A stunning complete rainbow appeared in the skies over Henley on Sunday night as the weather gods celebrated with a fitting finale to a glorious week. They hadn't felt generous enough to offer a tail-wind for the finals, but they did keep the rain away until after the end of racing, time enough to allow seven countries to win 20 trophies with a job lot of "who'd have thought it" results.
It was a day for the brave, for those who said 'bugger the form book' and just went out to win. Margins were often large due to the persistent head-wind, but the courage on display beggared belief, and gave us some jaw-dropping outcomes. So I'd better start by reporting that the Yale varsity wiped the floor with UW, romping away with a 2.25 length victory in the Ladies' Plate which will go down in history.
It started as the umpire's flag dropped, the Bulldogs managing to move further in fewer strokes than the Huskies and seizing several useful early seats, which rapidly developed into a full length. Spectators initially shook their heads, waiting for Washington to surge back, but the expected west-coast blast never came, and the east-coast champions simply carried on shifting, inexorably consolidating their advantage and finally swinging through the roaring Enclosures for their first Ladies' Plate win since 1980.
"I'm delighted, they raced up to their capability," said coach Gladstone afterwards. "I thought it would be nose to nose, but the boys have felt that the speed has been increasing throughout the course of the two weeks we've been here, and they were right."
His bow-man Sholto Carnegie, formerly of Marlow juniors and then Leander, has never lost at Henley and now has three wins out of three. "Steve just told us to trust ourselves and row our own race," he said afterwards. "We had a devastating rhythm and they just didn't have anything to respond so we kept on moving. They're Washington so you always expect a big attack and I was cautious, but I knew we had what it took to win the race."
Members of UW's second varsity got their revenge later in the day, crowning the afternoon with one of its best races as they took the Prince Albert Challenge Cup away from Yale's coxed four. Spurred on no doubt by thoughts of redemption, the Huskies had a brilliant start, but Yale's settle was better and the narrow lead swapped hands for what would be the first of four times, Washington only pulling away passing the grandstands as they sensed the finish line approaching.
After racing each other at the Holland Beker, Sydney and Cal must have regarded their Visitors' coxless fours final with trepidation. So did umpire Richard Phelps, who was in action with his warning flag right from the start, and again repeatedly up the course to get the two to move apart. It was neck and neck to the half-mile, where Cal stuck the boot in, leaning on their oars and steadily hauling out a length's lead, which they reeled out further before the finish. Sydney appealed at the end, but their criticism of Cal's steering was rejected by Phelps as not having affected the verdict. The Bears crew, who had volunteered to come over to Europe to give benefactor Gary Rogers and Cal alums a crew to support, now have little red boxes to take home with them.
Several of the international events were procession-like, with six of the seven GB crews claiming their titles, including the women's quad (against Molesey), the turbo-charged men's quad (against a German development crew) and the European champion men's four sending Greece packing in what might have been a harbinger for that country's landslide 'no' vote in the referendum the same day. The women's eight got thoroughly schooled by Canada, however, reminding them that one good regatta isn't a full turn-around in form until you can repeat it.
Coming into finals day the score between Britain and Germany's men's eights stood at one-all this season. Germany dominated the European Championships, but GB raised their game at the second World Cup. A week away from Lucerne, who was going to win the all-important third set? Kudos to Germany for coming to Henley, but then their national eight has never lost to Britain's crew here before - it must have looked like an open goal.
No chance: this is a GB eight stronger and faster than those which won the worlds for the last two years, and which has thoroughly learnt its trade. Waiting on the stakeboats for the previous race to finish, a war-cry of "All day!" rang out from their bows. It was a stand-out drag race between the world's top two eights, Germany taking it off quicker and arguably more efficiently, but the GB battle-machine pumping out strokes, over-rating them and 100% focused on achieving top speed.
GB's power-push began at the half-mile and carried on going, first overturning the German advantage and then extending their own. As it worked, the crew relaxed and settled, a stonking rhythm developed. One length. Two lengths. Sharp clean strokes biting into the water, living up to their promise that they could keep going "all day". By the finish it was nearly three, the camera-drone had to soar higher to get both crews into shot, and the historic victory was sealed. Germany owned, good and proper.
"They're always our biggest rivals," said Jürgen Grobler. "It's a very special feeling, I'm very very happy. I thought it would go to the last stroke, that margin was very significant." He will go to Lucerne very hopeful for a boat which is coming steadily to its peak.
"Every day it is getting more efficient," said six-man Alex Gregory. "The nations which target the eight do it for a reason, it's an amazing boat to be in."
The GB men's pair got their wrists slapped good and proper for naff steering, having zigzagged in slow stately sweeps up the course while beating lower-ranked development pair Oli Cook and Stuart Innes in the Goblets final. There was no real interference, but that didn't stop umpire Richard Stanhope nipping over in the launch as the two pairs sat recovering after the finish line.
"You haven't actually won yet," he told Matt Langridge and James Foad sternly. "I have to raise the white flag first." A discussion about intentional and unintentional steering hiccups ensued, but Langridge, who had been in command of the footplate, managed to persuade him that they hadn't been deliberately trying to wash Cook and Innes down, so their victory was confirmed.
"It's much quicker to go in a straight line, so obviously ideally I wouldn't use the rudder," said Langridge. "I really wasn't doing it on purpose, I was just struggling with the steering, the wind was blowing us across, and we don't steer that well anyway. When you don't have the buoys to keep you on it, it's easy to drift across. It's unfortunate that it's a little bit taken the edge off the victory." Cook, the UL and Leander bow-man, just shrugged and said "these things happen."
The final insult came after the prize-giving: being the Silver Goblets & Nickalls' Challenge Cup, the big trophy cup is accompanied by two gorgeous silver goblets, new each year, which the winners get to keep forever. Unfortunately some over-zealous security guards forgot that important fact, and tried to stop bowman James Foad taking his away after they'd posed for pics with the trophy.
Hopefully they didn't also try to stop Mahe Drysdale taking his pineapple cup, the fifth he has bagged over the years as a multiple Diamonds winner. He and Mirka Knapkova, also winning her fifth singles trophy, and equalling Maria Brandin's record by doing so, were wholly unchallenged by Hungarian lightweight Gabor Csepregi and Dutchwoman Lisa Scheenaard respectively.
Two other lightweights, South Africa's exceptional champions James Thompson and John Smith, gave Britain's double of John Collins and Jonno Walton a real work-out, leading them out along the island until the Leander double hauled through into the lead, and then challenging repeatedly right the way up the course. This is where the video footage is going to come into its own - the side-on shots of the Springboks are an exhibition of class sculling under great pressure which many a coach will want to see.
The club and student events varied, from Nereus unsurprisingly demolishing Lyon in the Temple, Molesey taking out Tideway Scullers in the Wyfolds, Marlow and Gloucester defending the boys' and girls' quads titles respectively, and Sydney making up for the Visitors' loss with a win in the Britannia Cup coxed fours. Leander are turning the Prince of Wales quads event boring, engraving their names on the trophy for the sixth year running, and Thames confounded expectation by not just beating but annihilating Bayer Leverkusen. "Chokers my arse," a triumphant member of the Thames crew was heard to mutter afterwards.
The Princess Elizabeth Cup was always bound to stay at home this year, with a final between the two top UK schoolboy eights. Westminster came into the race holding all the form cards as national champions and Schools' Head winners. But it was St Paul's who wrote the script, taking an immediate lead and never letting up, while Westminster, who seemed to have caught the Husky no-shots-in-the-locker disease, could only watch as they pulled away.
And so the 176th edition of Henley Royal Regatta ended. Tons of strawberries consumed, lakefuls of iced coffee and champagne drunk, gazillions of strokes rowed in anger. It's sad it's all over (until the next time). But for once, we can relive it all again online. The best rowing footage ever shot is there for anyone to see. This year the winners of the 21st trophy are most definitely the Stewards, for the best innovation the regatta has yet seen.