It's rare for Henley Royal Regatta not to coincide with the Fourth of July, so Friday brought out the pride of the USA to cheer on the 14 American crews still left in the regatta. While not British, Yale's women proved that Bulldogs are the best with a thoroughly satisfying win, contrary to expectations, in the Remenham Challenge eights. The crew, containing six of Yale's varsity, were up against more or less the GB development eight which had beaten them at Henley Women's Regatta, and took sweet revenge by hauling out to a half-length lead by the Barrier. Imperial and Leander seemed stuck in second gear and couldn't respond, the initiative lost. Yale's next opponents will be the slightly more alarming Hollandia, the Dutch national eight who placed fourth in Aiguebelette a fortnight ago.
Independence Day didn't go so well for the North American schools in the Princess Elizabeth, with Brunswick and Shawnigan being taken to the cleaners by Hampton and Abingdon to ensure an all-Brit final on Sunday. Brunswick made the classic mistake of going out too hard, gaining two-thirds of a length on Hampton before the West London school which produced the Searle brothers began to dig in. Back it came to level, and seemed to be heading for a photo finish when Hampton launched a sustained assault which carried them over the finish line a quarter-length to the good. Hampton now race St Edward's School and Abingdon meet Eton, giving the home crowds on Saturday plenty to cheer about.
Harvard sailed through another round of the Visitors', the two-thirds length verdict against Imperial & University of West of England's lightweights belying the control the Crimson crew had over the race throughout. Apparently when Harvard celebrated winning the Grand 100 years ago, the bill presented the day after included a request for payment for 200 quarts of champagne. In the other half of the draw Seeclub Zürich beat Molesey in the re-row of Thursday night's dead heat, and then lost to the stern and better half of the American lightweight eight, rowing as Oklahoma City River Sport.
Cornell's Visitors' four lost, but their lightweight varsity continued its unbeaten run with a convincing victory over the considerably heavier Dutchmen Skøll. This pits them up against the home favourites, equally unbeaten heavyweights Oxford Brookes University. The Brown frosh took care of the University of Western Ontario and now meet more Dutchmen, from Nereus, on Saturday.
One of the best races of the day was in the Ladies' Challenge Plate for elite eights. It wasn't the Bears v California/NY Athletic show-down, in which the former Olympians and internationals started to feel their age under the cosh of a 4.5L verdict from Cal. Nor Oklahoma City's doomed attempt to get one over the Leander and Molesey GB development eight. Instead, it was Oxford Brookes and Taurus, an ex-winners eight containing the new US coxed pair for the worlds, which made life very hard for Brown's varsity eight and held them to a 0.75 length margin under repeated attacks.
I cracked a joke about hats flying off into the river yesterday, but today it happened, only it was a balloon instead of a hat. Picture the scene: Australian spare John Linke is racing Dutchman Roel Braas in the Diamonds. Braas, the winner of the Holland Beker a week ago, has just started to move ahead after Linke's feisty fast start. Suddenly a bright yellow balloon, blown off the Berkshire bank, hops across the course and rapidly into Braas' path. Fingers rapidly crossed on both sides of the launch, and umpire John Hedger's knuckles tighten on his white flag handle as he saw disaster looming.
Fortunately the skillful sculler faltered only fractionally as his port rigger and scull bumped the balloon and made him wobble in the bouncy conditions. A stroke later, he was back on rhythm and starting to move away for the 'easily' verdict waiting at the end of the course. On Saturday he and new (as of two weeks ago) father Alan Campbell go head to head: Mahe Drysdale tweeted that he's been talking to newborn Tabitha Campbell and telling her to scream all night and keep her dad awake. Elsewhere in the Diamonds Drysdale was merciless to his erstwhile team-mate George Bridgewater, and long-haired Aussie Nick Purnell took Nottingham's Antony English apart.
The women's singles held a slight upset as junior world champion Jess Leyden was outwitted by GB squad member Mel Wilson, but the rest went as expected with a post-maternity-leave win for Polish Olympic medalist Julia Michalska-Plotkowiak and one for Hungary's Krisztina Gyimes. Mirka Knapkova, the three-time winner like Drysdale going for a four-peat, was spotted by members of the GB women's eight as she scampered rapidly over Henley Bridge. "What's up," they shouted, getting a brief reply — "I'm racing in 30 minutes". The bridge is 1.5 miles away from the start line.... Knapkova was not late, and won her heat comfortably.
The most agonizing result of the day was Nottingham's, whose Fawley junior quad had reduced Ridley College's lead to a mere canvas in the Enclosures when, with three strokes to go, they caught a whopping crab. A few feet turned into two lengths in a heartbeat, and Ridley were through, leaving Nottingham with hanging heads. One race was restarted, Cambridge University's lightweights almost colliding with Hollandia through troublesome steering, before rowing much of the way in the Dutch crew's wash.
The head wind perked up again by mid-morning, prompting one wag to suggest that, since Sir Ben Ainslie will be presenting the prizes on Sunday, it should be turned into a sailing regatta. In the Thames club eights, Union lost in a tight contest to Yarra rowers Mercantile, and Sport Imperial took out holders Griffen, both crews completely legal under the new club rules, despite much chuntering from armchair oarsmen in the boat tents. Massey and Brown's run was ended by the Dutch national pair, and the Western Ontario spares went down to South Africa's Keeling and Breet.
Saturday brings semi-finals, the big guns of the Stewards and Queen Mother in action, and fireworks in the evening. Oh, and umbrellas, because it's turned chillier and started gently raining.
Finally, a snippet from a friend who listens to Regatta Radio while driving in and out each day. Apparently as he reaches the Black Boy pub near Henley, the RR frequency 87.7 FM retunes itself to Ramadan Radio, an outfit which, he says, has "wildly different content and a rather alternative definition of the word 'Isis'."