Henley Royal Regatta 2016

Every year at Henley seems to be the best and most dramatic year so far. However, 2016 quite possibly was! Endless DQs, NROs, clashes, rampant coaches in the launch, and all of it on TV for the second year running! The entry was the highest ever, by some margin, and especially very heavy on the foreign front. Just getting into the Regatta has become harder than ever.


The women’s 1st 8 narrowly failed to qualify this event as the second-fastest non qualifier. They managed to beat the high performance centres of University of London and Newcastle in the process, as well as Tideway Scullers School. It was not quite the result they wanted and had trained so hard for, but nevertheless they can be proud of where they finished.

The novices and a few of the senior men rowing as Thames C were the seventh-fastest non-qualifier in a year when the entry was through the roof.

In the Britannia Thames B were the second-fastest non-qualifier, a very good achievement for a small crew.

The Regatta

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Thames A, our 3rd 8, had a tough draw against the Lea’s 1st 8. Lea had been a few seconds faster at Marlow and were a well drilled crew. They got into a rhythm early and despite our guys attacking all the way down the track, Lea were worthy winners by several lengths. The result was not quite a fair reflection on where the crew stood as a ranking in the event but that’s the nature of the game.

Thames B, our 4th 8, had a good draw and took on Marlow’s 1st 8. By Fawley Marlow had a length lead but our guys never let their heads drop and all the fitness and hard work paid off as Marlow started to struggle. We kept the pressure on and Marlow began to falter and we went through to win by open water. A debrief was held in the Anchor but wasn’t a contributing factor to the defeat by a very good Swiss crew the next day. For our bottom boat to perform in such a manner is highly reflective of the men’s squad as a whole.

The Wyfold B crew had a tough draw against TSS B after an easier first round. A clash around the quarter-mile meant a restart on the course came into effect. Again Thames B took the lead but Scullers were just a bit too strong for us, finishing 1 ½ lengths ahead after working right to the line. Given that one of the crew was unwell, this crew can be happy that they rose to the occasion and performed to the absolute best of their ability in a very tough field.

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Wyfold A, having finished first at the Met but failed to make the final at Marlow, did a good job of hiding their speed in the first few rounds. However they pulled out all the stops against Upper Thames, a very good little crew which managed to hold off our repeated challenges up the enclosures to win by 2/3 of a length and eventually earning a slot in the final. It wasn’t technically our crew’s best row but it was certainly committed and brave. A good result in a very, very tough field. For a crew with two home grown rowers, Oscar through the junior system via GB Junior Worlds, and Skye through the novice system and the ranks of the senior men, this shows our system as a club is working well.

Britannia A were three of last year’s crew with a burning desire to win after being unbeaten at the Met and Marlow against club opposition. They never quite beat Edinburgh University who went on to win the Prince Albert but gave them some very good races. However, the Bayer Leverkusen crew they faced in the semi-finals were outstanding. Finalists for the last two years, they turned up fit, drilled and very powerful. They put several lengths into us by the Barrier and despite us rowing them back to 1 ¼ lengths Bayer were worthy winners. This crew trained and raced like champions all year and attacked the early rounds like they were there to win. Sometimes you just come up against an outstanding crew and can do no more.

The Visitors’ was quite a campaign. Containing three of last year’s winning 8 and a Kiwi electrician who was a dab hand with the foot and could generate a few watts too, these guys had pestered me to let them do the Visitors. By the end of the April camp it was clear they had all the makings of something very good indeed. Their paddling speed was staggering and they went 5:30 pace for 250 r37 the first time I asked them to do anything at rate. At Wallingford they demolished the Oxford Brookes crew containing some very canny old war horses, with Olympic medals of every colour, as well as Head of the River wins, and Grand, Goblets, Doubles and Stewards medals galore. Instead of Met, the boys went to Holland Bekker. They finished second on both days in a series of great races against the same field that was due to turn up in the Visitors. Marlow saw them take the Elite 4- race by the scruff of the neck and beat Cambridge by almost a length.

Going into the regatta, we viewed the event as stacked from top to bottom. Indeed in our first race we had to take on the world U23 lightweight bronze medal crew, a boat made up of top lightweights from Brookes, Leander and Molesey. However our rhythm and power was too much into the headwind and from Fawley onwards the Thames guys were able to relax a bit. The next day saw a very powerful but technically rougher crew from George Washington University. Again we had to work hard to get clear but were able to shut it down by Remenham.

The semi-final saw Thames take on a crew from Holland which contained current members of the national team but not being a selected international crew, they were allowed into the event. They did however have to have a sub on board for the regatta due to injury and a steering error up the island saw our guys taking command of the race but only by half a length or so. Repeated attacks by the Dutch failed and holding their nerve and form on the outside station, Thames managed to crack them in the enclosures and won by a small amount of open water. It was a commanding performance and it was clear from the times and natures of the races, that we were going to have a belter with the defending champions from the University of California, Berkeley, the next day. They had beaten the Brookes/Proteus combination that had beaten us in Holland yet the times were the same all the way down the track and in fact indicated we were in with a chance.

The crew that faced us had a major advantage in that they had had a much easier route to the final and were fitter and more powerful with an average erg of around 5:53. However, going against them was the fact they had only a week or so in the boat having been given the Henley trip as a bonus for winning the Varsity 8s at the IRAs, as well as the outside station which might count in the last few strokes as it can do when the crews are very matched. It was a case of canny old men focusing on this race for 10 months versus some very talented and proven youngsters from one of the best programmes in the world. It was looking like it might be one of the best races of the day.

The plan was to contain their start, steer straight, get into the so far unbroken rhythm, and hold everything that could be thrown at them until the enclosures. When a sliver of open water appeared around Remenham it was starting to look like the headwind and route to the final was starting to take its toll. However this incredible group of Thames men didn’t see it that way and dug in hard. They began to mount a challenge which had brought them back to ¾ of a length by the bottom of the enclosures and were inching back. California started to look ragged around the mile and were warned for their steering. Thames kept attacking but it looked like they were going to run out of room. Clearly very tired, Cal were warned for their steering again and then just a short distance from the line, a matter of strokes, lost it completely and hit the booms. Were we going to get there first before they drifted over the line? We made it by one stroke, or about four feet on the replay. The verdict given was a Not Rowed Out, which doesn’t seem fair to the effort and drama of the race but the result stood.

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This race will no doubt be discussed over Pimms and Brakspears in the Bridge Bar for years to come and it is already gaining a good number of hits on YouTube. Was it controversial? Possibly yes, but the aim of a rowing race is to depart as rapidly as possible when a man in suit drops a flag. The first crew over the line wins. Was it luck? Undoubtedly we were lucky but equally we made our own luck by not making any mistakes; in the final seven races (quarter-final, semi, and final) there were two NROs, a restart and a disqualification indicating just how key the steering was, especially given the very high standard and depth of the event. The Thames crew didn’t make a single mistake and despite having probably the hardest route to the final and all but one crewmember being in full time jobs, they held their nerve and never let Cal get away. Had we been more than half a length down we wouldn’t have managed to get our boys over the line first. We talked about having no chinks in the armour right before boating, and to hold their nerve at all costs.

We were very sorry for Cal and had some beers with them and though they were gentlemen about it, they were clearly devastated. Win or lose, it was a real honour to be in the final against them and shows how far this programme has come in recent years. We were testing ourselves against the best that level of rowing has to offer, only we had focused on this one moment for 10 months. Equally, had Cal had just a few days more in the boat, it is quite possible they would have beaten us.

The crew must take absolute credit for pushing for this project in the first place, and a serious mention to Nick Pusinelli who coached and controlled the crew from the 3-seat. The commentators kept talking about being focused, in the boat and unruffled and this was very much the case. They were not the fastest, nor fittest nor strongest, but they made no mistakes and were fast enough to capitalise on the mistake when it happened, not to mention being tough enough and seasoned enough to hold their nerve at all points of the regatta and racing. The dynamic with this group of men was superb and they were the most professional outfit I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and that’s saying something. It’s not exactly how one choses to win a race, but it beats hitting the booms which CUBC did against Cal at the start, allowing Cal a certain victory and fresher legs. At least this went quite literally to the last stroke.

So ends the season. Thank you so much to Pete, Dave, Sam and Henry who have all worked very hard and as a superb team. The athletes have conducted themselves superbly and done everything that has been asked of them. As always the club’s support has been invaluable.

It has been a season of superb racing with many close verdicts and a lot of nip and tuck to the line, including a dead heat at the Met. We have come out winners in over 50 per cent of a large number of ‘canvas’ verdicts.

Ben Lewis, head coach