In rowing, there are many matches, but few real races, and many winners, but few real champions. I recently had the privilege of following a race from the umpire’s launch at Henley Women’s Regatta. It was a battle for the ages, and it showcased eighteen young champions.
Boat racing is pretty straightforward and unforgiving, sheer repetitive hard labor from start to finish. If each boat rowed every stroke at equal intensity from beginning to end, you could theoretically know after the first one who the winner would be. Every stroke contributes a little, more or less, to the result, and that is how the contest unfolds. The outcome of most other team sport events can be changed instantly with one or two swings of the foot, the bat or the stick, or one or two throws of the ball. This is rarely the case in rowing, at least not on the upside – one bad stroke can cost you the race, but it takes the cumulative hundreds or thousands of good individual strokes to win one.
Yes, there is the always exciting start, with high rates for varying periods. There may be currents and wind gusts, and errant steering and collisions. There may be power tens and the rising din of spectators on the banks. There may be the occasional equipment breakage, or debris, or the collapse of a rower. There may be favored lanes. But when all is said and done on the Henley reach, there are two boats trying to get to the finish line first. Barring unusual circumstances, the work is done by putting the oar in the water and pulling, over and over, unrelentingly. The outcome is often predictable before the contestants are half way down the course. Boat races tend not to be events pregnant with excitement until the last moment.
Even in the 2012 Henley Women’s Regatta finals, by which time the heats had pretty much sorted out the slower boats, and left two of the best of the entries to vie for the medals, the average margin of victory (counting a verdict of “Easily” as only four lengths, which decreases the actual margins) was almost exactly two lengths. Only nine (of 27) contests had separations of less than one length. Only four were closer than a half length at the finish. Two races over the 1500 meter course ended with the crews two feet apart. I was in the umpire’s launch for one of them.
The 25th Henley Women’s Regatta was memorable for much more than reaching the quarter century history mark. Torrents of rainfall in the preceding weeks had left the Thames in an engorged state, with high, fast water that could quickly amplify a small steering error and made the upstream course a real struggle, especially for the smaller boats. Those conditions were further aggravated by headwinds that gusted throughout Saturday, June 16, at well over 25mph, but eased off somewhat for Sunday’s rowing.
Event 358, the junior eights final for the Peabody Cup, was scheduled to go off at 3pm. It was an all-American match, pitting New Hampshire boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy against Mount Saint Joseph Academy of Philadelphia.
Their respective paths to the finals varied somewhat. Exeter was scheduled to race Pangbourne College (a high school in Reading) on Saturday, but Pangbourne declined to go on the water because of the marginal conditions, leaving Exeter with a bye for the day. The Mount, on the other hand, rowed a Saturday heat against Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School from Marlow, dispatching them by two lengths in 6:39.
Semi-final heats for the junior eights were set for Sunday morning, with the finals scheduled for the afternoon. Exeter went off at 10:40 in its morning heat, and defeated Headington School from Oxford (who had won the Junior Eight in the UK National Schools Regatta in May) by two lengths in 5:50. The Mount’s heat followed at 10:45, and that crew took special pleasure in beating Green Lake of Seattle by three and a quarter lengths in 5:44, since Green Lake had been listed as fifth in the US school crew rankings, while the Mount was placed ninth. (That the Mount’s Sunday morning time was almost a minute faster over the same course than their Saturday afternoon time is indicative of how truly awful Saturday’s winds and current were.)
Then the decisive Sunday afternoon was upon us. Events on the course delayed the start of the final race for the Peabody Cup, but even when the boats were on the starting platform below Temple Island, which lay mid-river to the right of the starting area, Father Thames was still playing his games. Exeter had the left hand Berkshire (Berks) station as we headed upstream, and the Mount the right hand Buckinghamshire (Bucks) slot. Just upstream from the start, the Berks bank has a concave curve. As the fast current sluiced down the bank, it would dip into the curve, and then rush back out into and across the stream, so that, with sterns being held at the starting platform, bows were pushed towards Temple Island, more so on the Berks than Bucks side. Needless to say, it was frustrating for both the crews and the umpire to try to straighten the boats and then get them off before the bows were swept out of line again.
Two Mount families, one Exeter family, and I, had the good fortune to be seated in the elegant long umpire’s launch then idling behind the starting platform. The umpire, dressed in blazer, stood attentively in the bow, the launch driver sat amidships at the great engine console, and radio commentator Judith Howell stood in the stern, providing a running race report to spectators and officials alike. Built 99 years before by Hobbs and Company, who still ply their trade above Henley bridge, our boat was one of several similar craft used at the regattas that are iconically emblematic of Henley rowing. Every picture down the course of a regatta race along the reach shows the same essential ingredients – the long lines of booms which define the lanes, the two boats in the event, and the umpire’s regal launch following watchfully behind. There are few greater thrills for a regatta spectator than to be perched on those polished mahogany seats running fore and aft inside the hull, to feel the engines kick in as the race starts, and to witness the entire contest from beginning to end.
“Attention,” cried the umpire. With a quick downward swipe of her red flag, and a shout of “Go!”, the boats leapt off. The Mount’s racing start held at over fifty strokes a minute, for much longer than Exeter’s, which gave the Mount an initial lead of a few seats. Exeter’s earlier settle was powerful, however, and ate up the river as the two boats battled it out. The Mount eventually settled their rating, and the duel was on.
At the outset of the battle, the Mount still maintained a higher rate than Exeter, propelling their shell with a seemingly continuous and unbroken cycle of catch, drive, release and recover, while Exeter pounded away at a lower rate – catch, drive, release and send, and recover. Which style would prevail?
It was not possible to tell from the seats in the launch, especially with the other passengers sitting directly in front of me, whether the crews took tens, or when one boat might have had a few seats on the other. My frame of reference was principally the two sterns ahead of us, the flash of blades at release, recovery and catch, and the roiling puddles left in their wake. The race provided none of the drama that comes from a major break in tempo, a surge or a crab; at one point the umpire warned Exeter back into its lane, but no clash appeared imminent. Instead, the tension and excitement that built in the launch was driven by the rising crescendo of every stroke taken by the two crews as each strained for an advantage while the distance to the finish grew inexorably shorter.
It was obvious from the start that these very evenly matched boats were there to race. Two of the clearest measures of intensity in rowing are the grimaces and concentration written over and in a competitor’s face, and the controlled fury with which the blade takes the water, levers the boat past the point of the catch, and comes out hungry for the next stroke. Racing at times at the same rating, these sixteen women pulled as one, neither boat giving any quarter, every stroke in both shells exploding into and out of the water, two batteries of port and starboard howitzers firing full bore in close proximity, power coated with grace, and flaming desire, confidence and pride sending the thin hulls flying up the river.
For those in the launch, it would have been normal, and desirable, under other circumstances, to have paid some attention to the fabled course, to the cheering spectators, to the tents, and to the festive and historic atmosphere that makes Henley such a magic venue. That is one of the great privileges that a launch ride offers. And there are always the historic distance markers to note on the way down the reach – the Women’s Regatta passes The Barrier, the Bushes, Fawley and the Remenham Club. But the magnetic draw of the monumental struggle taking place in front of us left no wish or time for such distractions. All eyes were fixed on the race.
Like great presses hammering down the declaration, “Here we come. What are you going to do about it?”, eighteen women fought for every inch of reach, and every inch of run. We sat mesmerized in pursuit, not daring to miss a single instant of what was a classic contest, watching two snarling jaguars stretching to catch the same prey. It was a display of furious athletic drive, skill and competition at its finest.
Stroke for stroke, the two crews surged up the Thames in cadence, each throwing down its best, neither able to break the other. Side by side, head to head, bow ball to bow ball, they raced 1500 meters together to the finish.
At first just a blur on the Berkshire bank, the white crown of the finish line judges tent came quickly into focus, and the excitement of the first five minutes of racing turned into the gripping tensions of hopes and uncertainty, of the last few strokes, of the deciding push. Each of us in the launch had been transported into one or the other of those two boats, teeth clenched, fists tight, eyes fixed on the shells, willing the outcome. Let it be … the Mount … or Exeter!
Then the line flashed by. Oars which had a moment before been savagely ripping the river now trailed listlessly in the water. The shells drifted to a halt. The umpire raised her white flag to indicate a clean race.
Who had crossed first? None of us in the launch could tell. Indeed, in the moments before the finish line judges announced the result, a spectator could bask in the pleasure of the realization that this had been a very special occasion, and that, while there would have to be a winner, there was no loser. We were privileged to have witnessed greatness in this memorable, flashing, all-consuming charge up the Henley reach.
Each of the two crews had earned the title of champion before the contest was done and the outcome settled.
And then the announcement came. Exeter had won by two feet, in 5:33.
The launch trip back down to the boarding point at the start was one of murmured commiseration and congratulations, all tucked gently into the wrappings of pride and admiration for what both boats had accomplished. We shared a sense of awe and gratitude for having been able to witness this memorable spectacle at such close and intimate quarters. It takes two great crews to serve up a great race. This was a truly superb race between two extraordinary crews.
How special was it? The 5:33 finishing time for these schoolgirl eights, filled with 16-18 year-olds, was remarkable under the prevailing conditions. Only two finals had faster times, the elite quad, in which Leander defeated Vesper in 5:29, and the elite eight, in which Radcliffe was beaten by a British composite in 5:20. The time achieved by both Exeter and the Mount in their junior (i.e. high school) final was faster than the final times in the other 24 events, including the senior (i.e. university) eights, the intermediate A eights (i.e. academic / university) and the intermediate C (i.e. club) eights.
Now that was racing, and that Sunday, on the River Thames in Henley, every woman in each of those two boats earned the title of champion.
The crew of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, from bow to stern: (bow) Kiera McCloy, (2) Rose Ehrlich, (3) Julie McGlynn, (4) Dana Zielinski, (5) Darian DiCianno, (6) Kathleen O’Connell, (7) Emily Carbone, (stroke) Dana Lerro, (cox) Mary Raggazino. Coaches Megan Kennedy and Mike McKenna.
The crew of Phillips Exeter Academy, from bow to stern: (bow) Cory Johnson, (2) Cassian Corey, (3) Emily Ball, (4) Forrest Barker, (5) Catherine Closmore, (6) Kerrick Edwards, (7) Jennifer DiPietro, (stroke) Mary Reichenbach, (cox) Jessica Michaels, (spare) Millicent Dethy. Coach by Sally Morris.
Tom Weil is an ex-Yale lightweight and Henley competitor turned rowing collector, historian and archivist who lives in Woodbridge, CT. When he is not practicing law or teaching at Yale, he is practicing life as a trustee of the River & Rowing Museum in Henley, a trustee of the National Rowing Foundation, a founding member and director of The Friends of Rowing History, a Visiting Curator for Rowing History at Mystic Seaport, the Secretary and a director of the Yale Crew Association, and a life member of Leander Club, USRowing and the North American Society for Sport History. He is the author of “Beauty and the Boats - art & artistry in early British rowing” (2005).