For anyone silly enough to actually be in Henley-on-Thames today, it was hard to believe that for most of the last month Britain's been sweltering in a relative heat wave. The first day of the 168th edition of the famed Henley Royal Regatta pitched the Thames Valley straight back into November, with glowering dark skies, spots of rain, and a brass-monkeys breeze which chilled to the bone anyone unfortunate enough to be out without shelter.
Of course the clever thing to do nowadays is watch on YouTube. Since 2015 the coverage has filled our screens with beautifully-produced shots, swooping zooms, racing side-angles and drone footage enhanced by the biggest-ever collection of Olympic medallists to grace a commentary microphone. But as devotees will be quick to reassure you, it isn't quite the same as being there.
Those who braved the steel-gray skies got their money's worth with an opening day of racing which lifted the bar higher than ever. The rise in standards has been at the lower end, and with a bit of luck in the draw we ended up with only two 'easily' (> 5 lengths) verdicts in the entire day, a record for a Henley Wednesday.
(See the full Wednesday replay here.)
That luck in the draw didn't quite favour the overseas crews, and while I can attest to it having been pure misfortune, having watched the names taken out of the big silver Grand Challenge Cup last Saturday, we did end up with quite a few visitors racing each other. So eights from the Haverford School, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Cornell C lost to other overseas entries, while German Thames Cup eight Bayer Leverkusen sent their countrymen from RC Hamm packing.
In the Prince Albert student coxed event Colgate's four put out the selected quartet from the University of Virginia, and a duet of results showed just how different HRR racing can be from anything else. Kent School had beaten Deerfield Academy in UK races during the last two weeks, but facing selected Dutch students Laga was beyond them, and a 1.5-length verdict put paid to Kent's chances. Meanwhile Deerfield had been drawn against Trinity College Dublin, a potentially handy crew who have been mixing it competently with higher-standard fours. Deerfield set off fearlessly, and grabbed a slender lead of a few feet which they managed to hang onto, although it shifted back and forth from inches to a canvas as TCD refused to give up the ghost.
As the line finally approached Deerfield scented victory and clung on, winning by five feet and becoming one of several to chuck selected crews out of the competition. They now face Newcastle University, who used the tailwind beautifully to match their own 2011 Barrier mark and then break their Fawley record while beating Frenchmen Lyon comfortably.
The other crew to equal a record was Radley College, against whom Episcopal Academy were rather unfortunate to be drawn. Both had been selected crews, but in a quirk which looked decidedly mistaken, Episcopal were drawn into slot 26, rather than the more normal 27, pitting two selected crews against each other on the first day. The eventual margin was 1.5 lengths, but that belies a confident Radley crew which was cruising by the end yet still set the second-quickest finish time of the event. A little while later came the best match-up of the day, in which National Schools bronze medallists Shiplake managed to fend off Westminster by 2/3 of a length for the second time in the season over a tensely fought close race.
A deeper mystery than a duff draw turned up in the Fawley junior quads. During the morning of Wednesday the American School in London had wallopped Tideway Scullers B pretty comfortably, by a margin of 3.75 lengths and rating 26 as they cruised over the line. But a few hours later they were out of the competition, disqualified with the Stewards refusing to give a reason why. The rumours on social media were more intriguing, and while what follows is pure speculation, it does at least explain the peculiarity of the announcement.
The internet scuttlebutt suggests that an American School crewmember had to fly back to the US on Thursday of Henley week, with no sub available, but that they continued with their entry hoping that either they'd lose, or he would be able to change his flight. Unfortunately neither happened, but having already raced they had automatically robbed TSS B of the round two spot to face Claires Court School.
It may be pure hogwash, but if it did happen, by disqualifying the American School for what could be considered an unusual form of unsportsmanlike conduct, the Stewards would have restored a degree of natural justice while having to keep schtum about why.
For those who might be getting legalistic, I refer you to the unwritten rule zero - the Stewards run their regatta as they wish - which is in fact rule 37 (see picture). In this case it could definitely be applied since everyone expects Claires Court to have no trouble disposing of TSS B on Thursday.... TSS had all the luck, since they also edged it over Riverside in the Thames Cup eights when the latter's coxbox annoyingly decided to fail 100m into the race.
While we're at it there is a new rule this year which may well end up causing the umpires problems. The "proper course" rule is now rather precisely specific, stating that a crew must keep itself and all parts of its boat "between the buoys or booms on the side on which it started and a line halfway between the buoys or booms on either side." I don't think it will be long before the 'third umpire' Stewards are getting out their rulers and measuring space on screenshots from the video in order to settle a dispute.
(See the full regatta Constitution here.)
There were no steering dqs on day one, although Westfalen's win in the Wyfolds was put under pressure when St Neots went for the bump in the Enclosures. Westfalen stayed cool and St Neots were denied their post-race appeal, probably because the worst infringement was entirely their fault. Bedford tried the same trick against Curlew without any more luck.
As usual the Wyfold coxless fours gave us the most worrying steering, with Fulham Reach BC taking the heavy-footed approach too far and crashing into the booms as Dutchmen De Hoop rowed away from them.
One of the biggest worries for the Stewards when the regatta began had been weed at the start, prompted by low river levels and recent scorching weather letting more sunlight reach the weed plants on the riverbed. Weed at the start can too easily get wrapped round fins or rudders, leading to issues further up the course. While some crews did seem to churn up some weed in their first few strokes, there was no reason to think it influenced any races. We hope they have been encouraging the local ducks and geese to snap up as much as possible between racing periods.
In international news, the remaining entrants to the Diamond Challenge Sculls heaved a massive sigh of relief as Kiwi owner of the world best time Robbie Manson announced via Instagram that he had suffered a rib injury. He hopes to be OK by Lucerne, so it doesn't sound too bad, but it hasn't half raised some hopes in the singles event.
Well, an unusually competent Elvis impersonator broke the peace of the Henley valley several times zooming up and down on a barge float with his live band: welcome in the lunch break but less so when crews were trying to finish races.
The drone has been improved this year so that it doesn't risk losing signal when flying low to the water, so expect more swooping shots.
And the most unusually-dressed supporter was a bloke from the Westphalen coaching team who paired knickerbocker shorts with long mustard-coloured socks and a peakless cap: not quite lederhösen but close.
It was an interesting, exciting, unusual and slightly disconcerting day, but it got the regatta going. On Thursday most of the men's small boats begin, along with the girls' Jubilee quads and Princess Royal women's singles, both expanded in honour of the exceptional 2017 entry. HRR's YouTube channel has already had tens of thousands of views, so log on, tune in and veg out to a feast of match racing.
Odds and Ends
Here in the US we gleaned a few things while following the various video and social streams; to wit:
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