Time flies when you’re having fun, and on the fifth day after the postponed, uncertain Henley Royal Regatta opened in Thames sunshine, suddenly it was time for twenty-six finals to be raced. Twenty-six trophies to be hoisted aloft, and 137 athletes to be crowned HRR champions. Time for the Everest of British club rowing, the Olympics for ordinary rowers and coxes, to fulfill dreams.
There is no getting away from the fact that of the 26 finals, 16 of them featured either Leander or Oxford Brookes or both. The black hole of proximity to Caversham, along with great funding (private in the case of the Pink Palace, High Performance Centre in the case of the former Oxford Poly) and a single-minded focus on achievement has put these two clubs into a position where no others can match them domestically. Of these 16 finals, either Leander or Brookes won 14. Of the ten finals without them, four were in events neither is eligible for and three more they didn’t enter (neither is currently running a junior programme). COVID having taken away the overseas challengers who would usually take away half their medal haul, Brookes and Leander ran riot.
Leander ruled the day with eight wins, but Brookes wrote a new chapter in their history by winning the Grand for the first time along with five other trophies – double their previous best collection in 2019. The Grand race was a washout, a straight final with an ‘easily’ verdict against their old boys in the shape of Taurus and Tyrian, but if nobody else chooses to enter in an Olympic year then you race those who do. There was some impressive doubling-up, the Brookes Grand eight splitting in two to win the Stewards’ (against Dutch national team hopefuls) and Visitors’ (against Leander) coxless fours. The second of these was an incredible race, Leander sensibly going off like bats out of hell to try and get a jump on the Brookes boys who had already raced. Brookes despite some awkward steering and occasional warnings managed to turn the screw inch by inch until they ground Leander down and regained contact. Then it was like resetting the start, a straight dash to the line along the Enclosures in which Brookes went from half a length down to half a length up inside 200m, then surged away to a big clear-water victory.
Leander’s doubling-up was on the women’s side, six of their afternoon Remenham eight having already raced – and won – in the morning. The Town Challenge Cup fours final was between Leander B and Leander A, won by the latter so handily that they could cruise at 31 for most of the course, while Samantha Redgrave and Susie Dear put three and a half lengths into Tideway Scullers in the Hambleden Pairs final before teaming up with their Leander crewmates again for the eights. This was a different matter, Oxford Brookes and Queen’s University Belfast close alongside one another the whole way. Leander led all the way and did eventually break contact, but not until the Milepost, after which they found it easy to clinch the win.
Some of the best close races had already happened on Saturday, but there were still a few humdingers for finals day, of which two were the double sculls contests. Lightweights ruled in both, Emily Craig and Imogen Grant demonstrating why they were so close to gold in the LW2x Olympic final by staying one step ahead of openweights Jess Leyden and Georgie Brayshaw up the whole track to become the first lightweights to put their names on the Stonor Challenge Cup, albeit by a breathless, tough three-quarters of a length.
In the men’s Double Sculls Fintan McCarthy survived a semi-final crab, steering frets and his doubles partner Paul O’Donovan’s jokes to add Henley Royal medals to their Olympic golds, the perfect end to an unbeaten season. However, they had to work for it, being led by Sam Meijer and Matt Haywood of Nottingham/Tideway Scullers, also known as two of the under-23 quads champions of 2019, and an experienced duet. They barrelled off the start against the Irishmen, and were clearly prepared to dig in all the way. Fintan and McCarthy had other ideas, and showing their incredible power, took two lengths out of the leaders in the second 500 metres, never dropping below rate 38 the entire way down the course even after gaining a generous lead. The world’s best lightweights came for some tough racing against bigger opposition, and used it to the full to hone their endurance under intense pressure.
The singles were power contest too, Graeme Thomas and Lola Anderson becoming the first British rowers to hoist the Diamonds and Princess Royal sculls for 10 and 21 years respectively, and the first ever to do so at the same time. Anderson saw off the week’s surprise discovery, Lauren Henry, by outgunning her for the first mile and then managing to stay ahead when Henry mounted a sudden attack in the Enclosures which very nearly caught Anderson napping, but was timed a few strokes too late to clinch the last three feet of margin. Thomas had an equally tough opponent in the shape of UWash alum and under-23 champion Seb Devereux, who would like to join the GB squad with Thomas, and who made the Olympian work for every foot of advantage until Thomas’ greater power and experience gave him clear water advantage by Fawley which he drew out to the end.
That was some kind of redemption for Thomas, who like Grant and Craig came fourth at the Olympic Games, and there was also redemption for Morgan Bolding and Mat Tarrant, who had the soul-destroying job of being spare pair for the GBR sweep team in Tokyo. They scored an ‘easily’ verdict against Cambridge Boat Race blues Oliver Parish and Callum Sullivan which says more about the high quality of the GB pair than anything derogatory about the excellent CUBC Blues. There was a different vibe in the Queen Mother men’s quads, where Tokyo silver medallists Jack Beaumont, Tom Barras and Harry Leask, rowing with Rory Harris in place of the absent Angus Groom, had to work like stink to fend off four Irish internationals in the shape of University College Cork and Skibbereen. They did it, but like the other top sculling trophies it yielded a masterclass in racing under extreme pressure which will see the video clip be watched again and again in future years.
The Princess Grace Cup, a match between eight high-quality scullers all starting to make their names, equalled the Queen Mother in speed allied with force, and after the lead swapped twice during an incredibly close race, Leander’s quartet beat Thames & Neptune’s feisty combination by a mere length. The Fawley Challenge Cup for JM4x was even closer, a three-quarter length nerve-jangler won by Tideway Scullers over Windsor Boys, but there was history made for Shiplake taking their first ever non-composite HRR trophy with a win in the Diamond Jubilee JW4x by multiple lengths over Marlow.
With three new women’s events there was space for new clubs to make history. Leander took the Wargrave club eights, partly due to the fact that this year those who won Under-23 medals in July were unusually allowed to enter the club and student events in August, because of HRR’s postponement. Brookes took the Island student eights (though the loss of their Temple men on Friday stopped them doing a double act) in an incredibly tense close race against University of London, but it was Headington School’s girls who screamed the loudest in delight as they crossed the line having put their names on the new Junior Women’s Eights, ahead of Surbiton High School. It was the first ever Headington School win at Henley Royal, their quads having made the final a couple of times, but never collected a trophy. and completed a season of wins at all the big regattas in Britain this summer barring National Schools, which they entered in smaller boats.
The Princess Elizabeth final of Eton versus St Paul’s had been long expected by many, but was not quite the edge-of-your-seat thriller the roaring spectators must have hoped for. Eton had worries about whether there might be something stuck on their rudder at the start, but all was well and they went straight into the lead. St Paul’s fought ferociously, throwing everything they could think of at their old rivals, but the outcome was the same as it had been at National Schools, a several-second margin, and a fifteenth PE title for Eton to add to their history books.
Thames Rowing Club won their fourteenth Thames Challenge Cup eights and twentieth Wyfold fours, while University of London claimed one student title in the Prince Albert coxed fours against a dejected Newcastle University. The Britannia club coxed fours was one of the three trophies to go overseas, being won by Frankfurter Germany, whilst Nereus won the student eights.
A pared-down prizegiving saw athletes pick up medals and trophies set out on a table, with handshaking banished to the COVID locker. The rain set in during the last few minutes of the prizegiving, having waited almost all week, and the overwhelming sense throughout the whole regatta was one of relief that it happened at all. An extraordinary effort by everyone. Now there are only 11 months to go to the next one, which will be a six-day event starting on Tuesday and is expected to have a Family Enclosure on the Fawley Meadows where the boat tents were this week.