Henley Saturday: Dramatic Semis, Steering, and Scene
July 1, 2017 Rachel Quarrell and row2k
Let's see. 24 hours into July and one day to go. The story so far at Henley Royal Regatta is 287 races done, and 23 remaining. Millions of strokes rowed, thousands of pints of Pimms drunk, hundreds of minutes of drone footage. Rowing celebrated to the nth degree. Now five more hours of racing will create the peak of the year for dozens of nervous athletes, bidding to win a little red medal box which will remind them forever that on one particular day in 2017, they were the best.
Ever seen the quickest eight in the world go off the start? Thousands did on Saturday, when Germany's new top boat flew away from Temple Island and the Kiwis to win their Grand Challenge Cup semi-final. There is a clean, economical strength to the Deutschlandachte which makes it unsurprising that they broke the world best time two weeks ago in Poland. At their helm Olympic and world champion cox Martin Sauer, who has not finished lower than second in a FISA race since 2011 and has been known to 'lean' on other crews at Henley where there is no buoy-line between the lanes.
As coxes around the Regatta daydreamed of assassinating Sauer and subbing in for him during Sunday's final, the umpire noticed the Germans boring their way steadily into Waiakato's water and warned him several times, eventually bellowing "GERmany!" at the top of his voice.
The result was a dramatic jink to starboard from Sauer, putting his eight back on their station, from where they moved relentlessly away from the Kiwis. The ironic bit is that had Sauer simply steered straight for the first 500m, they could well have written themselves into the record books since they were only one second outside the Barrier mark despite the sharply meandering course and minimal wind.
It's looking likely that somehow British rowing has raised its game, since there are only three US and no Canadian crews remaining in the regatta. Megan Kalmoe and Tracey Eisser will have a gut-buster of a final against the quickest young Kiwis in the world in the shape of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler: one of these two pairs will claim the first ever win in the Women's Pairs, one of the three as yet non-trophied new women's events. New York Athletic's former Olympians beat the Ernst and Young crew to earn a daunting match-up against the Dutch women's four, and John Graves will meet lightweight giant-killer Matthew Dunham of Waiariki.
Dunham won his semifinal against Australian Rio M4x silver medallist Cameron Girdlestone when the former caught a few lumps of water around the Fawley marker and seemed to lose all his confidence. Dunham, who had never given up hope, seized his opportunity and raced past, but will find Graves, who has raced Henley before, a cannier and more challenging opponent.
Nine Henley Royal victories are guaranteed for the UK on Sunday, as there are all-Brit finals in most of the club events, including the trio of non-international eights - the Ladies' Plate, Thames Cup and Temple. Since these events always attract top international crews, this is the first time such a domestic success has ever happened. It would have been a clean sweep, except that Australians Scotch College stayed ahead of everything Eton College could throw at them in the Princess Elizabeth schoolboy eights and will now meet Radley, conquerors of Shiplake.
So that means no US collegiates racing in the finals of the Temple, after Yale and Cal lost to University of London and Oxford Brookes respectively. It has been 15 years since there was an all-UK student eights last day, and it either signals a revival of British university rowing, or a diminution of US dominance since the death of the freshman eight. Given the times posted in domestic regattas, it's probably the former, US coaches will be relieved to hear.
The Yale v UL race was exceptional, Yale building a steady half-length lead as the higher-rating UL spun their wheels in the first half. Rather than settle further, UL simply increased the power and began to barge their way through the Bulldogs soon after halfway, which Yale had reached only three seconds outside the record. The lead changed hands soon after Remenham, and UL, wearing green shamrock-decorated sleeves in honour of an Irish student rower who died in an accident last September, strode to a confident win.
University of London wearing shamrock armbands
Meanwhile Cal's mix of lower varsity oarsmen had to submit to a stronger Brookes A crew in the other semi-final, unable to come back from clear water down soon after the Barrier. This Brookes A is in fact their second eight, the varsity equivalent being entered in the higher Ladies' Plate event. With that crew conquering Bayer Leverkusen to meet the likely GBR under-23 eight, who knocked out Brown, Brookes have the first chance of any crew since Harvard 2002 to claim the Ladies'/Temple double, and the first such chance of any British crew since Cambridge in 1999.
Brown didn't give up easily, mind you: they raced toe-to-toe with the GB composite until the Barrier (approx 500m into the course), and then traded mere inches until Fawley, which is roughly half-way. At this point the British oarsmen put in yet another push which this time Brown could not quite match, and edged out first a few feet and eventually a length. The final should be a humdinger between two high-quality crews who have beaten defiant opposition.
Thames RC notched up a new historic moment: a year after winning their first Thames Cup, they doubled their money by getting both their A and B crews into Sunday's final, and went to bed on Saturday night knowing they only had to turn up and row over to claim a trophy. So it's Thames v Thames in the Thames at 4pm local time, something which will highly amuse Thames RC member and on-course announcer Martin Levy.
For unknown reasons, the gentlemen of Thames Rowing Club have this year adopted a picture of Nelson, which is used to motivate them in racing. [One wonders which quote perhaps inspires them. "Desperate affairs require desperate measures" maybe? Or perhaps "Gentlemen, when the enemy is committed to a mistake we must not interrupt him too soon".....] Anyway, Lord Nelson's portrait was adorning the space above the entrance to the TRC racking area in the boat tents, but fell down and smashed before their second crew went afloat to fire a broadside at Agecroft. A bad omen perhaps? Hardly - within two hours they had seized the two finals places in the club eights cup. Another water victory for the famous admiral, still winning battles 212 years after his death.
It's become utterly unsurprising to see Leander in the final of the Prince of Wales intermediate quads: they won from 2010-2015 inclusive and were only beaten by four feet last summer. This year is guaranteed to add a ninth set of Leander names to the eight Pink Palace crews on the trophy, since their 2017 A and B crews made it through to the final.
Unfortunately for US hopes Leander's Visitors' coxless four beat California Rowing Club, while in the other semi-final Cambridge's Blues beat Edinburgh University so that will also be a domestic match-up. The Light Blues had to push through the Scottish students' fast start, but once ahead, looked the stronger quartet. However, the steering was distinctly erratic, and Edinburgh, egged on by their coach, appealed at the finish, only to be turned down on the grounds that the infringement had not affected the result.
None of this gives us time to discuss the New Zealand and Dutch women's teams, who safely raced to put finalists in the pairs, doubles, fours and eights. Nor the men's doubles which matches the Rio LM2x champions against New Zealand's Poznan winners.
It's going to be epic. It's going to be incredible. And if you can't tune in live on the day, be sure to catch up afterwards. There's going to be some very special racing.
Other Things We Learned
Overheard on the Remenham lawn - "Will you marry me?" She said yes, apparently - which is fortunate. So embarrassing to have any other answer with all your drunk mates listening.
Yale freshman Tom Digby, rowing with three other British Ivy Leaguers in the Leander/Griffen Stewards crew beaten by Italy on Saturday, arrived at Yale and promptly broke all the erg records within a very few weeks (except the 2km, which no doubt he will get round to in due course). Along with the Molesey and London eight in the Ladies' Plate, this group are likely selections for the GBR U23 team, all of whom were told that if they were going for national representative shirts they would have to race at Henley under UK club colours.
Following their double Thames semi-final wins, and the loss of their Brit Cup four, Thames Rowing Club decided to go out for a brief period on Saturday night. "The A and B crews are going to have a pint and the four is going to go large", was the plan.
Of all the many excellent comments directed at Thames RC's head coach Ben Lewis after their second semi-final, the best was this: "Not bad. Not many people win Henley on a Saturday."
Still More Odds and Ends
More odds and ends, including videos set to start right at the critical moment for your convenience: