We do tradition well in this country. It’s something we take pride in, celebrate and deem an important aspect of being part of Great Britain. From royal occasions to sporting fixtures, we keep these traditions alive and well. One of the traditions that combines royalty and sport is Henley Royal Regatta. It’s an event in which we as the national squad try to compete as often as our programme allows and thankfully, we were able to race in this momentous year. 175 years after starting, the regatta still uses the same, very simple format. Two crews, side by side, racing the 2,125 meters upstream to the finish line. Over the years there has of course been some modernisation around the edges (grandstands are now erected), but everything remains as simple and as traditional as possible. To the rowers, nothing has changed. Out there on the water we could be back in 1839, racing against our competitors along the same straight-line stretch of the River Thames. Sitting on the start line, looking directly into the umpire’s boat, watching the red flag raised above his head, poised, ready for it to fall to his side indicating the start of the race transports you back to that very first race 175 years ago. It’s probably even the same little red flag!
The spectators are closest to the water at the start. Everything is tight and close, a mere inch excess room between the end of my oar and the bank as we guide our boat carefully from the warm-up area onto the start pontoon. Someone waits, lying on their front leaning over the edge, hands dangling into the water ready to hold our stern steady and secure for the start. In this position we sit a few feet from spectators, our feet tight in the boat shoes, theirs hanging in the water enjoying a picnic and a glass of Pimm’s in the sun. Generally, people are respectfully quiet for us as we sit trying to focus. It’s difficult not to look and become distracted by the murmuring, pointing and whispers. I find my mind wandering, wishing I could be there relaxing with them. None of these people is about to put their body through this terrible pain, this severe discomfort that will probably cause vomiting in about six-and-a-half minutes’ time. Why isn’t it me sitting there on the bank enjoying the day with some friends? But then I remember that not many people can do what I do, many will be watching us race past wishing they could be in my seat. I have this fantastic opportunity to do something I’m good at and that I love. It’s something I can never forget.
For the first 750 meters my blade tip is within a few feet of the bank, the shouts and cheers are close, seemingly in our ears. I’m rowing in a boat with three members of Molesey boat club, self-named the Black Death, referring to their black kit and I suppose the terror they try to bring to their opposition. As the only Leander member of the crew, I’m out on a limb. All I hear down the course is support for Molesey, one of the disadvantages of being so outnumbered in the crew. This is another tradition, one that has grown in the modern era of rowing. Two of the largest clubs in the country, with arguably the most recent success, depending on who you speak to, are rivals to the core. There isn’t much love lost here and I’m outnumbered three to one. Thankfully, my crew mates are good men and allow me along for the ride! I happen to have rowed for Molesey in my early days and raced for them at Henley Regatta in the Thames Challenge Cup way back in 2003. This year my brother is also racing in black in that same event, so my loyalties are split.
Honestly, I dislike the animosity some people have for one club over another. I believe it cheapens the sport, brings us down to a political level where opinions are based on rumour or perceived evidence. I understand and fully condone rivalry on the water, it’s excellent to want to beat a crew from another club, even to hate them for those moments on the start line or in the closing reaches of a race where you are bow to bow, surging for the line, trying to expel every last ounce of energy from your being. Then you can hate your opposition, think whatever you need to think to get over that line first – that’s sport, but leave it on the field of play. There is a lot of unnecessary disdain – even jealousy – and it’s something I could definitely do without.
As the halfway point in the race approaches, you’re right out in the centre of the river at the furthest point from the spectators. The crews are hemmed into a tight lane, just wide enough to allow two eights side by side. Wooden booms mark the lane – enormous posts driven into the river bed with long wooden struts floating between each one. It’s an impenetrable barrier and the cause of many bitter disappointments over the regatta’s 175 years. If you collide with one of these beams it’s the end of your race, probably the end of your boat, too. These delicate racing shells don’t stand much chance against a 10x10-inch floating oak beam. It’s all part of the challenge of the course and the boat’s steersman has a huge job to do. There is a lot of pressure on getting and holding a straight line off the start. An inch or two too far to the left or right and you could find yourself in trouble. Add stream and a beady eyed umpire to the mix and there’s no margin for error. Luckily I don’t have that responsibility and Andy down in the stroke seat holds the reins. Andy steered us perfectly in both races, keeping us close to our side, but not too close that we feel uncomfortable. If one of us touched our oar tip on the boom, causing us to catch crab, we could easily break a rib, be catapulted out into the Thames or worse, all of which have happened before and are things we dread. It’s an art, a very tricky skill and I don’t know anyone better at it than Andy.
As we start to draw closer to the enclosures where the grandstands are built, the crowds are growing and the riverbank bends back towards the racing lane. Spectators are close again and you can hear every shout. It’s a great feeling to be leading at this point – to be racing for your country and club at the same time, to be leading the French by well over a length, to be in control and to have everyone on the bank on your side is unreal. The competitors’ enclosure is rowdy, loud and a hive of activity. It’s great fun to be rowing past that point, around 300 meters from the finish line. A surge of adrenaline climbs, matching the roar of the crowd. Edging closer to the line we reach the start of the Stewards’ Enclosure, where traditions are stringently maintained. The noise level drops, but polite applause carries us down the course. There’s an occasional roar from a Pimm’s-fueled rebel reclining in a river-fronted deck chair, but otherwise the atmosphere is civilized. As the line draws nearer we are shrouded in shadow by the finishing tower looming over us on one side and another structure rising high out of the river on the other. Crossing the line we slump down in our seats, muscles relaxed at last, but with acidic blood surging through every tiny capillary. This year we have raced two French crews to take the win in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup. It’s the third time I have won this event and that’s even more pleasing as it means we are still an unbeaten crew. A week after this Henley final we will be racing the final of the World Cup regatta in Lucerne, where we hope to prove our control and dominance on this event even further.
As the 175th Henley Royal Regatta finishes, everything is deconstructed, removed and pulled from the river, the town of Henley-on-Thames returns to its tranquil ordinary life. The event for which it has become world famous is forgotten by most for another year. Spare a thought for those rowers who, in a matter of days, will start the long road of training again. Another year spent training to try to grasp one of those elusive, Henley medals. That’s the tradition.