6 August 2020
By Daniel Spring
In the HTBS show-and-tell series, the turn has come to rowing writer Daniel Spring, a.k.a. ‘Fatsculler’, to tell his story about how he received a Henley medal without winning one single race.
Back in 1989, Henley Royal Regatta celebrated its sesquicentenary…. that’s 150 years to you and me, and to commemorate the fact, every competitor who made the main draw was given a commemorative medal, and a very pretty thing it is too.
The regatta of 1989 lives long in the memory of Henley aficionados as one of the best and most remarkable regattas in its extensive and illustrious history. So remarkable was it that Richard Burnell wrote a book about it entitled A Year to Remember.
So, what made this regatta so special? There is the Grand Challenge Cup, the Queen Mother and the Prince Phillip, but the 1989 event that I will remember and which makes it special for me was the Ladies’ Plate. My own involvement in this event was unintended.
At the start of the 1988-89 season, I was a freshman at the University of London, rowing in their freshman development 8. We had some good results during the head season, winning in Kingston and then taking 14th at the Eights Head. But heading into the regatta season, I lost my seat in what would become the Thames Cup winning 8 at Henley. So, with no Henley crew to race in, I hunted around for another club to join. I ended up at Walton Rowing Club.
After a few regattas in a 4-, I found myself in the bow seat of Walton’s Ladies’ Plate crew (although the programme lists me as 3 seat). With no qualification required, we went straight into the draw – and the Sesquicentennial Competitors Medal was secured!
Walton were a strong crew, but our focus for the 1989 season had been the Leyland DAF Power Sprints – a televised 500-metre sprint event held throughout the 1989 season. Walton did well, just missing out on making the final. But what it meant was that, as a crew, we could match just about anyone over 500 metres, but after that the wheels were likely to come off. This was proven in our first round at Henley, against the City of Oxford Rowing Club. We knew we didn’t have the legs to go the whole course so our ambition was to at least get a star to our name in the programme showing “Loser Leading At This Point” – a task we achieved quite comfortably at the Barrier. But, as expected, between the Barrier and Fawley, we went backwards at a rate of knots and ended up on the wrong side of a 2-length verdict.
But, it’s the Ladies Plate final that makes the Henley Royal Regatta of 1989 so memorable. Notts County Rowing Association – a crew made up of some of the best lightweight oarsmen in the country, Peter Haining, Carl Smith, Tom Kay and Toby Hessian – went up against the varsity 8 from Harvard University. In the final, the lightweights went out like a train, breaking the record at each marker and ended up with a 5-length winning margin.
However, this is when the drama really started: the Harvard cox reached under his boat and pulled out some driftwood which had been wedged against the fin. It was only after the result had been announced, and Harvard had returned to the pontoons that coach Harry Parker realised what had happened and lodged an appeal. Whilst the Notts County boys were busy celebrating, the Stewards deliberated and ordered a re-row at the end of the regatta.
In the 2nd final, Notts County went out even harder, beating the record they had set earlier in the day, winning by 2/3 of a length. It remains to this day, one of the most remarkable races ever seen at Henley. Whilst my own contribution to the 1989 regatta was limited, I’m proud to have competed in the same event that saw such a remarkable conclusion.