Ninety-six rowers and six coxswains woke up on Monday 7th July to the realization they are Henley Royal champions, crowned on a vintage finals day which served up incredible racing, controversy, despair and jubilation. No trophy was won lightly, and the 102 little red boxes — each containing a winner's medal worth several hundred pounds sterling — were handed out by quadruple Olympic sailing champion Sir Ben Ainslie as bright sunshine bathed the now-empty course and the glittering royal barge Gloriana.
There has to be a race of the regatta, and this time it was the Double Sculls Challenge Cup, a fizz of a contest which kept everyone on the edge of their seats for seven minutes and seventeen seconds. On the Bucks station, this year's British openweight double of John Collins and Jonny Walton, finalists at both the European championships and the second World Cup. On the Berks station, French lightweights Stany Delayre and Jeremie Azou, who are rapidly acquiring a reputation for race brilliance.
Delayre has a six-inch scar up his back attesting to the training accident which saw him speared by another boat last July, with three injured vertebrae and unable to go to the 2013 worlds. Any lingering doubts that he was fully recovered were dispelled by another bravura performance in which he and Azou again whizzed off at rate 50+, giving them a quick lead over the openweights. Collins and Walton were wise to the ploy, held on and pushed back through in mid-course, but the two doubles came into the Enclosures area locked level, not a blade's thickness between them. Like rowing's equivalent of two Formula 1 race-cars they thundered towards the line, rate rising as they sprinted at full tilt. A photofinish was inevitable, and went to the French by three feet. Leander briefly protested, since Delayre and Azou had crept across into their water, but umpire George Hammond ruled that it had not affected the outcome, since Leander had stuck close to their booms and were unimpeded. Delayre and Azou may be very hard to beat this year: nobody has bested them since the start of the 2013 season.
Just as at Wimbledon 40 miles down the road, this weekend's singles titles went to previous winners, Olympic champions Mirka Knapkova and Mahe Drysdale each collecting their fourth Henley trophies. Knapkova breezed through Hungary's Krisztina Gyimes, but Drysdale had to drill his way back through Dutch sculler Roel Braas, who held the cosh over the New Zealander for the first three-quarter mile. Drysdale's powerhouse surge at Remenham broke Braas in a classic Diamonds knock-out. The Dutch sculler looked over in the Enclosures as the Kiwi steamed away, and dropped to a paddle, beaten.
Four US crews were in action on the final day, but it was Cal Berkeley and Harvard who came away with trophies, winning the Ladies' Plate and Visitors' Cup respectively. Former HRR winners Kieran Emery and Andy Holmes stroked Leander and Harvard in the Visitors', Holmes and his crew defending the Crimson's 2013 title by edging away from Leander, and then brilliantly holding off repeated Pink Palace burns to win by over two lengths.
Cal also raced and beat Leander, in an incredible Ladies' Plate battle which went to a photofinish, Bears supporters behind the judges' box roaring with pleasure as they were given the result moments before it was announced to the crews. Twice Cal had drawn out to nearly a length's advantage, and twice Leander came roaring back, but despite an incredible sprint from the British crew, it was Cal's power which told in the closing strokes, for a three-foot win.
The losses were for Harvard, beaten handily by Newcastle in the Prince Albert coxed fours, and Brown's freshmen, turned over by Oxford Brookes in the Temple. The boot has frequently been on the other foot for Brookes v US freshmen, but this year the UK students, who went a lightning-fast 5:39 at Ghent International in May and beat the Czech and Swiss eights at Duisburg, have been simply outstanding. They made it look like an opening heat, ripping out a length before the quarter-mile signal and steaming away, leaving Brown floundering in their wake for a 2.75-length verdict.
Some races had predictable winners, and not all French lightweight oarsmen managed to turn over the heavy opposition. Not a single person present was surprised as the British men's four swept regally past the French lightweights, as this is one of those quartets which has gelled straight away. What started as stern four of the eight which won the Grand Challenge Cup last year is now a power machine steaming rapidly towards world championship domination. For Alex Gregory, Moe Sbihi, George Nash and Andy Triggs Hodge, confirmation ahead of Lucerne that they are on top form. And bowman Gregory maintains his position, now unique, as current reigning world, Olympic, European, national and Henley champion.
Chief GB men's coach Jürgen Grobler may have begun the season considering ending it with his biggest guys going back into the eight for the worlds after a bit of fours experience, but the success of the top four has been notable, and perhaps offers him the flexibility to develop more than one strong crew this year. The GBR M4- keep pointing out they're not yet achieving their full potential — in which case it will be fun to see what happens when they do.
Three pm, and it was time for the Grand Challenge Cup. The British eight had beaten France's new crew twice already in the season, so a third time was not too shocking, but with a strengthened line-up including new Oxford President Constantine Louloudis and world champion Tom Ransley achieving a 1.5-length margin, it is patently heading in the right direction. The row was a flat-out drag race, with feet between the crews for the first couple of minutes, until Leander & Univ of London (aka GBR) leaned on their oars and hauled steadily ahead. Later that afternoon stern pair Will Satch and Mat Tarrant had to do a little extra weightlifting training as they hoisted the 42-pound new silver trophy base, donated by Harvard in honour of their 100th anniversary of winning the Grand.
The GB boys were joined at the prizegiving by the Great Britain women's quad (who beat their under-23s in the Princess Grace Cup) and women's eight, who beat a tenacious Netherlands outfit to the Remenham Challenge trophy. The GB men's quad went off the start of the Queen Mother final as if — well, Craftsbury, were after them, and managed to hold off a new Australian quad which may be worth looking out for at Lucerne.
The Dutch (or was it the French, or Canadian? see Saturday's report for the comoplicated answer) won the Silver Goblets, Mitchel Steenman and Julien Bahain overhauling South Africa's Vincent Breet (Harvard '16) and Shaun Keeling at the Milepost. Frankfurter Germania took the Thames Challenge Cup away after a pitched battle against Sport Imperial, whose closing sprint narrowly failed to close the gap. In the Princess Elizabeth schoolboy eights, however, Eton overcame the psychological disadvantage of a false start, clung to St Edward's School's coat-tails at Fawley, and then charged along the Remenham straight to break the Oxford school's hearts and win by clear water.
A purist might mention that 14 of the 20 events went to Berkshire-station crews, on a weekend when recent rain made for just that little bit more stream rolling down the Buckinghamshire station. More relevantly, five of the six races with a final verdict of less than a length, went to Berks. But let's face it, you need to be streaks faster than the oppo to be sure of winning at Henley, and that, along with the fact that the Stewards' decisions are final, is one of the factors all entrants have to make peace with.
Peace may be hard to find for Tideway Scullers, who lost the Wyfold coxless fours to Upper Thames in a highly controversial manner. After various bits of dodgy steering from both up the course, the two crews became irretrievably tangled about 30 yards from the finish, but well over to Scullers' side since Upper Thames had veered into their water. Nobody was therefore too surprised when umpire Mike Williams' red flag went up, stopping the race. What shocked spectators into silence was the fact that the disqualification was given to Scullers, who had plainly been the sinned-against in the tangling incident. In fact Williams had, he said, already decided to disqualify them for interference — not necessarily involving contact — earlier on, but he had wanted to let the race play out in case there was a chance Upper Thames could win cleanly, thus avoiding the unpleasant DSQ verdict. All very understandable once the reasoning was eventually explained, but not necessarily 100% consistent with previous umpiring decisions at both this and previous regattas, which have seen hefty washing-down and even zero-contact blade-knitting not considered grounds for disqualification.
The win was Upper Thames' second of the day — and in their history — their Britannia coxed four having already defeated Bayer Leverkusen by two lengths to claim a first-even Henley trophy for the club which sits half-way down the HRR course. In the launch, with tears in his eyes, was captain Justin Sutherland, whose father Peter set the club up and who died in November 2012. There were wins for Gloucester in the newly-named Diamond Jubilee girls' quads and for Sir William Borlase's School in the Fawley boys' quads, while Leander made it five in a row with a commanding defeat of Bayer Leverkusen & Berlin in the Prince of Wales elite quads.
So it's been epic, exciting, and a little nostalgic. Chairman Mike Sweeney was emotional but not doleful as he made his last prizegiving speech, prior to retiring from the post this December. Harvard still remember Harry Parker every time they set blade to water, and especially when they win. The famous GBR coxed four who started the current gold-rush at the Los Angeles Olympics managed a 30th-anniversary row-past on the Saturday - Steve Redgrave, Martin Cross, Richard Budgett and cox Adrian Ellison being joined by their 1984 coach Mike Spracklen in place of Andy Holmes, who had died of Weil's disease in November 2010. The quintet, whose success inspired the resurgence of the British rowing team, had ironically decided not to do a 25-year row-past in 2009 because they didn't feel old enough yet. A lesson in carpe diem if ever there was one.
We say this every year, but it's been vintage. Every summer Henley Royal finds new ways to astonish, impress and celebrate rowing. The 175th regatta has been no exception. See you in 2015.