27 October 2018
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch is on the Championship Course.
On Thursday, 25 October, the title of ‘Champion of the Thames’ was contested for in the 178th Wingfield Sculls and the 12th Women’s Wingfield Sculls. In 1830, Henry Colsell Wingfield established a race for amateur scullers and presented a pair of miniature silver sculls ‘to be held by the best’ as long as they agreed to compete on his birthday, ‘forever’. Up until the 2018 Race, 92 men and, since 2007, nine women, have held the title ‘Champion’. Historically, the race has also carried the titles of the ‘English Amateur Championship’ or the ‘British Amateur Sculling Championship’.
Historically, winning the Wingfield Sculls carried great prestige and it was part of the ‘triple crown’ of British amateur sculling. Today, ‘the best’ are usually part of the national squad and their commitment to this often means that they are unable to take part. In recent times, the top women have managed a better turnout than their male counterparts. Elise Laverick, Sophie Hosking and Anna Watkins are former Women’s Champions. Even so, in the last 10 years, both Alan Campbell and Mahé Drysdale have won the men’s event.
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 tides, bends, shallows, rough water, driftwood, head winds, cross winds, tail winds and other river users. These can be unsettling conditions for those who usually only race in the (near) sterile conditions of FISA approved 2000-metre rowing courses. The Wingfields requires skills of watermanship that many top scullers and rowers do not necessarily possess today.
The race is organised by a committee of former winners who also appoint umpires from their number. 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, 1896 Champion) in 1962. In recent times, there has also been generous support from the Wingfield Family Society.
The 12th Women’s Wingfield Sculls
The defending champion, Fran Rawlins, withdrew on the day of the race due to illness leaving two competitors. Ruth Siddorn, a 2016 Womens’ Boat Race winner, was this summer’s GB U23 single sculler. Meghann Jackson is a former Canadian lightweight and was the fastest woman in the 2017 Scullers Head.
I was not able to follow the Women’s Race, but the pictures that I took from Putney Embankment tell most of the story. Also, Robert Treharne Jones has kindly let me use some of his photographs.
The official race report sums up the race succinctly:
The race got off a little late in blazing sunshine and an uncomfortable swell. Meghann, steered by coach Rob Dauncey, threw herself at the race stealing an early lead at over 40. In her first single race on the Tideway, Ruth was understandably less certain off the start but both scullers were soon at 38 with Meghann passing the London clubhouse a length up.
Ruth hugged the boats up the Putney Embankment and looked ominously calm at the Black Buoy, sculling two pips lower and closed the gap to half a length. Despite Meghann maintaining her aggressive sculling, Ruth drew out to a length clear at Barn Elms. Both scullers passed the Mile Post at 30 but Ruth continued to draw out and allowed her rate to drop to 28 under Hammersmith Bridge. Meghann kept attacking as the water improved but Ruth drew away despite going very wide around Barnes. For her first Tideway race Ruth showed great composure and under Ross Hunter’s guidance, she could be an exciting prospect for the future.
Mile Post: Siddorn 5.04, Jackson 5.11
Hammersmith Bridge: Siddorn 8.51, Jackson 9.07
Chiswick Steps: Siddorn 13.45, Jackson 14.20
Barnes Bridge: Siddorn 18.45, Jackson 19.24
Finish: Siddorn 22.29, Jackson 23.07
The 178th Wingfield Sculls
The 2017 Champion, Richard Clark, resigned his title, leaving the race open to four first-time competitors:
Jamie Copus (Oxford Brookes) won the 2014 Sculler’s Head and this year raced at the World Championships in the lightweight double.
Sam Tuck (Molesey) has been having a run of upriver success this year – including the Wyfolds, a second Henley win to go with his 2016 Thames Cup victory.
Charles Cousins (Griffin) was in the quad for London 2012. A back problem ruled out Rio 2016, but he is now hoping to race at Tokyo 2020.
Ashley Cowley (Molesey) won at this year’s Home International Regatta in the lightweight single. In 2017, he won Gold in the quad at Ghent.
The official race report:
This start was delayed as well as a cruiser came up the middle of the river against the tide as the scullers lined up. If the water had been bouncy and full of debris before the cruiser, it most certainly was afterwards. However, the scullers lined up well and got away together.
At a lower rate, Charles dug in and got his nose ahead straight away. Ashley (steered by Mark Chapman of Quintin) kept out of trouble on the Middlesex station and sculled up the boats really well keeping on Cousins’ tail. Jamie and Sam battled the conditions and each other along the boats with Sam holding his own, underrating Jamie. At the Black Buoy, Charles was two lengths clear but the others were a close pack that could push each other back onto him.
At Barn Elms, Charles suddenly listened to his steerers (Josh Butler and Jamie Kirkwood) and changed course abruptly. After the Milepost, he lurched alarmingly as one blade got stuck on driftwood. The chasing pack were all overlapping each other. Jamie used the others to push off and set off to chase the leader, but Charles was well clear.
Along Chiswick Eyot, the field spread out but no one let up. Approaching Barnes Bridge, Charles made a very sudden change of course, going from Surrey to Middlesex to inexplicably go through the inside arch of Barnes Bridge (afterwards, not even he was very sure why he did this).
The water was flatter from Barnes to the finish at Chiswick and nothing was going to upset the order. We hope this will be the start of a winning streak that will take Charles to Tokyo.
Finish times: Cousins 21.57, Copus 22.15, Tuck 22.36, Cowley 22.55.
I later spoke to Charlie Cousins:
It was quite challenging off the start… (but) for the second half of the race, we had fantastic conditions… (so) we could get into a groove and have an enjoyable race. (My race plan came from) Josh Butler who was steering me. He said, don’t stress too much in the first two minutes, it’s going to be quite scrappy, just get the strokes in when you can, don’t worry about catching the odd wave. So, for those first two minutes, it was just about keeping it moving, keeping it loose… then, when I hit that three-minute mark where the conditions improved, I got into my rhythm…. Whenever you are in front, you can relax a bit, but you still have to stay on it… I caught my blade here and there and the group caught up to me, so I was never fully relaxed…
Wingfields Secretary, Wade Hall Craggs (the 1993 Champion), said this of the men’s race:
It is excellent for us as an event to have the name of an athlete of Charles’s calibre on the trophy… But, what we noticed from the umpire’s launch was just how well each of the competitors did at various times. All of them showed real grit and quality sculling at different stages of the race – but, unfortunately for the other three, Charlie had already got clear. However, it was still a cracking race…
Ruth Siddorn later told me:
It was tremendous fun. I haven’t been on the Tideway since 2016 when I did the Boat Race. Obviously, that’s in an eight, so it’s very different to come back and race in a single (but) it was great, and the weather was near perfect. I had a look into (the history of the Wingfields) and I surprised my coach because, until a couple of days ago, I didn’t realise that it was side-by-side, I had the idea that it was a head race! Once I realised, I thought that it was an even cooler event.
The above photograph from 2013 shows an impromptu pre-race gathering of Wingfield’s Champions from each of the last six decades. Left to right: Bill Barry (1963-66), Alan Campbell (2006, 09, 10, 12, 13), Guy Pooley (1991- 92), Wade Hall-Craggs (1993), Graeme Mulcahy (1976) and Chris Baillieu (1981- 84). This picture is ‘living history’ – as is the race for the Wingfield Sculls itself.