HTBS’s Tim Koch reports from the Thames, 2 April:
As reported in HTBS on 20th March, the British rowing season really starts with in late March/early April with various time trials for eights over the Mortlake to Putney Course. Last Saturday, 2nd April, saw the biggest of these, the (Mens) Head of the River Race, HoRR. Three hundred and ninety eight boats rowed the four and a quarter miles (6.8 km) of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Course, each setting off at ten second intervals on an ebb tide. Until the London Marathon was established in 1981, the HoRR was the largest participant event in Britain with over 3,500 competitors and is still the largest single boat type rowing race. The Head of the Charles in Boston, Massachusetts, has 8,000 competitors but the event is held over two days and has 55 different race events for various boat types.
A crew’s HoRR result tells it were it stands in relation to its peers. Almost every UK rowing club will put in at least one boat and entries from abroad increase every year. In 2011 there were crews from Czech Republic (2), Germany (26), Spain (6), Hungary (1), Switzerland (10), Portugal (1), France (1), Croatia (1), and the Netherlands (1). I cannot recall any entries from North America in past years but I suspect that any crews planning to make the long trip find Henley a more attractive destination.
The first ten finishers were:
1 2 16 50.75 Leander I
2 1 16 54.21 Molesey I
3 3 16 59.60 Czech Rowing Federation I
4 6 17 3.77 Leander II
5 20 17 7.53 Czech Rowing Federation II
6 4 17 11.93 Astillero (Spain)
7 8 17 15.58 Imperial College I
8 7 17 17.11 London I
9 33 17 22.21 Csepel (Hungary)
10 12 17 23.91 Molesey II
The full results are here.
If most people involved in rowing gave the matter any thought, they would imagine that winter ‘Heads’ have existed as long as the traditional side by side racing done in the summer months. In fact the concept was developed only in the mid-1920s by the hugely influential coach, Stephen Fairbairn (1862-1938), universally known as ‘Steve’. He was inspired by older ‘bump racing’ held at Oxford and Cambridge but this was a different event, originally with a different purpose – to mark the end of winter training and to encourage crews to train over long distances. Steve strongly believed in the benefits of distance training, ‘milage makes champions’ was one of his many adages. (See more here.)
He denied that the Head was really a race, he held that “…it is merely a means of getting crews to do long rows”. In his A History of Rowing (1957), Hylton Cleaver says “Steve Fairbairn did not plan his idea as anything more than a target at which those who rowed through the winter could aim, so that at the end of a period of comparative drudgery they could find out who profited most”.
A few years after the first Head in 1926, the idea had spread to many other rowing courses both in Britain and abroad and there were time trials for every boat type. There is a nice newsreel film of the 1934 Tideway Eights Head here (70 seconds in) though these days there is a ‘rolling’ not ‘standing’ start. Some recognition should go to the organisers in the pre-computer age who worked out the results for four hundred crews with only analogue stopwatches, pencil and paper and mental arithmetic (none of which our younger readers would be familiar with). I remember that timekeeping for the Head of the River Fours in the 1980s was a dangerous business as they supplied you with pencils sharpened to a very fine point at both ends and there were several self stabbing incidents. No doubt one day soon all boats will be fitted with a Global Positioning System and the results will be instantaneous.
The trophy for the first placed ‘Head’ crew is a bust of Fairbairn sculptured by George Drinkwater (an Oxford Blue and writer on rowing) and it is usually kept in the Committee Room of the London Rowing Club [see above]. I was going to photograph it but found that it was on loan to the River and Rowing Museum at Henley for the exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of Thames Rowing Club. It amused me that, 85 years after ‘The Row’, Steve is back with Thames.
Steve would be surprised to know that now there are people who now train specifically for Heads and treat them, not as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves. He has many memorials but he would be surprised that Head Racing is, arguably, his most enduring legacy.
The Veterans’ (Masters) Head of the River was held on the day after the HoRR on Sunday 3rd April. Two hundred crews raced and the results are here.