Henley in 2015: Stanford and Brown women's eights and a drone?!? (the stripes and ginger are more traditional)
Another day at Henley, another jet-plane. The Stewards clearly have a flight obsession. This time it was a Tornado jet-fighter, screaming overhead at lunchtime with enough throaty roar to make the dowagers collapse into their canapés.
The thing is, the aeroplane's thunder had already been stolen. At 9:40am Amsterdamsche Studenten Roeiverenigiging Nereus Holland had streaked up the course like greased lightning, sending Oxford Brookes into oblivion by an agonising canvas and whacking a colossal nine seconds off the Temple Cup all-time record.
Yes, that was nine full seconds. It's not a typo. The Tornado jet was waaaaaaay less impressive.
The timing was perfect: that morning had seen the first HRR TV drone flights over the course, so the entire history-bedazzling performance from both student eights was filmed in detail from every possible angle. The footage of the race is stunning, and the most-watched video of HRR by a mile. The man who flies the drone is former soldier Angus Benson-Blair, owner of the only company in the UK which is permitted to fly UAVs within 10m of the public, and someone you clearly don't want to cross: he could drop a dart onto a bow-ball with pinpoint accuracy.
Conditions: light tail breeze, zero stream, minimal cruiser-wash. Couldn't be better. Nereus sneaked a short early lead, but Brookes wouldn't let them go and snapped at their heels through the Barrier (where Nereus equalled Cal's record) and Fawley (ditto). Brookes started counter-challenging at the Mile: Nereus matched them. Brookes carried on challenging (those boys don't know the meaning of the words give up) and Nereus matched them again. Brookes hit 40 in the Enclosures, closing like a train, but ran out of water - and arguably Nereus had enough to hold them off by a few feet for a while longer. The two quickest crews in the history of the Temple Challenge Cup both crossed the line by the time it would take you to say the Dutchmen's club name in full. Astounding.
[This Dutch crew, by the way, had to make two substitutions of strong oarsmen in the period before Henley, and is based on their top four, rather than any special eights group. Such cohesion, with virtually no settled race experience as a crew, is very special.]
The Tornado episode had come only 45 minutes after the total opposite: a minute of complete peace in the middle of Henley Royal. At noon, together with the rest of Britain, everyone stood in silence to remember the victims of the recent shootings in Tunisia. Cars stopped on the bridge, radios were dumb, an umpire's launch floated in mid-stream, its passengers standing with heads bowed. It was a moving experience, which I've only seen once before at Henley.
At the start, the GB and Leander women's eights were already on the stakeboats for their 12:05 start, listening to the announcer and the clocks striking noon. Somewhere in the background, the laughing bray of some corporate idiot who hadn't got the memo and was making speeches in a nearby marquee disturbed the tranquil pause.
Further up the course, Genevieve Bailhache-Graham, who had unfortunately drawn multi-medalled champion Mirka Knapkova in the Princess Royal singles, was caught awkwardly: having started late she was unfortunately still racing the finished four-times winner when the silence began. With utter aplomb Bailhache-Graham completed her last 15 strokes through the Enclosures, slid to a stop, and bowed her head over her scull handles for the rest of the minute. Dignity personified.
Back to the records, and the Temple wasn't the only one to fall. Nereus' coxed four did the business on the Prince Albert course record by two seconds, Sydney equalled the Visitors' mark, Leander the Prince of Wales Barrier, and Glasgow Academy surged from behind to reduce the Fawley Cup record by a second, a short while after Sir William Borlase's had matched it. In the Double Sculls, South African super-lightweights James Thompson and John Smith (they of the Olympic-winning LM4- and the worlds-winning LM2x) matched the event's Barrier time on their way to an easy win.
The other headline of the day involved quarterfinals substitution nightmares for Princeton, who had their worst day of the regatta as both Ladies' Plate boats (V & JV) and the Temple eight (3V) fell at the Friday hurdle. The news that Princeton A's stroke and captain Tim Masters was injured precipitated a rescheduling for Princeton's B (JV crew), who lost to Leander by a mere 2/3 of a length in the morning. Julian Goldman, their stroke and twice a stroke of the US eight at the junior worlds, completed that race and promptly jumped into the stroke seat of the A crew, who had to go up against the Husky varsity in the afternoon. Despite the late switch, the margin of the second race, in which the Tigers led to halfway before succumbing to the experienced pressure of Washington, was merely a length.
That wasn't the end of Princetonian action. Back in the Thames Cup for club eights, Sport Imperial had woken up to find their 5-man Geordie Macleod out of action with a nasty back twinge. Not a good omen for facing the menace of the accomplished University Barge Club. But no alternates were available, the usual pair having gone to family homes in Germany for the summer. No problem, thought Imperial, let's ask Fred Vystavel of the Princeton JV.
The plan looked likely to work until a complaint was made by another crew to the Stewards, who eventually ruled that Vystavel was an ineligible substitute because he'd already rowed in a higher-standard event. Barge Club duly rowed over, while the Sport Imperial boys sat on the grass in the boat tents area, looking miserable. Thames Rowing Club, who defeated Mülheim to bag the other semi-final place against Barge Club, will not be thanking whoever suggested the complaint.
Astonishingly, that wasn't the end of the Ladies' Plate surprises. Half a length down to Yale before the Barrier, Düsseldorf, steering uncomfortably close to the wooden booms which line the course, caught an oar and ground to a halt. Yale grabbed their win-on-a-plate, and romped away to set up a meeting with Leander on Saturday. Düsseldorf were generous to their cox, saying the knock was due to a swirling current, and that normally he steers perfectly.
It was all go for the eights, Brown duffed up Stanford with great credibility, their black 10-year-old Resolute surging steadily into the lead in the Remenham women's event. Columbia's Temple lightweights went toe to toe with Hobart in a race which never got further than half a length's margin until Columbia sneaked another quarter-length by the end. They now meet Université de Lyon, a French student crew containing several junior and under-23 FISA performers, who had put paid to the third Washington crew by 2/3 length in a ding-dong melée. Cornell's lightweights outmanoeuvred University of London to earn a date with the formidable Nereus, meaning that there are now no UK crews left in the Temple Cup.
That is not the case for the PE school eights, where Saturday pits dark horses Radley against consistent performers St Paul's. Many had expected the other semi-final to be Eton versus Westminster, but while the boys in pink managed to hold on to beat fearless Andover by 0.75 lengths, Eton were sent packing by Gonzaga High School, who grabbed and refused to relinquish a slight lead.
The rest went as expected: the selected crews got through in the Diamonds, Goblets and Prince Albert. The last of those has to row quarter-finals and semis on Saturday, the penalty for having added eight new spaces to the draw.
There is one interesting tidbit of towpath murk. The medical team at the regatta have been treating spectators wilting in the heat with intravenous drips to rehydrate them. They have had requests from two coaches to do the same for athletes who are not in danger, just exhausted after racing.
What the coaches seem not to realize is that Henley Royal operates under strict FISA/WADA anti-doping rules, which completely disallow any injection of any kind (subcutaneous, intravenous or intramuscular) of over 50 ml unless an athlete is in dire and immediate medical need and no other treatment is suitable. And if anyone doubts the precise rule, British Olympic Association head medic, Olympic champion oarsman and Steward Richard Budgett is on hand to explain.
Saturday sees the GB men's eight and four take to the water, the eight having to row an opening race against Australia's untested eight, to decide which of them will face the Germans on Sunday. GB coach Jürgen Grobler was chewing his nails yesterday, so we shall see.