Henley Royal: Sunday 4th July

The Rowing Service

Four up to the Germans, but Great Britain's 4- and pair celebrate the 150th Royal Regatta

Sunday's racing at Henley takes place in a strangely disjointed atmosphere. Oarsmen and women who have been tightly focused on their rowing all week suddenly don't know what to do with themselves, togged up in smart blazers or dresses. The weather was an improvement on the previous day, the wind having eased considerably, though still occasionally gusting cross-head from Berks. Showers for a few minutes each hour reminded the spectators that the weather was firmly in charge, and the Enclosures and banks were soggy and squelching, with the trampling they'd had from eighty thousand pairs of feet the day before. This year the boat-tent wallahs were in a generous mood, so racks were still full, instead of the usual finalists-only rule. As the first competitors pushed off the rafts, only they seemed to be aware of the importance and tension of the day, one which rowers will train for a year just to experience.

Racing kicked off with the two Temple Challenge Cup semifinals, Imperial College outclassing a low-rating Harvard off the start and Cambridge's Goldie eight holding off several hard challenges from Princeton to slide into the other final's spot. Then the first final took to the water, the two Augusta doubles of Groom and Tucker against McGowan and Peterson - lightweights against heavies. Groom was now recovered from his unnerving collision with Canada's lightweight eight the day before, but he and Tucker could make no serious impression on the heavyweights, and McGowan and Peterson were able to scull comfortably and smoothly home.

The Thames Challenge Cup for club eights was the second final of the day: Molesey on Bucks versus Crabtree (ex-CUBC) on Berks. The Molesey crew contained their 1997 Wyfold winning four, including Steward and Henley regular Richard Stanhope at stroke. It is unprecedented for a Steward to be contesting the final of a junior event rather than the more prestigious open trophies, but perhaps Stanhope can be forgiven, since he is now into his forties and twice a father. The crews dashed off level at the end of the island and rated high right down the course. Acceleration through the quarter-mile put Crabtree's nose in front two feet, which they drew out to half a length by Fawley, the mid-point of the course. Cambridge blazers everywhere were holding their breath, but as the stream favoured Molesey, they launched an well-timed all-out assault which brought them back to three feet down at the three-quarter mile. Passing Remenham club on a wave of vociferous support, Stanhope raised the rate again, and took Molesey level by the start of the regatta enclosure. Here Crabtree have been very effective, but today the west London club was too strong for them, and by the Mile Molesey had taken a canvas and were still moving. Their blades slamming aggressively into the water, and sending spray flying, Molesey stormed up the Enclosures. Crabtree raised the rate, but in vain, and Molesey swept past to take the Thames trophy (Stanhope's eighth medal) by three-quarters of a length, in 6:40.

Having beaten Greg Searle out of the Diamond Challenge Sculls the day before, Marcel Hacker, Germany's new single sculler, should not have been surprised to be relegated to a before-lunch spot for his clash against Koven from the USA. Hacker is quite a find, having won the German singles trial in April this year, and will be a name to watch in St. Catharine's in August. He made Jamie Koven look like a comparative beginner, pulling away immediately despite tweaking the buoys, and continuing to scull inexorably ahead all the way up the course. Koven, nearly a stone lighter, had no answer for the strong German, who punched his arm and yelled in triumph as he crossed the line. He is the first of his nationality since Tomas Lange in 1993 to take this trophy, and there is no doubt that for him, it is only the beginning.

The Wyfold Challenge Cup for club coxless fours was England versus Wales. After Nottingham Boat Club demanded full subscriptions from all the Notts County Rowing Association oarsmen rowing under its colours, the NCRA bunch founded a new club, Holme Pierrepont, for their development squad, since the Stewards have resolutely refused for some years to let them into the club events. Coming up against them on the Berks station were a Llandaff four who have had tight races all week on their way to the final. Right up to the quarter-mile there was barely a difference between the crews, but Holme Pierrepont had a canvas, and as Llandaff chipped away at them, they squeezed away inch by inch and broke clear before Fawley. Llandaff fought back twice, but by the middle of the Enclosures were having trouble keeping on a straight course, and nearly clashed blades with the Nottinghamshire crew. Had they not had to veer back onto station, the story might be different, but although the Welshmen clawed back to half a length, Holme Pierrepont had it all under control.

Oxford Brookes University won the Visitors' trophy two years ago, and this year merged their Brit and Wyfold crews of 1998 to produce a four with five medals between them, and went on the pot-hunt again. Imperial College put up as much of a fight as possible, rating high off the start, but were unable to dent the cruising Brookes confidence, and by the end the distance was a solid four-and-a-half lengths.

It is not unusual for the top-status events to be very undersubscribed, and the Prince Philip trophy for coxed fours was this year a straight final, between a patched-together Leander crew containing "last Leander amateur" Kingsley Poole, and a Nottingham County RA four who all work as well as train. This was a heck of a battle, in which Nottingham, who sped off first, never got a full length ahead. Leander harried them all the way down the course, sprinting the length of the Enclosures, and closing it to half a length by the finish. Notts, jubilant, were led in a victory chant by a partisan photographer in the finish-line box, while Leander bowed their heads in despair, and could barely raise the customary three cheers.

Well into the afternoon's racing, the Goblets pairs took to the water: Australia's Olympic silver medallists against Great Britain's newest version of the 2-. Brits Williams and Dennis took a canvas off Aussies Weightman and Scott by the end of the island, and continued to edge away steadily throughout the race. Both pairs were rating 36, but the British pair looked in confident control, and when they lifted at the end of the Enclosures, they were putting the icing on the victory cake. They now go off to Lucerne to aim for the World Cup pairs title and prepare for the Championships.

Next up was the Grand, a titanic struggle between the big boys: Hansa/Berliner from Germany and the GB eight (Leander/Queen's Tower). The race itself was close, although GB let the Germans slip out steadily over the first half of the course, and could never quite recover despite solid attacks from Remenham in, while the Germans were being warned for their steering. The disaster was the commentary: some duff information led to the Enclosures announcer stating that Leander/QT had taken the lead, when in fact the German crew had held off a sustained British push and were raising their rate again. The crowds started cheering, the announcer continued to compound his mistake, and those close enough to actually see were aghast as they realised the cock-up. Despite great determination, Leander/QT could make no impression on the Germans, who won by half a length. Just because the Deutschelanders were using dark pink blades, and the Brits showed off their new sponsor's kit of brown/white, is no excuse for getting it wrong in one of the most important races of the day.

For once it has been a year with plenty of home crews in finals, but the Queen Mother Challenge Cup for quadruple sculls was fated to go east or west, with the German Under-23 quad matched up against the American 'A' crew from the Augusta Sculling Center. At the end of the island the Germans had a two-foot advantage, which they hardened to three-quarters of a length near Fawley. Augusta pushed courageously where they had the best stream, and for a while looked like threatening the German youngsters, but Hamburg could feel the race was theirs, and confidently pulled away to a 1.25 length verdict despite erratic steering on both sides at the end.

As I have written before, St. Edward's School in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup have had an eventful regatta. St. Peter's College from Australia, like Teddies an unselected crew, had beaten two American schools and St. Paul's on their way to the final, but without showing as much pace and fight as St. Edward's. To the delight of the British supporters, the despair of the Aussies, and the disappointment of the massed crowds, this was a case of "race, no race", as Teddies grabbed a stranglehold of a lead from early on, were well clear by the quarter-mile, and were able to swing through the Enclosures with immense poise, the Australians struggling in their wake as if they were fighting a non-existent headwind.

To whet the appetite before the head-to-head of two world champion coxless fours, next on the programme were the club coxed fours for the Britannia Cup, the lowest level of the adult races in the competition. Molesey's 4+ faced Isis, taking an early canvas off them, and although Isis made a huge effort mid-course, there was no chance for the Oxford students, who were cleanly beaten by Molesey.

The Women's Invitation Eights was a stand-off between the squad eight, and their senior sisters in a crew made up of the double, the pair and the quad. The "odds and sods" surged away right from the start, and emphasized their dominance by drawing out to a solid 2-3 length lead through the second half of the race.

Redgrave and company faced the champion Danish lightweights for the second time running, this year having swapped stations. The crews were level off the island, and despite another attempt by the commentator to confuse the crowds, the British crew, under-rating the Danes, put their bowball in front by the quarter-mile and then eased ahead. This Danish crew is by no means scared of heavyweights, though, and harried Leander/QT right down the course. Although there was a length in it at the three-quarter mile when the stream favoured the Brits and they had surged forward, the Danes were well able to keep up, and jumped the rates every dozen strokes in the Enclosures to sneak back a useful overlap. Matthew Pinsent, stroking Great Britain, swung into top gear to respond, and held off the Danes with one of his by now famous sprints, to finish two-thirds of a length to the good. The Danes are a remarkable crew, giving away four stone and five pounds a man in this race, and yet again making a better challenge to the invincible four than any oarsmen have managed this year.
Tim Foster, recovering from a back operation and a disappointing loss in the Grand eight, will be encouraged that his replacement in the four, Ed Coode, was unable to score a more decisive victory in this replay than in last year's Stewards race. It seems certain that Foster must have lost his top spot for the 1999 World Championships, but chief coach Jurgen Grobler will have a very tight decision on his hands, since Coode and Foster will be scrapping it out all winter for the Olympic seat. Redgrave says he doesn't discuss it with Jurgen at all, and neither he, Matt nor James Cracknell relish the thought of being in Grobler's shoes for such a selection.

Before anyone writes in to complain, the official verdict for the Steward's Cup may have been a length, but as the crews crossed the line, the view from the press box a few metres away suggested quite a bit of overlap, and our combined view was that 2/3 was the right distance....

Maria Brandin handed the German contingent their fourth victory on a plate when she withdrew from the Princess Royal Challenge Sculls for women, during the morning of Sunday. She was staggering along to register her default, clearly suffering from a serious back injury. Sadly, this coincided with the first visit of the Princess Royal herself, Princess Anne, to her own event: she was brought to the Regatta from the Museum of River and Rowing by boat, and since there was to be no singles race for her to follow, walked through the Stewards' Lawn to the boat tents, where she was able to congratulate Steve Redgrave and pals, while they were doing their post-race media interviews. Katrin Rutschow of Germany was able to lift the PR Cup without racing Brandin, making it a double with Hacker in men's and women's singles, to add to the Grand and Queen Mother victories.

The Ladies' Challenge Plate set the Cambridge Blue Boat, victors in this year's Boat Race, against the competitive Berkley JV. Both crews had changes from their successful seasons, CUBC carrying Tweedie from their reserve crew plus Ouseley from Queen's Tower, while Cal had Wood from their varsity. National JV champions Cal might be, but they were no match for the Cambridge strength, and the Light Blues were not unduly troubled as they won by two lengths. The Thames Cup runners-up and light blue old-boys Crabtree will be pleased that they hit the same times for the first two markers, Barrier and Fawley, as Cambridge, though the 199 Blues accelerated in the second half to post a faster overall time.

There is continual discussion about the role of Leander in the lower events, every year, but the Fawley Challenge Cup for junior quad sculls has no barrier other than age, and the Leander/Tiffin composite, though clearly ahead of the pack throughout the week, were fairly entered for the event. It looks as if Leander have finally achieved their goal of creating a competitive junior squad, and they were not disturbed by Burway/Walton. One day it would be good to see junior world-level quads from abroad entering this in larger numbers, rather than just an internecine British affair.

To round off proceedings, Goldie added to the Light Blue success by defeating Imperial College without difficulty in the Temple Challenge Cup. With two of their alumni, Weber and Forster, in the German Grand eight too, there will be some serious Cambridge celebrations tonight, while Imperial, the odd composite QT oarsman aside, go away empty-handed.

A fine week's racing, nothing cancelled due to the rain, and Royalty to present the prizes at the 150th Royal Regatta was very fitting. The Stewards got some of the crew-selection right, but not all, and the commentary and timekeeping errors will rankle for a while, but with no disqualifications, and twelve out of nineteen titles staying in Britain, Chairman Mike Sweeney will be pretty pleased with himself. See you next year, on June 28th to July 2nd.

Copyright Rachel Quarrell, 1999