strokes.
Princess Elizabeth races tend to be expectant-triumphant affairs, particularly when one of the historic schools wins. But St Edward’s School’s one-third length victory over St Paul’s School was more emotional than triumphant, for a few reasons. It was their first win at Henley since 1999, a very long gap for such an accomplished rowing school, and only the second time that a co-ed UK independent school has taken the PE title.
And the crew put the name of John Wiggins, former master of rowing, across the line first on the bow of their racing shell, bringing tears to his eyes. “I didn’t think we’d see them do this again in my lifetime”, he said as hordes of supporters yelling “Hoo ha Ted-dies!” greeted the crew. “This happens to everyone else, not us”, said coach Jonny Singfield, who had always been wary of St Paul’s despite Teddies defeating them at National Schools to lift the Championship Eights trophy. “We had the speed: if we got it all right then we could win, but I wasn’t expecting to win”. That’s what decades of near-misses and lost chances does to a club. In the end Teddies’ opening speed and strong stride had given them a length’s advantage early enough to be able to relax then push away St Pauls’ later attempts to get on terms.
A club which can get four eights into the men’s championship open M8+ final at Marlow is capable of anything, so to see Oxford Brookes soar away with four of their seven trophies in the day within 45 minutes was both inspiring — and daunting for anyone else. The backlash from the many who envy their success may be near, though at the moment it’s being staved off by the genuine and unaffected delight with which their winners greeted victory.
The morning began with their Prince Albert student M4+ yelling in ecstasy after rowing University of Washington’s equivalent level crew down in a sustained burst from Upper Thames to the Milepost, and carried on like a juggernaut winning four in a row before the last race before lunch, another classic lungbuster in which Brookes’ top women kept being harried by University of Pennsylvania’s superb first varsity.
The Penn stride was a work of art, moving inexorably through the formerly unstoppable Brookes until the British women halted the rot at half a length and began to haul them back in. Level again just after Fawley, Brookes now had the upper hand and kept it to the line, but not without having to fend off multiple attacks including one in the Enclosures which left them victory by just a canvas. Superb.
Syracuse had tried the same trick in the Temple, but without a fast start they were always playing catch-up with Brookes, who edged away to win by clear water. Brookes have now won seven Temple Challenge Cups from ten finalist crews, and have six of its last ten finals to their name. They added the Prince Albert (by 3.75 lengths over Washington), the Visitors’ (by 1.75L over Leander), and supplied large chunks of the GBR team at HRR.
The score now stands at 2:1 to Thames in the recently-established Wargrave women’s club eights, having beaten Leander in this and last year’s event after the Pink Palace beat Thames in the inaugural final. This doesn’t properly reflect the diversity and breadth of women’s rowing in the sport, but the other UK clubs need to follow Thames’ example and challenge the top tier, since it can be done by less well resourced operations than the denizens of the cerise-addicted boathouse by Henley Bridge.
However Leander had great successes in the Fawley where they put away Hinksey Sculling without compunction in the Oxfordshire juniors’ first ever final, in their national-team members, and in the Prince of Wales where their club crew’s defeat of the Dutch under-23s means they have now won a ridiculous nine of the fourteen Prince of Wales trophies since its inception in 2008.
The British junior women will be rueing the change which now allows clubs into the former schools-only Princess Elizabeth, since that is what brought over Greenwich from the USA. Now that their junior men could also race in an age-relevant event, their junior women were allowed to come across the pond for the first time in a joint trip, and scrapped the whole way against Deerfield Academy who had lost to Greenfield by much bigger margins earlier in the season. Greenwich were not to be denied, though Deerfield’s last assault brought them to within half a length of the Connecticut experts, who now become the first non-school club to put their names on the shiny three-year-old Prince Philip Challenge Trophy platter.
Thames RC put another twelve of their oarsmen out of contention for future club events by winning the Thames Cup against De Hoop (NED) and the Britannia Cup (against Molesey), each by 3.75L and without being under threat after the Barrier. Tideway Scullers put another club name into the day’s honours with a lovely win for their Diamond Jubilee junior women’s quad over Wycliffe Juniors, and London won the Wyfold Challenge Cup for the 23rd time in its very long history, their first success in any club event since 2011.