HTBS’s special correspondent, Tim Koch in London, gives here a brilliant report of this year’s Wingfield Sculls. Tim writes:
On Tuesday, 24th August 2010 the title of ‘Champion of the Thames’ was contested for in the 170th Wingfield Sculls. In 1830, lawyer Henry Colsell Wingfield presented a pair of miniature silver sculls ‘to be held by the best’ as long as they agreed to race in single sculls on his birthday, 10th August, ‘for ever’. Eighty six men and, since 2007, three women have held the title ‘Champion’ The course is the 4 ½ mile (6.8 km) ‘Championship Course’ (most famously used by the Oxford–Cambridge Boat Race) from Putney to Mortlake complete with tide, bends, shallows, rough water, driftwood and other river users. I was lucky enough to be in the umpire’s launch for this year’s race.
The Wingfields is organised by a committee of former winners who also appoint an umpire from their number. This year it was Rory Henderson (Champion, 1990). The present Hon. Secretary is Wade Hall-Craggs (1993) who organises the event with great passion and who has also done a marvellous job in collecting and preserving the race archive. Interestingly, the Hon. Treasurer, Guy Pooley (1991, 92), told me that one of the main sources of income for the event is from shares in the Guinness brewing company which were donated by Lord Iveagh (Rupert Guinness, Champion 1896) in 1962 (HTBS 24th August 2010). There has also been generous support from the Wingfield Family Society. They have presented the race with a new flag and, when the Women’s Race was started in 2007, with a silver trophy based on the 1830 original awarded for the men’s event.
The 180th anniversary produced a rare and unexpected event, in-depth newspaper coverage of a sculling race that is obscure even within the sport. On 24th August The Times published a full page preview by Patrick Kidd and, on the following day, a half page race report. Unfortunately, you have to pay Rupert Murdoch a pound to view this online but, as it is such a rare occurrence, it is probably worth it.
In his race preview, Patrick Kidd writes: “[The race is] above all…about athletes being taken out of their comfort zone. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, once said that rowing was the ideal sport because it was so hard for people to watch and thus worth doing purely for its own sake. In the Wingfield Sculls, that vision of glorious amateurism remains alive…”
Kidd also quotes Wade Hall-Craggs: “Top class rowers today are used to racing on plastic lakes where so many of the variables have been taken out and it is just a battle of limb and lung size. This is a different challenge.”
This was illustrated in the 2009 race when Alan Campbell beat Mahe Drysdale. At that time, and on a ‘plastic lake’, most people would have expected the result to be different but, in rough conditions on a ‘living river’, Campbell was the better waterman. He demonstrated this again in 2010. One of the idiosyncrasies of the Wingfields is that the competitors can legally be ‘steered’ by signals from following boats. Until at least the 1920s this was done by the bowmen of following eights, not rowing and facing the wrong way. The picture above shows the three boats steering the competitors in the men’s race. The gentleman standing in the far boat is Bill Barry, coach of Alan Campbell and great nephew of Ernest Barry (HTBS 19th March 2010).
Rachel Quarrell, rowing correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, webmaster of The Rowing Service and a Henley Royal Regatta winning coxswain saw the race like this: “Anna and Ro were quickest off with Sophie a little behind and Beth surprisingly far back, I think she was very cautious about her rate. Anna got ahead along the Putney Embankment. For the next three minutes Sophie and Ro were pretty much side by side (in joint second). Just after the Mile Post, Beth did a huge push which moved her from fourth to second […] which was very impressive […] Anna always led but Beth remained two to three lengths behind.”
Rachel Quarrell again: “All three had a quick start, Alan going off at his usual very high rate. One of the most crucial parts of the race came in the first two minutes. Alan pushed slightly ahead of Marcus and encroached on his water. Race rules allow this as long as they do not actually touch – and Alan just avoided it. He stayed a few feet ahead until the Mile Post when they were both hit by the wash of a cruiser. Alan realised that he was going through it well, put in a big push and moved away from Marcus. After that it was a fairly straightforward race. It was very rough around Chiswick and anyone could have fallen in. Huge credit to all three of them that no one did so. A fascinating race but one that was over very early.”
In my entry on rowing medals of 15th January 2010 I forgot that the Wingfields gives such an award to every first time winner. GB coach Jurgen Grobler presented Anna with her ‘Champion’ medal and Alan with a 2010 bar to join the 2006 and 2009 ones on the ribbon of the ‘gong’ he first won in 2006.
The evening of the race saw eighteen past winners meet at London Rowing Club for their decennial dinner. My entry of 26th March 2010 mentions the first winners’ dinner in 1930 and attached are pictures of three of the previous four dinners. They nicely echo the one seventy years earlier. Soon I hope to post a picture of the 2010 celebration which will have its female champions present for the first time. What would the gentlemen of 1930 have made of that?
WS winners at the 2000 WS Dinner: (l.t.r.) T.J. Crooks (1977, 78, 80); M.D.A. Carmichael (1979); G.R. Pooley (1991, 92); R. Henderson (1990); O.W. Hall-Craggs (1993); M.J.B. Kettle (1997); G.M.P. Searle (1998, 99); P.M. Haining (1994, 95, 96, 2000); B.T.H. Bushnell (1947); S.C. Rand (1954); D.V. Melvin (1955, 57); A.J. Marsden (1956); J.M. Russell (1959); W.L. Barry (1963, 64, 65, 66); N.P. Cooper (1967); K.V. Dwan (1968, 69, 70, 71, 72, 75); G.A. Mulcahy (1976).
In conclusion, I think that, while few winners of the Wingfields have not been worthy champions, often the event has not been contested or has been a token contest. I would suggest that this is because of a lack of depth that has almost always existed in British sculling. Occasionally we have produced outstanding individuals but, historically at least, I think the British have regarded sculling as ‘second’ to sweep rowing. Thankfully though, things seem to be changing. Whatever happens, it looks as though the Wingfield Sculls will continue, as Henry wished, ‘for ever’.