From SPORTING INTERESTS Henley Royal Regatta
28 June - 02 July. Henley We arrived in England a week and a half earlier after a week of training in Boston, and made our way to Cambridge University where we were hosted by the Trinity First and Third Boat Club, and stayed at Trinity College. This was Gordon's club from his time at Cambridge over twenty years ago. It was very lucky for us to be able to share in some of the history of rowing which was written here, and to live a bit of the pleasant life Gordon had when he was there. We rowed a Black Prince up and down the narrow river; the Black Prince was the name of the boat which won the first Henley Grand Challenge Cup (the premier event) and has been the name of First and Third boats ever since 1839. At Henley, we were lent a boat by the Sons of the Thames. We host them annually, and they more than return the favour by helping out when our crews come to Henley.

The Henley Royal Regatta is surely one of the world's great events ... and not just for the rowing. It is an opportunity to see English "polite society" on display providing nearly as much entertainment as the excellent racing. I wouldn't go so far as the notorious English press in poking fun, but I must admit to a few chuckles as I watched men and women in fine dress cavorting about the regatta. I just returned from a trip to Henley with Gordon Hamilton and his heavyweight varsity crew. Two of Gordon's men could not go and I was asked to fill out one of the empty port seats. As a 31 year old doctoral student, it seemed rather improbable that I would ever row in an undergraduate varsity boat, but at 3pm on June 28, there I was in the bow seat straining to hear "Set ... Go!" from the umpire.

The call came and the two-a-day workouts we had been doing for two and a half weeks were put to the test. I might have been in good head race condition, but the undergraduates had just come off a season of rowing at a 38 through the body of races, and sprinting in the mid 40s. Four days into the training regimen, it was either adapt or die. Happily, I adapted and the workouts became increasingly tolerable; even the ending sprints.

A fit looking crew from Copenhagen Rowing Club was in the lane to starboard (Bucks station) that Wednesday afternoon, while we occupied the Berkshire station. We went off the line furiously and took a couple of seats in the first minute. By the Barrier (a bit less than a 1/3 of the way), we had taken a three or four seat lead. By Fawley (about half way), we increased the lead to 6 seats. At this point I was sure we would win ... then Copenhagen's big move came moments later and they regained two seats. We responded and again had a six seat lead which we took to the finish line. I remember thinking how pleased (relieved!) I was that we would be rowing again the next day. At Henley, if you lose, you are out of the game, and half the crews lose every day. So, over five days of racing, an early loss can put you on the sidelines for a very long time.

The next morning, we pulled up against a local favourite from Wallingford rowing club. They put up a good fight, but we crossed the line 2 3/4 lengths ahead. We began to entertain thoughts of racing through the weekend. All we had to do was get by Goldie from Cambridge University. The next morning, we went out for a brief paddle at 6am and returned to "The Anchorage," where the Drew family hosted us for nine days. They have a lovely home on the Thames River, just moments from the Shiplake train station to Henley. The Anchorage proved a most agreeable place to lodge, and was just a short walk away from the pub where we took our evening meals.

At noon, we pulled up against Goldie. Again, we were on the Berks station, and Goldie was on the Bucks station. After twenty strokes, Goldie had taken a couple of seats. They were very fast. They took open water somewhere around the Barrier. We took it up as much as we could, but did not regain the lost ground. At the end, four lengths separated us, and we took our place among the Pimm's drinking crowd. The transformation from competitor to spectator took about two hours and three pints.

For the rest of the day, I was no longer fit to pull an oar, but I finally had a bit of time to reflect on what had happened over the past three weeks. I have watched the standards in the sport go up dramatically. The difficult challenge for next year's crew, and anyone else, is to continue to improve faster than their competition. We had a good run at Henley, getting to race three out of the five days, and losing to what was probably the second fastest crew in the Thames Cup.

GG Parker reflecting on his alumni days and giving us a polite American's view of something they haven't quite managed to buy and take back with them across the Atlantic. Perhaps not as absurd a notion as you may think the old Henley town hall was taken down in 1898 and re-erected on nearby Crazies Hill as a private home.
Fortunately with more than 300 buildings in Henley designated "of special architectural or historical interest", we are quite safe and more to the point, Henley remains a simply priceless experience.

The place itself is a jewel in Oxfordshire's crown. It is 35 miles west of London, deep in the Thames Valley surrounded by lush woodland and ranks as one of the county's most, peaceful, small English towns. Picturesque with Georgian frontages built on to older buildings and the five-arched bridge with carvings representing Father Thames and the Goddess Isis, it has a heritage to die for. Here is for example is Speakers House, the home of William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons (1629-1640) who was a signatory to the warrant for the execution of Charles I.

But it is that world famous straight along the river, at1 mile 550 yards slightly longer than the standard international distance of 2,000 metres, which provides the ideal course for what has become a major international event. Held every July since 1839 and therefore established long before national or international rowing federations, Henley Royal Regatta is regarded as the World's home of Rowing. Like Wimbledon, Lords, the Royal and Ancient and dare I say Wembley, this "antiquity" gives it a unique position in the world of rowing. It has its own rules and is not subject to the jurisdiction either of the governing body of rowing in England (the Amateur Rowing Association) or of the International Rowing Federation (F.I.S.A.), but is proud of the distinction of being officially recognised by both these bodies.

The first event was on a single afternoon. Today it is inundated and since 1986 the Regatta was extended to five days, with qualifying races held in the week before to reduce the number of entries to the permitted maximum. And following the dropping of the amateur definition by Regatta's stewards from their rules five years ago, professional rowers are allowed to compete.

There are 19 events in total: six classes of race for Eights, five for Fours (three coxless and two coxed), four for Quadruple Sculls, and races for Coxless Pairs and Double Sculls. In addition there are single sculling races for both men and women. 1993 was the first year women competed over the Course in a full Regatta event when a new event for women single scullers was inaugurated. There are now three events for women - Eights, Quadruple Sculls and Singles.

Unlike multi lane international regattas, Henley still operates a knock out draw with only two boats facing in each heat. This entails the organisation of up to 100 races on some of the five days providing a non stop programme of racing. It takes approximately seven minutes to cover the course, so that there are often two races at once on the Course for much of the day. The number of races is, of course, reduced on each successive day, leaving some nail biting Finals and one or two very exciting semi-finals to be rowed on the last day. With a magnificent array of Challenge Trophies, competition is as international as it fierce and on display you may see our own Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell. Sir Steve Redgrave has now hung up his oars. The most prized trophy is the Grand Challenge Cup for Eights which dates from the first year of the Regatta, the latest being the Remenham Challenge Cup for women's Eights, presented for the first time in 2002.

Yet for many visitors, the racing is almost incidental to the enjoyment of a day at Henley. As GG Parker has said, "We took our place among the Pimm's drinking crowd. The transformation from competitor to spectator took about two hours and three pints". In its idyllic setting on one of the most beautiful reaches of the Thames, the Regatta is Britain at its pompous and eccentric best. Visitors get the chance to sip Pimms and Champers, have a delicious lunch under the shade of a luxurious marquee, to enjoy strawberries & cream, and dress in boaters & blazers. This and the relaxed atmosphere and gentle pace of the lazy days create the quintessentially English sense of romance.

However you can take it from me, the sport is deadly serious; with over 500 crews from all over the world Henley Royal Regatta is the premier event. But "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats!" Ratty, The Wind in the Willows.
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