As the boat tents emptied and the bars filled up, the slow rise towards the top of the Henley Royal Regatta pyramid began on Saturday. By the end of the day the 660 entries, and of those the 340 crews who had reached the main draw, were whittled down to a bare 48 who went to bed on Saturday night dreaming of little red boxes and trophy glory as the fireworks burst above the Thames in Henley.
The biggest upset of the day was in the Diamond Jubilee junior women’s quads, who drew the short straw having to race quarter-finals at 9:30am and then semi-finals ten hours later. Leaving aside the well-known fact that teenagers are immortal and can cope with anything, the thirty-two scullers who lined up for the start as the first spectators were settling into their deckchairs creditably gave it their best. This was particularly true of Latymer B, who knew that they had a tough draw racing National Schools champions Henley, but also knew that no hard stroke would be wasted since the winner of the race would meet their A crew later.
The understudies duly raced like demons to take the legs out of Henley and lose by only three-quarters of a length, and achieved their aim, since in the semi-final that evening Henley looked leaden-footed and could not muster the energy to match Latymer A. In the other half of the draw Headington deserve great kudos since they first battled their way to a win over Tideway Scullers and then had to meet and defeat the much fresher Shrewsbury in the semi-final. Interestingly Headington (who have never won this event) and Latymer A (who have) posted identical times to the Barrier and Fawley (4 and 3 seconds outside the records, respectively) and were only four seconds apart over the whole course. The final, which will be the last race on Sunday, could be the best race of the regatta.
A rival to that claim happened in the Princess Grace semi-final between the Dutch and British national team crews, who were ten seconds apart (with the Dutch quicker) when they last met in Lucerne in June. I have rarely seen a more composed race when the British, who had gone a length and a half down very early, courtesy of the Dutch crew’s considerably quicker start, determinedly focused on their own speed and clawed back an inch a stroke through the entire race. That put them level going into the Enclosures with their momentum moving them into a slight lead but the Dutch had a better finish sprint and fought back. A nailbiting few strokes ended in a photo finish, with victory to the Dutch by a single foot. By contrast the British women’s eight made a win against their development rivals look extremely difficult.
There were a few form book upsets and some near misses but Saturday saw records dropping, as a stronger tailwind and cooler conditions gave crews the last chance to put their names in the record books before Sunday’s less helpful weather arrived. The most impressive performers were the British under-23 squad, whose strongest crews (not yet announced, but with selection complete) broke two Barriers and a Fawley record and were mere seconds off the other markers. The Visitors’ four wallopped University College Dublin while the Prince of Wales quad mercilessly took apart Schuylkill Navy. The other GBR U23 crew, racing as Newcastle and Cambridge Universities in the Ladies’, lost to the exceptional Oxford Brookes A, and may well undergo more selection before the team to go to Sarasota this month is announced. Brookes equalled the Barrier record on the way to their win, but then saw Hollandia (the Dutch under-23s) break it later on to bring the Ladies’ marker back down under the PE course record again.
Sir Steve Redgrave, performance director of the Chinese national team, has made sure that only his best crews are present at the regatta, and four of the five are through to the finals of the women’s quads, fours, pairs and doubles, with only sculler Yan Jiang having lost to the more powerful Lisa Scheenaard in the Princess Royal singles. However, the rest of the Chairman’s team broke two Barrier records on their way to their four straightforward victories.
Comeback Temple Cup kids Newcastle University tried their supersprint tactic on Northeastern’s top crew, but the Americans had more power than Brown had the day before, and Newcastle ran out of space to complete the comeback, losing by a third of a length which they couldn’t quite close. Northeastern now meet Oxford Brookes University’s top eligible eight, looking for the club’s fourth victory in the six years since they broke their long-standing Temple jinx. The Brookes Temple eight had a mixed day, equalling the Barrier and breaking the Fawley record while beating Nereus, but having done that with a false start awarded to them before the race for their spectators’ “unsportsmanlike conduct” while cheering them off at the rafts. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly this was but it may have been simply jingoistic shouts while Nereus by chance happened to boat at exactly the same time.
Another person breaking a jinx was umpire Boris Rankov, who stepped aside for the Bonner versus Okeanos Thames Cup semi-final, leaving Sir Matthew PInsent to stand inert in the bows of Artemisia as the Bonner cox behaved herself and stayed firmly on her station. Okeanos, themselves slightly controversial on social media where the twitterati are enjoying themselves speculating about the student status or not of both rowers and club, were stronger than Bonner and could fend off all challenges for a three-quarter length victory.
Some of the best finals were set up by relatively dull semi-finals. The Double Sculls will be contested by the British and New Zealand crews, Kiwis John Storey and Chris Harris being the 2017 HRR champions while Brits John Collins and Graeme Thomas are a new combination this season (although Collins won this trophy in 2012 and 2015). The Brits came out better in Poznan but do not underestimate the potential speed of the Kiwis, and think the race will be closer than the world cup results suggest. Another Kiwi, Emma Twigg, had looked like a nailed-on winner for the Princess Royal singles, until Ukrainian Diana Dymchenko gave her a scare in the Enclosures and made it a closer-run semi than had been anticipated. Twigg now meets Lisa Scheenaard, who defeated China’s best Yan Jiang, and it could be a tight race.
Having defeated Radley, Eton did away with Shiplake in order to set up a final against Australian mullet-wearers Scotch College, whose interesting haircuts and bright kit have been sparking interest this week. Scotch College had a horribly difficult time against St Paul’s, who made life very tricky for them, and are not looking like the easy PE winners they had hoped. Eton by contrast have been getting better each race.
In non-rowing news Maidenhead’s MP Theresa May did her annual buzz of the Stewards’ Enclosures as a guest of the Chairman (her last as PM), and a Spitfire buzzed the boat tents slightly more impressively, but with no security guards in ill-fitting suits. The prize-giver for Sunday’s finals will be Lieutenant-Commander Pete Reed, a suitable nod to the special military stories this year.
And finally the historic Notts County Ladies’ Plate eight (from the legendary 1989 re-row against Harvard) did a row-past in the tea interval, having in typical fashion gone all the way to the start rather than just cover the last 500m of the course. Carl Smith (RIP) was substituted by Jim Niven, and the crew did a sprightly rush up the Enclosures to applause, followed by a sarcastic three cheers for Harvard at the finish. The only disappointment was that they didn’t go round and do a second run….