Henley goes and launches three new women's events, and the men promptly step up their game: try as I might it was nigh impossible to make this Friday report all about the gals. Eight of the thirteen 'easily' verdicts of the day came from women's races, with star attractions such as Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser gliding smoothly through to Saturday's semi-finals without pausing for breath.
Tracy Eisser and Megan Kalmoe
Meanwhile the boys were larging it up all over, with dogfights to the line yielding several breathtaking races. One of the closest saw Thames get the better of Commercial Ireland by a photofinish single foot in the Wyfold coxless fours, having come back from a clear-water deficit to trading blows - and steering warnings - all the way along the Enclosures.
Thames and Commercial
California Rowing Club's victory over former HRR winners Taurus, who had been bumped up a category by the Stewards, was brilliant, the race an exhibition of relentless duelling experience from both crews. California got their noses in front early, but stroke and former Crimson captain Andy Holmes had to fend off push after push from the boys in bright blue and CRC finished only two feet ahead at the line.
The Visitors' contest between Cambridge University's Blues and Grenoblois, France was a cracker. Some terrible steering from Cambridge led to an early blade clash, which Grenoblois came out of considerably better. This may have been why the umpire did not disqualify Cambridge, even though they rowed back through the French to victory: there wasn't any evidence that the clashing had affected the result. Edinburgh and New York Athletic in the same event manage to overlap their blades without it causing problems. Lurking in the draw are Leander, who casually equalled the Fawley record while taking out Boston University.
A worse clash between Tideway Scullers and Dutchmen De Hoop in the Wyfolds led to a stoppage within strokes, the crews being sent back to the stakeboats straight away. The re-row was marginally better steered and Scullers got their act together for the win.
See the clash here.
Female selected crews generally had a good day, although the two in the Women's Fours, Newcastle University and Ohio State, were sent packing by the Dutch national team and New York Athletic respectively. That was largely because their selection was a reversed reward for being the only two to qualify, so that they wouldn't accidentally be drawn against each other in the first race. After the quarter-final shakedown we have three intriguing US crews left, plus the Dutch potential under-23 crew.
It's tempting to think that the Ernst & Young plot for their four transition scholarship holders was brewed up in December 2016, when the Stewards decided to introduce women's coxless fours several months before the FISA vote to restore them to the Olympics was taken. Retiring internationals Kim Brennan, Olivia Carnegie-Brown, Wianka van Dorp and Grace Luczak looked powerful and rapid as they beat an Australian quartet to earn a semi-final against their US counterparts, the New York Athletic four that includes Liv Coffey, Kerry Simmonds, Susan Francia, and Felice Mueller.
NYAC Women's Four
There's something slightly odd going on with times. Although we should not be surprised to see crews getting quicker over the years, when an Italian double break the Double Sculls Barrier record set in very fast conditions in 2011, but fail to win the race, it does provoke thought.
The only thing I could come up with, watching Italian LM2x Stefan Oppo and Pietro Ruta duff up their heavyweight counterparts from the Italian team even after the heavies broke said Barrier record, is that we have an unusual combination of a shallow river, virtually no stream and some tail-wind this year.
Oppo and Ruta weren't the only super-rapid lightweights, as later on Rio LM2x champions Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou got very close to the time in slower conditions (and with a very meandering course). And German non-team lightweights Konstantin Steinhübel and Jonathan Rommelmann duffed up Olympic M4x champions on a sabbatical Hans Gruhne and Karl Schulze, pushing them so hard that Gruhne visibly wilted mid-race to let the lighties through.
See the wilting moment here.
In the Prince of Wales men's quads, Edinburgh University's highly talented young guns upset Christiania, the Norwegians featuring two of the quad who lost the PoW final last summer when they crashed into the booms. There's a hair-related story in both crews - Edinburgh bowman Matthew Curtis only cuts his hair when he loses and says his last trim was in 2016 when he lost a mixed quads race at the Scottish Championships. Meanwhile Christiania's stroke man claims he went bald after the Henley crash last year due to stress - it's possible he isn't 100% serious. This year they only have speed to blame - Edinburgh's, to be specific - the students calmly bored back through the Norwegians despite being 1.5 lengths down at the Barrier.
A demolition job was done on Team USA in the Princess Elizabeth Cup, as St Alban's, Deerfield and Gonzaga went down to some of the quickest British schoolboy eights. However St Paul's, possibly the pre-race home favourites, were demolished in their turn by Scotch College Melbourne, when they left themselves too much to do to catch the Australians, who had equalled the Fawley record on the way. Most of St Paul's' crew will be back next year though, so watch this space.
St Alban's simply couldn't match the Radley speed, nor Deerfield Eton's. The Shiplake-Gonzaga race was epic, Shiplake timing the start perfectly to sneak an early lead but the heavier Gonzaga never letting them slip too far. Both eights turned it on coming past Remenham Farm, and again at Upper Thames, but Shiplake were pinned to only a few feet advantage by Gonzaga. Up past the Mile they came, slugging it out stroke for stroke, the rate starting to wind and the crowds beginning to yell. There's an incredible shot on the video footage of Shiplake cruising, about two seats up, through an oil slick near the Enclosures - and just when you think Gonzaga are about to come level, there's a brief stroke-side crab which pretty much gives Shiplake the margin of victory. Races can turn on an instant....
Shiplake leads Gonzaga
The student eights are sorting themselves out too: Cornell's lightweights finally met their nemesis in the shape of the UL heavyweights, but Yale and Cal made it to the semi-finals against Oxford Brookes B and Santa Clara respectively. The match-up of Saturday will be Cal versus Oxford Brookes A, who are itching to show that their recent domestic wins were far from flukes.
John Graves has what looks like a clear run to the Diamonds pineapple goblet, after removing former lightweight and Oxford women's assistant coach Jamie Kirkwood from the singles competition. Vicky Thornley and Anne-Katrin Thiele still appear to be the ones to beat in the Princess Royal women's singles.
Other Things We LearnedBrits are very amused by the Cal Bears' tradition that their bowman wears his shirt the wrong way round, so that the 'C' makes it into the publicity photos. "Why don't they just print 'C' on both sides of the shirt?" was the standard reaction.
The De Hoop tartan leggings were inspired by a guy they got chatting to a while back in Amsterdam, who always wore a kilt. Thus do age-old traditions get started.
The presence of the British Prime Minister Theresa May (their local MP) in the launch behind her home crew Maidenhead unsettled the junior boys' quad so much they caught a crab in the closing strokes, but they still managed to beat Tideway Scullers convincingly enough before she went off to soothe annoyed voters at her weekly constituency session.
The Dutch women's eight need to be very careful with their steering in the next race: they were warned repeatedly while beating Molesey. It was yet another Black Death crew out of the regatta: at least this time they didn't hit the booms as they had done in qualifying....
The on-course announcers have become very slick at calling the Dutch crew names without hesitation - this is because they were sent a pronunciation file by a former Dutch rowing journalist. They are noticeably less confident on the German and Hungarian names.
The Canadian crew in the Remenham started rowing on the sample commands; see it here.
Finally, this is must see rowing TV: a member of the Maidenhead crew completely loses his oar in the last 10 strokes of the race, but recovers and wins it.