Good grief, what a regatta. If the Rio Olympics turns out to be a quarter as eventful as Henley Royal 2016, it will have earned its ticket fees. At the end of five fierce days of racing on the bumpy Thames we have found out:
- that Mahé Drysdale can be caught napping, even at Henley
- that the Dutch men's team is on fire, and their eight row like angels (shades of 1996?)
- that most of HRR's umpires are now willing to bite as well as bark
- that a moment's mistake in a final can cost you dearly (Nereus, Cal)
- that Henley-on-Thames in the summer is flipping beautiful, and rowing is a dazzling sport
- and Pimms is the nectar of the gods.
There were two stories of the day on Sunday 3rd July, but the one we're going to start with is the Leander versus Nereus Ladies' Plate final which had Twitter chittering for hours afterwards — and the post-race analysis will probably drag on for days if not years.
The Ladies' Plate has a history of controversy (see the 1989 Notts County-Harvard re-row here, and read a bit about it here), and Leander have smarted from three narrow losses during the last five years (2011 by half a length to Berliner, 2012 by a foot to Harvard and 2014 by three feet to Cal). Nereus, despite setting a club record of 5:33 earlier in the year (likely on the Bosbaan), had already lost 2-1 to the Pink Palace on the Bosbaan. Emotions were already running high before the crews took to the water.
The race itself was simple enough (for those who want to follow along, see the full race here, along with an explanation of the verdict), apart from Nereus strokeman Freek Robbers almost dropping his oar handle on the 14th stroke. Incredibly, he recovered so quickly that the boat was hardly affected and the Dutchmen moved rapidly into a small lead. So far so standard: in the Holland Beker Sunday races both times Nereus had led out before Leander rowed them down.
This time, on the 2112-metre Henley course, it was to be different. Nereus found a middle-race gear to consolidate nearly a length's lead, and although Leander sprinted like fury through the Stewards they could not close to less than about eight feet. Agony for bowman Chris Boddy, three times unlucky after being in the 2012 and 2014 crews.
But that was only a fraction of the story. From soon after Temple Island, Henley's umpire du jour Boris Rankov had been warning Nereus, who were blatantly steering over towards Leander's side of the course. In the new on-TV-must-behave climate, and with Rankov wielding the flags, this was tactically suicidal. Martin Cross and Greg Searle, commentating for the YouTube feed, later checked the footage and reckoned that Nereus stayed in the centre of the course for one minute and two seconds at an early stage, until finally moving. Leander weren't entirely blameless - once Nereus shifted back the Pink Palace went with them for a while, but Nereus were soon back in the middle again and for a period while one length up in mid-race were definitely washing Leander down.
The drifting and flag-action continued right the way to the enclosures, the last warning coming at about 5:30 in the video footage, by which time the two crews were right in front of the spectators and the cameras clearly show the lumpy puddles being sent towards the British crew by the Dutch. As the crews collapsed post-finish and tie-clad Nereus supporters swam out to cheer their crew, suddenly up went the umpire's red flag to denote a problem with the result. An audible gasp went up, after which the regatta held its collective breath, and Rankov told the crews he had to consult the Chairman.
Two long hours passed, and we're told that the video evidence was reviewed in depth, and multiple Stewards consulted. Conspiracy theories abounded: would Nereus be given the win after a painful wait, or disqualified, or would there be a re-row? Then the ominous words over the site-wide PA system: "Would the coaches of the crews in race 9 please come to the crew enquiry office." They disappeared into the chairman's offices, and didn't come out for ages. Then the announcement.
"Nereus have been disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct."
We hadn't seen that one coming. Not, let's be clear, for unsportsmanlike washing down of the opposition — the distance between the boats was agreed to be big enough. But because their coach, the eminent Dutch rowing legend Diederik Simon (bow-man of the 1996 Olympic champion eight), had been gesturing to them from the umpire's launch. If you want to watch the relevant bit, go to 10:55 on the video clip of the final. He's the one nearest Rankov, on the left as you look at the picture.
Nereus celebrates too soon
It's a terrible way to win a final for Leander, and Nereus were devastated. Simon made it clear to Dutch rowing website NLRoei that he had been gesticulating out of frustration that the crew weren't moving while being warned. "My crew didn't respond to the umpire's flag," he said. "At one point the umpire reached for the red flag which is used to disqualify. Then I started waving to my crew. I wish I hadn't done anything, then we now would have had a victory. In addition, my rowers didn't see all my hand gestures."
A brief official statement by Sir Steve Redgrave said, "Guests are [on the launch] at the discretion of the umpire, and are not to interfere with the race in any way. It's a really sad result, but there are standards and procedures that all crews need to abide by, and A.S.R. Nereus stepped over the mark."
Nereus were also told that the loud four-syllable expletive their 3-man uttered immediately after the line did not help (all the crews were reminded not to swear since the footage was being shown live on British daytime TV), and that the Stewards disapproved of the swimmers, though these points will not have swayed the decision.
"I think it's terrible for the rowers, I could cry," said Simon. "Will we boycott Henley? No, we won't. It's a beautiful event. But I do not agree with this decision. This is a story with a tragic twist."
Alas, rule 41(n) of HRR is very clear. "...nor shall a crew be given any advice, assistance or steering aid during a race. A crew which receives any extraneous assistance during a race may be disqualified by the Umpire." [Note that it doesn't say the crew has to understand or act on the advice, it's just about being given it....]
And for those remaining skeptical, it's wise never to forget the unwritten Rule Zero: the Stewards make the rules and can do what they like.
On any other day Mahé Drysdale being beaten in the final of the Diamonds would be huge rowing news, but Hannes Obreno's demolition of the reigning Olympic champion and world silver medallist happened right in the middle of the Nereus debacle. It was an extraordinary race, with former lightweight international Obreno pulling the usual fly-out strategy anyone with sense would use against Drysdale in a match race. The big Kiwi duly performed his lines, hauling through the Belgian as his race cruising pace kicked in. But at that point Obreno threw away the script.
Instead of succumbing to Drysdale's massive power and experience, the Belgian simply dug his heels in and refused to fold. Despite giving away two stone in weight he dragged himself back level with the Kiwi and the two sculled together toe to toe throughout the middle of the course. Pure brilliant match-racing, exactly what Drysdale came to Henley to practice, and top-class sculling from the Belgian, who had only once before beaten the New Zealander, in 2013 when Roel Braas had already damaged the Kiwi's confidence. Drysdale kicked in a push just before the Milepost, but Obreno still refused to drop dead and punched back to lead as they reached the Enclosures.
One more sideways glance, and Obreno hoicked the rate up again passing the Grandstand, sculling gleefully away to win by two full lengths while Drysdale could do nothing to stop him. A majestic and historic victory, stopping Drysdale winning his sixth title and bagging Obreno the marvellous pineapple cup given to Diamonds winners. (The pineapple is one of only three things trophy winners get to keep - a new one is made for each Diamonds champion, the Goblets winners keep theirs as well, and there is now an individual brooch given to each Princess Royal winner. So Drysdale has enough for a tidy-sized dinner party.)
See the full race here.
"I just wanted to keep pushing and stay in front of him, counter every attack that he did," said a stunned and rather breathless Obreno afterwards.
"Obviously I'm a little disappointed by how I rowed today," said Drysdale. "I really wanted to win that one, but I've learnt a few things here this week that I can now take into my preparation for Rio which will hopefully aid me in being successful in six weeks' time."
And then there was the Visitors' Challenge Cup. A race for elite coxless fours who are not quite international standard, the appearance of domestic pluggers Thames Rowing Club up against half of Cal's varsity looked like a foregone conclusion. As they left Temple Island behind, the Bears' poise and winning ways started to tell, and they steadily drew into a competent clear-water lead. Hearing the 'Remenham Roar' from the knot of partisan Thames-supporting spectators before the Mile, Thames stuck in their best effort and got back to within 3/4 length of Cal, who reacted and pulled back to a length gap again.
There had been a bit of veering about as is often the case with coxless fours, so when umpire Matt Pinsent pulled his flag out in the Enclosures to warn Cal away from the centre, they shifted back quickly. Too far, it soon became obvious - overcorrecting they carried on moving towards the booms, and then crash! smacked straight into the last boom before the finish line and stopped dead. With strokes to go, they'd given away a nailed-on Henley win and could only watch, blades entangled with the woodwork, as Thames sailed past to claim the cup. Very sad.
Cal hits the last boom on the course
See the full race here, and a truly heartbreaking and harsh sequence of photos from row2k's spot tethered to that same last boom pole starting here.
Some rivalries last for years, others fade out fast. While Harvard have many rivals on the western side of the Atlantic, in the minds of Oxford Brookes oarsmen, the Crimson loom large, particularly in the Temple Cup for student eights. Current Brookes coach Henry Bailhache-Webb was at 4 and stroke respectively in the 2001 and 2002 crews which were rowed down by Harvard's freshmen in the final of the Temple, and with his best ever crew in the mix this time he wasn't about to let revenge get past him.
Posting a time to the Barrier quicker than the Dutch Olympians (well, conditions were better before lunch), Brookes stormed off and gave no quarter to Charlie Butt's JV eight. As the race report records, "Brookes moved imperiously away to a well deserved win."
This is the first time that a fully student UK crew has simultaneously won the Head of the River (outright), the British universities championship, and Henley Royal. The only problem may be that in future the Stewards may regard such an exceptional UK crew as being full varsity standard, and threaten to bump them up to the Ladies' Plate.
See the full race here.
You'd be forgiven for thinking there were no predictable finals on the last day of Henley 2016, but in fact quite a few went to form. Britain's non-Olympic women's quad suddenly acquired power and polish disposing of Poland's under-23 champion crew in the Princess Grace, the Dutch men's four and pair vanquished Austria and then France respectively, and Dutch sculler Lisa Scheenaard beat German Anne Beenken pretty comfortably. There were wins for Bayer Leverkusen (Britannia Cup) and Grasshopper Club (Wyfold), while British scullers Jack Beaumont and Nick Middleton could not be caught by Dani Fridman and Gustav Fistravec in the Double Sculls.
Nor was it any surprise that Princeton Training Center defeated Leander and Tees in a face-off between potential national team members. With the senior US women's eight bossing the world, the chunter around the boat tents was that their deputies visiting Henley were arguably good enough to have joined them in Rio too. Leander and Tees put up a sturdy fight but could not stop the rot and the verdict was only quarter of a length off "easily." See the full race here.
Princeton Training Center won the Remenham
The under-23 GB men had a much more successful run to defeat, losing to season's leaders the Dutch Olympic eight by a mere three-quarters of a length. While their senior GB eight looked on via the TV feed from the pre-Olympic altitude training camp, the next generation rowing as Nautilus fearlessly took on the best in the world and looked extremely competitive, attacking repeatedly. Boy do the Dutch row well, though.
See the full race here.
It's likely that the GB Nautilus crew will be mixed with other talented rowers to create a four and eight for the Under-23 world championships in Rotterdam at the end of August.
After a lot of optimistic chat by the Londoners' supporters, Eton's schoolboys reminded St Paul's that they have the measure of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup with a 1.5-length verdict which belies the fact that they were in full control throughout. That takes Eton coach Alex Henshilwood's HRR trophy collection to seven since he began winning in 2003: one PE victory with Pangbourne, five with Eton, and a Thames Cup with Upper Yarra.
There were firsts for some: junior boys Claires Court School claimed their first ever Henley win in the Fawley, defeating Windsor Boys' School by a length in a fantastically close-contested struggle in which both crews led several times in turn. It has been an extraordinary summer for a program which didn't even have any J18s in 2013, after national titles and invitations to junior trials.
Continuing the history-book theme, Edinburgh University's coxed four became not just their first student winning crew at the Royal Regatta, but also the first fully Scottish student crew to win a set of little red boxes, as they beat Newcastle University by a length. See the full race here.
Gloucester's Hartpury crew put their names on the Diamond Jubilee junior girls' quads for the third year in succession, and Molesey coxed by world silver medallist Henry Fieldman saw off Oslo, a crew with a surprisingly large number of under-23 team-members in it, in the Thames Challenge Cup.
Leander's top quad outgunned California Rowing Club in the Queen Mother, fully justifying having been promoted to the senior event, but in the Prince of Wales lesser event, Schuylkill Navy HPC did a brilliant job to head off Leander's second stringers.
Schuylkill Navy won by just four feet
While Schuylkill always had their bow in front, they had to fend off charge after charge by the Pink Palace, culminating in a mad dash to the line which very nearly caused a dead heat. Schuylkill kept their heads and hung on grimly, winning the trophy by a tiny four feet. See the full race here.
Bits and pieces:
- Those of eagle eyes at the regatta will have spied the six-girl of the Leander and Tees eight described in the programme as "Lady Katherine Douglas". It's not a joke: the GB development rower is the second child of John Stewart Sholto Douglas, who succeeded his father as the 22nd Earl of Morton in March. By the rules of the British peerages, the daughter of an earl is always a Lady, and uses her first name (thus, 'Lady Katherine', not 'Lady Douglas' — the latter would mean she was merely the spouse of a knight, baronet or earl).
- Misheard in the boating area when someone was talking about Leander: "Neander? As in Neanderthal?"
- The rule the Stewards are nowadays applying in force is 41(e): "A crew's proper course is such course as will enable it to reach the winning post in the shortest possible time provided that it allows ample water for its opponent to steer its own proper course on the side on which that opponent started. A crew which leaves its proper course does so at its peril and may be disqualified by the Umpire if it thereby interferes with its opponent or in the event of a foul."
- Joke of the week: "Boris Johnson is the second-most controversial Boris in Britain".
- Earlier on Drysdale had tweeted that he was hoping to go under 8 minutes with the better weather. His rival did, Obreno posting 7min 56sec to the finish line. Unfortunately Drysdale was two lengths back, so probably missed his mark.
- The University of Michigan crew rented a party boat and paddled it up the course; as they went by row2k near the finish line, a TV commentator with full camera running on a boat drove up to them, asked if they had any food on board, and said "Never mind then" and kept going. Comedian or jackie? You decide.
- The winning double of Nick Middleton and Jack Beaumont danced a silly dance on the way up for their medals, and then when Beaumont got to Steve Redgrave and Redgrave leaned in to say something to him, Beaumont kissed him!
- Women's single winner Lisa Scheenaard spilled the top of her trophy while up on the podium; her embarrassed reaction was human, charming, and priceless.
From the race reports:
- "Great race worthy of the final" — Jubilee
- "Leverkusen were exceptionally quick off the start allowing Sport Imperial no chance to get back on terms at any time" — Britannia
- "Both pairs had to manage the gusty wind from time to time and did so well" — Goblets
- "Terrific start from Brookes. By the Barrier the door was firmly shut and Brookes moved imperiously away" — Temple
- "An undramatic race between two elegant scullers" — Princess Royal
- "A fantastic final" — Prince of Wales
- "A truly classic race! From Fawley to the Grandstand a titanic battle ensued" — Diamonds
- "Hollandia took an early lead which they extended steadily with length and flow" — Stewards
- "Fistravec and Fridman hung on grimly but could never mount a challenge" — Doubles
- "University of California led all the way" (written before the boom-smash) — Visitors
- "A spirited second half from Nautilus ensured Hollandia had to row hard the whole way" — Grand
- "A cracking race during which the lead change hands several times" — Fawley