A Blow To The Head

Not this year. Molesey go off Number One in 2011.

HTBS’s Tim Koch reports from London,

On the day before four hundred men’s eights, many from overseas, were due to race the Mortlake to Putney course in the 2013 Head of the River Race, the organisers’ website made the following announcement:

The Committee of the Head of the River Race regrets to advise that the 2013 Race on Saturday 23rd March has been cancelled. After detailed consultation and consideration of the weather forecasts, the Committee consider the river conditions over parts of the course could be unsafe due to the expected strong easterly winds throughout the day.

The Veterans (Masters) Head, due to be held the next day, was also cancelled. The British Rowing website expanded on the HoRR’s decision:

Organisers of the HoRR announced this morning (Friday 22nd) that the race would not be run, due to the combination of wind direction and speed, the strength of the stream, and the low temperatures forecast over the weekend. The stretch of river between the bottom of Chiswick Eyot and St. Pauls School was of particular concern to HORR organisers, with easterly 15-30mph winds, freezing temperatures and strong stream leading to potentially dangerous conditions for the 400+ crews taking part in the event – many of whom have little experience rowing on the Tideway.

The race has been cancelled due to the weather and stream conditions twice before, in 2004 and 2007. The organisers were no doubt influenced by the experience of the Hammersmith Head held on 10 March. This was run from Mortlake to Hammersmith (i.e. just over half of the traditional Mortlake to Putney ‘Championship’ Course) and attracted 100 men’s eights. Despite having the most experienced people on the Thames Tideway in charge of safety, the water around Chiswick Pier unexpectedly became very rough, very quickly and the result was that most boats filled with water and at least three had to be rescued. Not surprisingly, the craft that suffered the most seemed to have buoyancy tanks that were not water tight. In one case this was because holes had been drilled in the tanks to allow cox box wiring to be threaded through!

The unusually cold and wet winter has badly effected rowing in the UK. Just looking at 2013, head races including Weybridge, Boston, Northampton, Stourport, Peterborough, Durham, The Severn, Hampton, Henley, Molesey, Worcester, Burway, and Cardiff have been cancelled due to stream and weather conditions. The Environment Agency (the body responsible for Britain’s rivers) have ‘red boarded’ most of the none tidal Thames. This means that they strongly advise powered and non powered craft to stay off the water. This has severely curtailed rowing at clubs such as Marlow, Molesey, Maidenhead, Henley, Staines and Kingston. There is no procedure for ‘red boards’ on the tidal Thames below Richmond Lock but this does not make it any the less hazardous. I have coxed the Tideway for 25 years and there have been a few times this winter when the strength of the stream has required all my experience to keep control.

Nothing is new – Oxford practice in the floods of 1872.

The organisers of the Henley Boat Races, the Oxford – Cambridge races for heavyweight, reserve heavyweight and lightweight women and lightweight men, have pre-empted the problem and, on 20 March announced:

The organising committee… has made the decision to move this year’s event to Dorney Lake. In view of the strong stream conditions at Henley and the forecast direction and strength of wind for race day, Sunday 24th March, it was deemed unlikely that conditions will improve sufficiently by the weekend for a safe event to take place.

Dorney was, of course, the venue for the rowing events in the London 2012 Olympics. While not as an attractive venue as Henley, it does mean that the event is fairly certain to take place. All this gives rise to the question, could THE Boat Race, due to held on the Tideway on 31 March, be cancelled? I think it unlikely. Even with a higher risk to both boats than would normally be tolerated, the ‘danger’ would probably be accepted as there is obviously a massive rescue operation available.

The women have had more luck with the weather. The 73rd Women’s Head of the River Race was held on 9 March, a mild day with little wind. Race Co-ordinator Guin Batten wrote on the WHoRR website:

The 73rd Women’s Eights Head of the River was the largest in the event’s history and coming one day after International Women’s Day, highlights that women are out there doing sport and doing it to a very high standard. On a rather dull day the stream was fast and the wind slight, allowing number of records to fall. Well done to the pennant winners, the 200 volunteers and marshals, to the 90 women’s novice crews and their coaches and to the 2,727 rowers that made it over the course, in such style.

Imperial College BC ‘A’ came ‘head’ in a time of 18:16:57. Other results are here.

The School’s Head also managed to take place on the Championship Course on 7 March with Hampton going ‘head’. Other results are here.

It has been a long, hard winter. Let us hope that those clubs who have spent a lot of time on the ergos and little time on the water will have a better summer.

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