Hooray Henley

Chris Dodd, journalist, editor, author and rowing historian.

16 July 2019

Text by Chris Dodd & Photographs and captions by Tim Koch

Chris Dodd goes out and about at the Royal Regatta.

To Henley, 40-odd years since I wrote its history. Sunshine for a week of shambling around its past and its future in reminiscence, anecdote and chance meetings.

First to the River & Rowing Museum for a triple-headed lecture on the King’s Cup and the Peace Regatta of 1919. Andrew Guerin, keeper of Down Under’s rowing history, filled in the background to the Australian forces’ demob crisis of 100 years ago, and Bruce Coe, author of Pulling Through, the Story of the King’s Cup, put new light on Steve Fairbairn, the Ozzie Army’s dictatorial coach who patronized his way into a mutiny and had to withdraw. Scott Patterson then showed his yet-to-be-completed documentary, which is going to be terrific, and was very well received – not least because many of those present made appearances, including yours truly.

Next stop, the rowing gallery, crammed to the gunwales for the regatta’s reception for overseas competitors. David Worthington, chairman of the RRM’s trustees, invited rowers from all over the world to get close to the museum that has an exciting programme ahead of it, including a conference on the future of the sport in November.

Swallowed up as usual in a sea of seven-footers, I found myself talking to the performance director of China Rowing, Steve Redgrave, who told me that his president, Liu Aijie, is ‘the best and worst thing for rowing in China… Best because what he says goes; worst because what he says doesn’t go, doesn’t go.’

China’s Princes Grace crew, the first from the People’s Republic to win at Henley.

Meanwhile, Sir Matthew Pinsent, the four-time Olympic champion and Steward of the regatta, was delivering his entertaining menu of do’s and don’ts for first-time competitors. The gist was: have fun. Later that evening, I ate dinner in company with a bunch who know all about having fun – the veterans of Auriol Kensington who, for the umpteenth year, had rowed two eights and a quad from Hammersmith to HRR.

Sunshine brought zillions out on the first day to see a record entry of 600+ crews do battle. Mark Davies, chairman of British Rowing, was touting for business at his booth near the Boat Tent, trying to sell membership of Love Rowing, BR’s new charity to create accessible and inspiring programmes for schools, adaptive and under-represented communities. ‘A lot of interest but few buyers,’ came his verdict on day 1.

The Stewards’ Enclosure on Henley Saturday.

Loitering nearby, presumably with intent, was the effervescent Peter Haining, the Scot never short of a crack or a tale. He was here to row up the course in the Saturday tea break with the Notts County lightweight eight who saw Harvard’s erstwhile unbeaten heavies off in the re-row of the final of the Ladies’ Plate in 1989. That episode ranks among the very peaks of rowing sensations. In the first race, County won by about four lengths and lowered the record. When Harvard’s cox Metz pulled a piece of wood from under his boat that had stuck on the fin, a Stewards inquiry ruled a re-row after suitable recovery time.

The prize-giving was about to start, and the County men were already in the shower and in their cups preparing to don their special issue of Nottingham bus conductors’ blazers to receive the trophy. Indeed, confessed Haining, he had downed half a bottle of Lagavulin Scotch and already swapped his shirt for a Harvard one. He had to go and ask for it back, ‘so that I can beat you again’, he told the huddle being briefed by coach Harry Parker.

The prizes were awarded, the bars closed and the enclosures empty when Harvard and County lined up again in the gloaming. As Angus Robertson began his deadpan announcement that ‘a re-row of the final of the Ladies’ Plate between Harvard University on the Bucks station and Nottinghamshire…’ there was a stampede from the car parks to the enclosures to witness County, fuelled on champers and single malts, win again and lower their own record. The gospel according to Haining informed me of something I didn’t know. Harvard had arranged to borrow the trophy before the final for a crew-with-pot photo-call at the Red Lion. When the then chairman of the regatta, Peter Coni, found out, he stamped his foot at Parker. Big mistake.

Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association Lightweights, perhaps twice winners of the Ladies’ Plate in 1989, row past during the Saturday tea interval.

This year’s row-pasts included Imperial College and Leeds University celebrating 100 years of rowing and five clubs commemorating 150 years – Berwick ARC, Auckland RC, Grosvenor RC, Monmouth School RC and Frankfurter Rudergesellschaft Germania 1869 e.V. The last reminds me that Germans and Dutch, in particular, sent many entries to test the commentators’ pronunciation skills.

Among those remembering great victories of yesteryear were the sylph-like winners of the lightweight men’s fours at the 1979 world champs in Bled. I remember it well, watching with bated breath in the small press box, equipped with a 12-inch black and white TV monitor in front of which the crew’s coach, Father Mark Jabale, was genuflecting as if performing Tom Lehrer’s The Vatican Rag. I’m afraid my report accused the good Father (later elevated to a Henley Stewardship) of invoking the Almighty to unfair advantage.

Ian Wilson, Stuart Wilson, Colin Barrett and Nick Howe puffed their graceful passage up the Henley course. I’m afraid they are now heavies in both senses of the word.

I heard that Hugh Matheson of Nottingham Boat Club, winner of the Diamond Sculls in 1979, turned up to row over 40 years on, but was barred. He hadn’t applied in advance.

In the bar at the Pink Palace I ran into the prolific history blogger Tim Koch together with William ‘Bill’ O’Chee, who is about to reveal all about boating at Brasenose, the earliest rowing college. William has been delving into OUBC’s dusty presidents’ books and unearthing stories of forgotten mutinies, so watch this space for fallout when his BNC book is born.

At Henley, the past is always present. A detail from the Visitors’ Challenge Cup.

Saturday passed in the luxury of the Mile and the 1/8th at table with Matheson, my co-author of More Power, and old mates from Nottingham. On the next table was the Chairman’s luncheon party, separated from us by a trellis fence. Seated between the performance director of China Rowing, aka Chairman Redgrave, and chief coach of all the British Rowing squads and subject of our biography shortlisted for the Telegraph-best-sports-biography-of-2019, Jurgen Grobler, was Theresa May MP. Remember her?

Chairman Redgrave.

In the Regatta Café, I was accosted by Mark Blandford-Baker, a collector of all things rowing, who showed me the credit card-sized 1878 rulebook of Pickwick Rowing Club that he had picked up on eBay. The table of high water at Hammersmith gives a clue to where Pickwick did their rowing. The club colours were ‘marone’, but no member was allowed to wear the colours on Sundays.

In the café, I spotted Liu, Mr China Rowing, whom I first met in 1990 at Star Lakes in Zhan Qing where he was translating FISA’s coaching guide into Mandarin by candlelight with the aid of an Oxford dictionary. His engagement of the Henley chairman as performance director extends to the Paris Olympics of 2024, assisted now by Paul Thompson, late of British Rowing. ‘Henley is beyond description,’ Liu told me. In his youth, he was inspired by Jack Kelly Sr and Jr and in Atlanta by Steve ‘who was on the way up while Karppinen and Kolbe were on the way down’. Steve was hired, Liu said, ‘as a model for the Chinese, to share his experience and set strategy for the national teams.’

Henley – beyond description.

The jury is still out on how Sir Steve can reconcile guiding the regatta while holding down his day job in Beijing. On the face of it, Henley hasn’t changed, but it is certainly getting bigger. A record entry, albeit a bit thin on top but boosted by the magnificent military mixed crews competing for the magnificent new King’s Cup; a new, bigger drone to keep YouTube up to date; a bigger café by the Boat Tent with better fare; and more sunshine. The Stewards are known to be contemplating a family enclosure on the Bucks station and extending the regatta to six days. Soon they will need a bigger boat tent and bigger everything.

In view of all this, I was surprised to see the programme advertising membership of the Stewards’ Enclosure. Last time I put somebody up for membership, 15 years passed between cashing the entry fee and receiving a badge. What’s going on?

Finals Day Fizz – a well-earned drink from the Grand Challenge Cup.

Retreating from the press box on the final day, where seven tweeting press officers sat at the front social media-ing, I walked through the endless trailer park while regretting the demise of Regatta Radio. YouTube is all very well, but you need to be near a screen to benefit from it at the regatta, whereas the radio used to keep you on top of things wherever you are. As I passed millions of quid’s worth of indestructible racing carbon and plastic, my thoughts turned to the current campaigns to find environmentally friendly substitutes for plastic packaging. In the 1870s, professional scullers used to race in paper boats – slim papier-mâché craft manufactured by Waters, Balch and Co, of Troy, New York. Are we about to enter a New Age of paper boats?

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