To steer or not to steer? That is the question. Henley semi-finals Saturday raised it in spades on a day which saw two appeals and a near-disqualification due to ruddering issues. Seven North American crews were knocked out of the competition, leaving four in finals, but all of them dug to the core, providing blazing races.
The Ladies' Plate is never dull, and the boxing match between Brown and Leander kept all eyes glued to the water. The summary of the race sounds simple: Brown edge into a small lead, hold it for most of the course, then Leander come through. The reality was more complicated, involving Brown having been warned within strokes of the start as umpire Boris Rankov worried about them drifting towards the other station. Eventually they moved back enough to satisfy him, and began to build a small but signficant lead. Leander pushed back to level the race at the Barrier, but Brown moved again, digging deep as Bucks crews should as they approached Fawley. Coming away from Remenham the US varsity were close to a boat-length up, and looked ready to break clear. That's when it started to get messy.
Brown drifted over again, and this time Rankov's flag went unnoticed. After several loud flagged warnings, he got the launch close and started screaming, threatening disqualification at full volume if they didn't move back. The best part of a length up, Brown's port-side blades were overlapping with Leander's, knitting the wash together until at last they separated. Roused to fiery determination, Leander surged back, accelerating past a packed bank of yelling spectators untli the line was reached. The finish judges' verdict was a canvas to the Pink Palace, and Rankov's hand, which had been hovering over his red flag, relaxed. "I would have disqualified them if it had gone the other way," he said. "I don't need an appeal, there was interference."
"My oar was clashed three times," said Leander bowman Will Warr afterwards. "There's a lot more room than people think," said his cox Morgan Baynham-Williams. "When their stern came in, I just knew I had to stick tight to the [portside] booms and it would be fine." Brown coach Paul Cooke was perplexed, and sad. "I don't think [coxswain William Quirk] heard the umpire as well as he could have, so that made for mistakes on our part. Leander stuck to it, hats off to them. The guys rowed a really good race into the Enclosures."
By contrast, the victory of Cal's eight by half a length over a Leander and Molesey composite in the other Ladies' race was straightforward, Cal earning and holding a slight lead despite intense pressure put on them.
The Temple semi-final between Cornell's lightweights and Oxford Brookes University's heavyweights appeared a similarly clean barnstormer, Brookes moving into a lead from the start and nearly breaking clear at Remenham. Cornell rallied back however, and burned up the Enclosures as both crews, but particularly Brookes, were warned for steering into the central water. Brookes still won, but by only half a length, fully justifying the Big Red's selection. "They were both very strong crews," said Cornell coach Chris Kerber, "but the Oxford Brookes got a little bit of a lead and started inching away. Both crews emptied the tank." He was unhappy about the Brookes steering, though. "They had it in the bag," he said, "but sportsmanship here; I've now got a bad taste in my mouth about that."
In the other Temple race Dutch students Nereus managed a flying start and pulled out half a length on Brown, before the US freshmen stuck in a tremendous move which took them into the lead and eventually gave them a win by two lengths. The Harvard frosh coxed four dominated Imperial College to book a place against Newcastle University in the Prince Albert final, while the coxless Visitors' four with holder Andy Holmes stroking, matched them. The Crimson four marched to a clear lead over UL, only to have the London students rally by the grandstands and close down the margin, albeit too late. Harvard were warned for their steering in the Enclosures, which led to UL appealing the result.
Umpire Richard Phelps unsympathetically dismissed the claim, pointing out that when they had been washed down by Harvard's puddles, it was as a result of UL themselves steering into the middle of the course. It was Phelps' second appeal of the day — Wyfold favourites Rob Roy had claimed an overturn after being beaten by the lower-form Tideway Scullers in an intense contest, but that was also dismissed for similar reasons.
The Harvard red-wash was completed by sophomore Vincent Breet '16, who showed why he has recently been switched into the top South African pair with experienced international Shaun Keeling: the duo beat their team-mates David Hunt and Lawrence Brittain by 2.5 lengths in the Silver Goblets.
Virtual Canadian Julien Bahain, who rowed for two Olympiads in the French team, joined his future brother-in-law Mitchel Steenman to put the planned GB coxed pair of Alan Sinclair and Scott Durant out and meet South Africa in the Goblets final. Bahain was expected to trial for the new French top crew this season after taking two years off to row the Atlantic after London 2012, but felt he had 'reached saturation' in France when his bid for a place in the eight failed. Instead he decided to fulfil a long-held ambition to row for Canada using his mother's nationality.
He is in the process of swapping citizenship and moving to British Columbia, training solo and currently rowing the single for Canada at the world cups, so was free to sub in for Rogier Blink in the pair when the Dutchman fell ill. To the sceptical who wondered how Bahain's membership of Hollandia could have come through so fast (Henley Royal insists that people have joined the club they're representing at least two months before entries close) the answer is that, in a relationship with and now engaged to photographer and ex-U23 oarswoman Katie Steenman, he spent a lot of time training with the Dutch national team before the Olympics, and had taken Hollandia membership previously as part of an aborted plan to race at HRR with Mitchel.
The British and Dutch women's eights were victorious in the Remenham Cup, the latter defeating a brave but outgunned Yale varsity, and the unselected Windsor Boys' School dissected Ridley College Canada with an unbreakable rhythm in the Fawley. Eton College pulled off a small upset, proving faster than Abingdon from start to finish in the Princess Elizabeth schoolboy eights.
The newly-selected US men's quad, racing as Craftsbury, gave the GB quad, champions in Aiguebelette, a serious wake-up call by taking an early lead which they held to over half-way. The Brits were nearly caught out, but used their 26-pounds-a-man advantage to bore their way back into the lead, and were relieved to win by half a length. "We knew they were an awesome boat and weren't sure what to expect," said Craftsbury's John Graves. "We didn't really check their move in the second half of the race, so that cost us, but it was a totally fun race. Now we go to Lucerne."
The singles finals will be between Olympic champion Mirka Knapkova and up-and-coming Hungarian Krisztina Gyimes, and for the men Roel Braas (NED) versus Mahe Drysdale (NZL). Nobody was surprised to see the sparkling British men's four move past France's heavyweights to the Stewards' final, though it will be the French lightweights they will meet there after the Rendsburg/Hürther German four proved unable to match lightweight speed despite a steady head-wind. The point was proved again in the Double Sculls, where France's brilliant lightweights Stany Delayre and Jeremie Azou will meet Britain's heavyweights after taking out the Dutch with a display of clinical high-speed power sculling (it's not easy to rate 56.5 off the start.)