Let's start with the numbers. No records this time — Henley Saturday fell foul of a persistent cross-head wind — but some finals stats. Of the 20 events at the Royal Regatta, we have GB team crews in seven, and all-overseas finals in six. Only five US crews made it through the semis, together with Canada's women's eight, but four of those five will give us two mirror-image showdowns on Sunday: Yale vs University of Washington in both the Ladies' Plate eights and in the Prince Albert coxed fours.
Ok, that's the dull stats done, now on to the fun. Semi-finals push crews to the limits, and Saturday was no exception. Rowing through your oppo was the order of the day, along with a dash of heroic pushes and some desperate ditch charges through the Enclosures. All captured on camera courtesy of the drone, which was permitted to zoom down close to the crews.
The US match-ups were mostly tense, furiously fought, and full of determination. Although Sydney's Visitors four beat Washington with ease, Cal's race against Newcastle University went to the wire. It actually started twice, the crews being stopped soon after they passed the island, because of debris on the course — it's often a problem at Henley, where heedless oicks drop champagne bottles and worse into the water, and the Stewards try to undertake that the course is clear before crews are set off in races.
Anyhow, after finding steering a little challenging the first time, both crews managed better on the second start. Cal probably thought it was going to be easy, dashing out to a length lead and hauling that close to two as their punchier rhythm and cleaner strokes bit into the river. Newcastle did well to surge back in the Enclosures, but it was a deceptive improvement, because despite having to push hard, Cal were aware the result (a somewhat generous to Newcastle 2/3 length) was never in doubt. In the other semi, Sydney beat Washington very handily indeed, to give a rematch with Cal, whom they raced twice at the Holland Beker regatta last weekend (result, Cal over Sydney by 0.99sec in the heat, Sydney over Cal by 5sec in the final).
It's difficult to describe how high passions run for the schoolboy eights, the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup. In a new world versus old contest perfectly designed for the Fourth of July, Gonzaga against Westminster was a barnstormer. Westminster led from the off, but Gonzaga gripped them tightly, fighting for every inch, ignoring the piledriving strokes which the British champions were carving into the river. Gonzaga never let them get clear water, and gnawed back at the leaders, but every move they made was matched by the Britons, including the final sprint. Fireworks on the water perhaps, but not in celebration. St Paul's got the better of Radley in an uneventful race, so the top two UK schools will fight it out for the trophy.
Cornell and Columbia's lightweights were on duty trying to prevent the Temple Cup going into Europe, but fell by the way to two excellent crews. Cornell had no real chance against record-breakers Nereus, but Columbia seized a powerful initiative against Lyon, ignoring the stone a man difference and turning the screw on the Frenchmen until they had broken contact. A fantastic tactic, but one which didn't impress Lyon, who came back vengefully at Remenham, racking up the rate and leaning into the head-wind in true heavyweight style to claim victory.
Astonishingly, and perhaps due to boom-phobia, Yale's varsity in the Ladies' Plate eights went straight for the middle of the course as they left the start of their race against Leander. Umpire Boris Rankov warned them for most of the first three minutes, and then again at Remenham as they encroached again, but the east-coast champions kept a stranglehold over Leander with 0.5-1 lengths advantage throughout. Leander's mid-course push brought them back to overlap briefly, but the Bulldogs responded powerfully and pulled away again, once more veering into the middle, oblivious to the wash they were creating for the crew behind them. Now they meet Washington, who got rid of Melbourne University.
The other Yale-Washington match-up will be in the Prince Albert Cup. The student coxed fours drew the short straw this year, with quarter-finals and semis on the same day only eight hours apart. The last three UK crews in this event went out in the morning: Durham to Nereus, Edinburgh to the Huskies, and Imperial to Harvard A. The last of those was the best, a symphony of charge and counter-charge which had Imperial holding the reins for 2km until Harvard's final burst broke their opponents. It will have put a lot of lactate into the legs for the afternoon race, which went all Washington's way. Yale, who had beaten Proteus-Eretes confidently in the morning, then rowed through the fading Nereus to reach the final.
Let nobody tell you the women are lower standard here. Take the Diamond Jubilee junior women's quads, which keeps offering up amazing racing. Y Quad Cities, led off initially by the formidable national and HWR champions Gloucester, kept their heads enviably easily, and simply jigged up the rate and pushed before the half-mile, a brilliant move which earned them a half-length lead very fast. Then it was Gloucester's turn to stay calm and summon up a push, which took them back into the lead approaching the Enclosures. That the eventual margin was over two lengths came down to a steering glitch for Y Quad Cities, who deserved a closer result. After a relatively easy win for Marlow's highly experienced crew, we now have a re-run of the UK national schools, in which Marlow and Gloucester were miles ahead of the rest.
One of the most fun vagaries of Henley Royal is the fact that the Stewards can't get everything right. It seems as if most years there is a qualifier who slips through the predictive net and reaches the final. This year it's Molesey's women's quad, composed of their top pair and double from Henley Women's Regatta, the second half of which had won and set a HWR course record. Up against them were Stanford University's V/JV combination, also HWR winners.
No quarter was expected. None was given. Time and again the two crews swapped the lead, now one ahead by a few feet, now the other. It was impossible to tell which was going to win. The gutsy battling was worthy of a Henley final itself. Eventually Molesey managed to turn the few feet into a few more, hung on and crossed the line 2/3 length to the good. And that's how a qualifier makes the final, where they will meet the British women's quad.
One of the most poignant races came in the Thames Cup (club eights), where two proper old-fashioned club crews came up against each other. Both University Barge Club and Thames are full of adult rowers fitting their training around careers and real life, without subsidies or scholarships. Barge Club at first looked very comfortable, capitalising on a strong start to pull away to 1.25 lengths lead with fresh legs from their row-over the previous day. But Thames, who have trained to row back through opponents on the outside station, put their heads down and shoved, eating up the gap relentlessly in a beautifully-timed push between the Barrier and Fawley. They now meet Bayer Leverkusen, who disposed of Leander in merciless fashion.
The international events were enjoyable, and mostly went to form. Britain's men's eight proved that they have nothing to fear from Australia, and bagged themselves a final against Germany, which will be a very different kettle of fish. If returned 2-man Constantine Louloudis has spent a couple of weeks partying, it didn't show. The Remenham women's eights saw GB beat Oxford coxed by Radcliffe steerswoman Jill Carlson (who is about to join the UK university) while Canada's indomitable eight put paid to Brown's last hopes of glory.
In the rolling head-wind, South Africa's lightweight coxless four had no chance against an on-song British quartet in the Stewards' Cup, and nor did Brown against the British women's quad. Mind you, Hungarian lightweight Gabor Csepregi overturned that idea, calmly polishing off young Dutch openweight Maarten van Blokland despite the wind to earn a run up the course against über-champion Mahe Drysdale.
In the Double Sculls, Peter and Tom Graves could not withstand the firepower of British duo Jonno Walton and John Collins, who have been the wrong side of the international results lines so far this season, but have tremendous potential. In the other half, South African lightweights James Thompson and John Smith had no trouble disposing of two but promising young Oxford students.
The Goblets pairs final will feature the British world silver medallists squaring up to GB hopefuls Oli Cook and Stuart Innes, who did a beautiful job of rowing back through South Africa's much more experienced David Hunt and Shaun Keeling. The GB youngsters attacked repeatedly between the half-mile and Remenham, finally getting their bow-ball in front in the last minute and a half.
So the tents are empty, barring the final few shells ready to race. The trophies have been polished, the gold-plated medals, each of which is inscribed with the name of the trophy and around its edge the year, made ready. By this time tomorrow we will know who's taking them home.