It's been a glorious first day at Henley Royal Regatta, with just the right amount of sunshine, cloud, and a light breeze to cool rowers and the many enthusiastic supporters down. OK so yours truly had only been going to this regatta for 24 years, and reporting on it for about 19, but I reckon that entitles me to say they were the best first-day crowds 'in living memory' - it looked much more like a Friday. For those readers who are turning up later in the week, be prepared for a packed riverbank. Rowers are no doubt calling in sick all over the City of London.
In some ways it was an uneventful first day. The lack of a feisty wind meant hardly any Wyfolds coxless fours - apart from the luckless City of Bristol - smashed into the booms during their opening heats, although some of the coxes (mentioning no names) made up for that with rather creative steering in the Thames and Prince Albert coxed events, and Star Club's course in the coxless fours was described as 'serpentine' in the race report. The racing was far from boring, but there were no major incidents and the biggest news of the afternoon was that defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray had lost in straight sets in the quarter-finals. [#AndyMurrayIsScottish immediately started trending on Twitter, a hashtag guaranteed to get more people voting yes in September's independence referendum.]
Until the evening action, that is.
It started with Imperial College's School of Medicine having equipment failure, which meant their 6:35pm race being put back until the late evening, and mutters about debris on the course which further delayed a couple of contests. And then, midway through their heat of the Fawley against RGS High Wycombe, the Warrington junior quad was stopped the umpire, who was clearly concerned and summoned the safety launch. It turned out that the three-man had pulled something in his leg and couldn't carry on rowing, so he was whizzed upriver at top speed while Wycombe, and then a limping Warrington quad, paddled over. Game, set and handbag for the Cheshire crew, while the local Wycombe schoolboys had a blessedly easy day ahead of meeting selected crew Nottingham in the next round, and the crowds had a few ooh-ah moments to remind them what was happening on the river.
By comparison, the win of the monikered Nonesuch (University of Bristol alumni) over the even more brilliantly-named Nemesis (Manchester University) in the Temple was a bit of an anticlimax. The opposite was true for Royal Chester's Thames cup eight, who battled the entire way up the course against Newark with the margin never more than a third of a length, and the verdict finally announced as two feet (the second smallest possible verdict above a dead heat at Henley), after a photo-finish pause. Great racing, and a reminder that it isn't always the best crews who give the best spectacle mano-a-mano.
The one thing it wasn't was the Fourth of July. The several stateside losers included the Cornell's largely freshman crew in the Temple, knocked out by the unselected Japanese from Hitotsubashi University, after a bout of gastric 'flu left several of the Big Red oarsmen heaving their guts up both before and after the race. The undefeated Cornell lightweights showed their class with a competent win against middle-of-the-road UK Manchester University, and Michigan defeated Oxford Brookes' B crew handily. But the Cal Temple entry, a mixture of the 3V and frosh, were dumped out of the competition by Amsterdam's Nereus, the 3/4-length verdict not entirely showing the control Nereus had on the race. Dutch coach Teun van der Kroef billed it 'revenge' for the 2011 final, when Cal blew Nereus away, but it's not the Nereus top eight - that withdrew before the draw. The other North American derby in the Temple saw reigning Canadian student champions University of Western Ontario defeat Bucknell Univ without trouble, while another Dutch crew, Skøll, finished more than three lengths ahead of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Bucknell's Prince Albert coxed four beat the University of London, not a bad result, but it was bettered by the 'easily' (more than 5 lengths) margin by which Harvard's four demolished Exeter: not perhaps the strongest UK varsity crew. Harvard and holders Imperial - a new crew - were the most impressive coxed fours in the event, which will run quarter-finals on Thursday before a break in racing for Friday.
Kudos to Montclair HIgh School's Princess Elizabeth eights entry for seeing off a determined assault from Winchester College, who punched well above their form-guide weight and were a serious threat. Montclair had to push repeatedly to hold off the British crew, and finished 2/3 of a length to the good in a great race. Montclair now meet Pangbourne, similarly doughty scrappers, but expected to be a good 20 seconds quicker than Winchester. Brunswick saw off Westminster, a top-flight rowing school whose best juniors are in the Fawley, while Shawnigan Lake School from Canada were deft in their dismissal of Norwich. The dark horses lurking in the bottom half of the PE draw are Ratsgymnasium Osnabrück from Germany, who recorded the only 'easily' verdict of the event against Durham School.
It's fair to say that the Fawley crews on Wednesday were the lower end of the standard, since in the 24-crew draw all the best junior quads get a bye to the second day of racing. So Malvern Prep went out to the formidable Windsor Boys' School, and Ridley College Canada (Scholastics champions in the varsity 4+) have their first race on Thursday against Star, who were extremely competent victors over York City in their heat. That could be interesting.
Frankfurter Germania visit Henley quite often, and this year have brought a Fawley quad and a Thames Cup eight which was rumoured to be only a few seconds behind the German U23 eight in a recent regatta. The eight were hampered on discovering just before flying that one of their more senior oarsmen - apparently an American - had forgotten to bring his passport, so they had to draft in the stroke of their junior quad as a sub in the first race. The Germans coolly got rid of London but, being unimpressed by the organisational genius of their oarsman, announced they'd rather keep the junior, who is now free since the quad lost, even though the original rower was due to arrive on a later plane on Wednesday evening.
What with Frankfurter, Mercantile (Australia), Union (USA), Upper Thames (local), Sport Imperial (from London) and Griffen (ex-Abingdon School and the defending champions) all looking strong, the Thames is one of the more open events and promises excellent racing this week.
Thursday sees a host of new events beginning, from the Diamonds singles, featuring the first ever Israeli rower to compete at the regatta, to the Visitors' for elite coxless fours, in which Oklahoma City's lightweights split into two crews, and three of Harvard's victorious 2013 crew are back again to defend their title. The non-selected doubles and pairs will be in action, and the club events roll on. The weather forecast is for a scorcher, with a bit more breeze than on the first day. Who's for a Pimms?
* Footnote: selection at Henley is not quite seeding, because sometimes crews are selected in order to keep them apart, eg the first and second eights, especially of overseas crews. However, selection does mean the Stewards think you're good enough for them not to want to have you knocked out by another selected crew on the first day of your racing, so it's a compliment of sorts. Woe betide those who don't live up to the billing.....