Henley celebrates a vintage regatta

175 years later and the head-to-head format of Henley Royal Regatta still has nothing to beat it in the world of rowing. There was high drama all the way down the course on finals day. A controversial disqualification after a pulsating Wyfold fours contest. A multi-national, scratch pair winning the Goblets and impressive wins for Britain’s top international crews – bar one all won. And the squad double of Collins and Walton – on the wrong end of a three-foot verdict against the French lightweights – served up one of the best races that Henley has ever seen in all of those 175 years. 

“It wasn’t my plan to make the race such a spectacle,” said an exhausted Jeremie Azou, stroke of the French double. But the breathtaking flair and genuine pace of Azou and his partner, Stany Delayre had helped them hold off every attack that the gritty British double could throw at them all the way down the course. There was never more than half a length between the two doubles. In the end, Azou said: “I saw an opportunity with 300m to go and it proved decisive.” 

In the end, it may be that the draw played a significant role in the result: the French were on the Berkshire station, which produced 14 out of the regatta’s 20 winners. Yet even that stat could not take away from the quality of the Double Sculls Challenge Cup final. 

The top-end speed of the lead British boat on display – the men’s four – gave their French opponents no chance. Rowing as Molesey and Leander, the crew won the Stewards’ Challenge Cup comfortably, despite their giant ‘two’ man, Moe Sbihi feeling under the weather. “Very happy to win today, I’m not feeling 100% so to be able to produce that kind of performance is very good,” explained the Molesey oarsman afterwards. 

Both the men’s quad and eight won impressively. The quad, who had been less impressive in their semi-final, were back on form for their comfortable win over Australia’s national crew. Meanwhile the GB Rowing Team’s Chief Men’s Coach, Jürgen Grobler’s reshuffled eight never gave their French opposition a chance in the final of the Grand. That race proved a welcome return to the national team for Oxford University’s Constantine Louloudis. Afterwards, the Olympic bronze medallist said, “It’s great to be back in the boat.” 

There was relief too from the British women’s quad who beat their under-23 teammates. “It was always going to be a difficult race because the U23s are a good crew and we didn’t underestimate them at all,” said Beth Rodford afterwards.  And the British women’s eight, did well on the less favoured Bucks station to hold Holland’s national team in a closely fought final of the Remenham Cup. “We were always in the lead but never totally confident and, in that last 200 metres, they came back and we threw everything in to keep them off,” said Polly Swann, the Leander and Imperial College’s ‘seven’ woman afterwards. 

Both Olympic champions – Mahe Drysdale from New Zealand and Mirka Knapkova from the Czech Republic – won their two singles titles for the fourth time. But it was the victory of the ‘Dutch’ pair of Steenman and Bahain in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup that really caught the eye. “It’s been the weirdest week in my rowing life,” said Steenman, who had only phoned Julien Bahain – his French-Canadian brother-in-law – the day before the regatta started to substitute for his unwell partner Rogier Blink. 

The club and university events were also full of drama. In the Wyfolds, Tideway Scullers and Upper Thames served up a pulsating blade-tip to blade-tip encounter that ended with a clash – clearly in Scullers’ water – metres before the finish. But the Umpire showed the red flag to Scullers for an infringement further down the course. 

Remarkably after 51 years, Upper Thames’ victory in the Wyfolds was their second of the day. Earlier, their coxed four had beaten Bayer Leverkusen in the Britannia. 

There were American wins for the Cal Berkley eight and the Harvard four in the Ladies’ and Visitors’ respectively. But both Newcastle University’s coxed four and the Oxford Brookes eight, held off US opposition to win the Prince Albert and Temple events. 

As expected, the powerful Leander quad took the Prince of Wales Challenge Cup and the eight from Frankfurter proved too strong for Imperial, who were on the Bucks station. 

St Edward’s school served up a magnificent race from Bucks but a superbly judged sprint from Eton College saw them take the Princess Elizabeth. In the junior sculling events, Gloucester’s women overcame the loss of three of their sculls in a pre-paddle collision, to beat Marlow. Finally in the last race of the day, Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School beat the Windsor Boys’ School to complete the line of 2014 Henley Royal Regatta winners.

by Martin Cross

Photography by BigBlade