Pankhurst and Raffaele of Auriol Kensington put in their final few strokes at the COVID-19 compliant 2020 Pairs Head of the River.

26 October 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on some antiviral rowing events.

In Britain, it is popularly supposed that marriage in the remote county of Norfolk is often a family affair between close relatives. From this idea has grown the joke that doctors covering this rural area mark the records of certain patients with the initialism ‘NFN’, standing for ‘Normal For Norfolk’. As most readers will have noticed, 2020 has been a slightly unusual year and any annual current event that even remotely resembles those that took place in the halcyon days of ten months or more ago is to be welcomed as ‘NF20’ i.e. ‘Normal For 2020’. Rowing competitions are no exception.

On 20 September, there was a ‘test event’ on the River Tyne in Newcastle, North East England, to allow British Rowing to further develop its ‘Return to Rowing’ guidance amid the pandemic. The Tyne Single Scullers Head was ‘invitation only’ and was organised by Newcastle University Boat Club. It was contested by 111 scullers over a 3000-metre course. Picture:

In times not blighted by war or pandemic or bridge closures, the Mortlake – Putney ‘Championship Course’ on the River Thames (most famously used – in the other direction – by the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race) will host major head races for all classes of boat throughout the year. For eights, March usually sees the Head of the River Race, the Veterans’ Head, the Women’s Head and the multi boat class Schools’ Head. Naturally, these were lost to the start of lockdown but in the latter part of the year there is normally the Pairs Head in October, the Fours Head and the Veteran Fours Head in November and the (single) Scullers Head in December. Presently, there is no news online about the race for singles but the time trial for pairs and doubles took place recently and both Fours Heads are – currently – ‘on’. Further, another ‘Championship Course’ race, the Wingfield Sculls, should also be going ahead at the end of this month.

The Mortlake to Putney ‘Championship Course’ as it runs in normal times on an ebb tide. Graphic:
The 2020 Pairs Head changed its usual logo (left) for one more appropriated to now (right).

The first of the Tideway head races organised under the ‘new normal’, the Pairs Head, went off successfully on 11 October with open, women, junior and masters categories for pairs and doubles. The race is run by Barnes Bridge Ladies Rowing Club, the only women’s rowing club on the Tideway. The special 2020 ‘twists’ included the fact that entries were limited to Tideway Clubs upstream of the closed Hammersmith Bridge, the total number of boats participating was capped at 99, the course was from the University of London boathouse at Kew/Chiswick to Sons of the Thames RC at Hammersmith and all participants had to complete an online self-assessment health declaration 24 hours before taking part in the race.

The currently angry River Gods briefly relented for the duration of the Pairs Head and the event took place in beguine conditions.
Racing and returning boats go past Chiswick Eyot. Uniquely among the major Tideway head races, even in a ‘normal’ year, the Pairs Head does not run over the full Championship Course but goes from Chiswick Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge.
Racing crews on the long Hammersmith Bend.

The final results put the Tideway Scullers Open 2x Championship double of Bourne and O’Mahony as the fastest men, with a time of 14m 17s, and had Craig and Grant of University of London as the fastest women, their double recording 14m 50s.

A happy tweet from @pairshead showing Bourne and O’Mahony leading a return to Tideway competition.

The Veteran Fours Head Committee has posted:

(We) remain hopeful that (we) will be able to run some form of race on 21 November… Reviewing entry numbers from the past five years, the committee are aware that a race with entries from ‘upper Tideway’ clubs only (i.e. from clubs upriver of Hammersmith Bridge to downriver of Teddington Lock inclusive) would not be financially viable, even without a river closure. A further update will be made on… 25 October.

The new Fours Head logo designed by Annabel Eyres.

As HTBS recently noted, the Fours Head should be happening on 22 November. Following a committee meeting via Zoom held on 19 October, the event’s website announced:

Given the complexities caused by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, the Fours Head this year will run at a very significantly reduced capacity compared with previous years. The main constraint is the number of ‘self-contained groups’ (loosely referred to as ‘bubbles’) which can be safely accommodated at host clubs (i.e. clubs above Hammersmith Bridge). This means that there is no exact maximum number of crews, although we expect that it will be around 175.

Generally, entries will be accepted from crews able to boat and race directly from their home club but also from crews from clubs sited between Hammersmith and Putney Bridges. As to clubs that do not fit these criteria, the Fours Head committee says:

To maximise the number of visiting crews that can boat from host clubs in a COVID-19 secure manner, we will favour entries from clubs bringing multiple boats on a single trailer from a single club ‘bubble’ and from those clubs with a shorter travelling distance between their home club and the Fours Head… Given the overall capacity limit, this is likely to mean no more than 15-20 miles in practice.

The pictures below from the 2019 Fours Head illustrate some of the differences that the 2020 race will have.

No one will be going under – or standing on – Hammersmith Bridge. The course will be the 3 miles between the University of London boathouse and Sons of the Thames RC, not the usual 4.25 miles between Mortlake and Putney.
The race will not accept entries from overseas clubs such as this Swiss Rowing Federation crew. Entries will be limited to crews from clubs affiliated to British Rowing, Scottish Rowing, Welsh Rowing or Rowing Ireland.
There will be no boating or access to the race from the Putney embankment.

The lack of opportunities to race this year has meant that there has been an unprecedented number of entries for the Wingfield Sculls and this has resulted in the need for qualifying time trials. Earlier this month, Wade Hall-Craggs, the tireless secretary of the Wingfield Sculls Committee, wrote on the event’s website:

The 179th Wingfield Sculls will be a little different due to the progressing global situation with COVID-19 and the closing of Hammersmith Bridge. There will be a time trial on 18th October with 13 women and 17 men vying for 6 places in both the Women’s and Men’s Championship. The Championship races will be on 29th October at 10.30 (women) and 11.45 (men). Unfortunately, we cannot run the races… between Putney and Mortlake this year. Instead, it will take place between Hammersmith (St Paul’s School) and Kew (University of London boathouse).

The Wingfield Sculls summarised. HTBS has been reporting on the event since 2010 and its account of last year’s race is here. Image:
The 2020 Wingfield Sculls Committee has said that there will be no press launch and has asked that no spectators come to watch the races in person (video will be posted online soon after the event). In 1912, things were different.
The 2014 Wingfields viewed from Hammersmith Bridge. Six years ago, this point was almost half-way into the race but, this year, it will be a few strokes off the start.
The results of the time trials held on 18 October, the first six qualifying to race on the 29th. With the male qualifiers all finishing in a ten-second window, the times suggest that their race in particular will be a very close fought contest. However, the psychology of side-by-side racing can produce different results to that of a time trial and, when racing single sculls on the Tideway, disaster is always only one stroke away. [Editor’s note: For the women’s competitors Mathilda and Charlotte, their last name is Byrne, not Bryne!]
On 21 October, the indefatigable Martin Cross interviewed two 2020 Wingfields’ competitors, Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne and Sam Meijer, on YouTube. Here, Mathilda proudly displays her winner’s medal after victory in the 2015 Women’s Wingfields.

The 2020 Wingfields should see two exciting and hard-fought races, each between six high-class competitors – one of the good things to result from the pandemic.

The 2020 British Rowing Indoor Championships are to be held online on 5 – 6 December. It says that it will be the most accessible BRIC ever with everyone from complete beginners to World Champions in a live weekend of real-time, side-by-side online racing.
The 2020 European Rowing Championships ran from 9 to 10 October in Poznan, Poland. Some nations, including Britain, did not take part because of COVID-19. The European Championships began in 1893, stopped in 1974 but were reinstated in 2007 and became part of the inaugural European Games in 2018.

Despite these encouraging developments, vigilance is still needed. The website Inside The Games reported on 17 October that three national teams reported a total of six positive Covid-19 tests after the 2020 European Rowing Championships. There were 570 rowers from 31 nations at the Championships, so it may be arguable how significant this number is — but it is still six too many.

I have no inside information, but I think it unlikely that the Oxford and the Cambridge intra-club trial races that normally take place on the Championship Course in December will happen in London this year. The picture shows some of the 2017 Cambridge men’s squad trying to impress their coach on the Tideway in December 2016.
The latest news on the non-progress over Hammersmith Bridge is in a 19 October post on the “New Civil Engineer” website. Stress seems to be on the building of a temporary footbridge or the establishment of a ferry service, either of which would allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross the river. Rowers would presumably prefer the third (and most expensive) temporary option, a semi-repair of the bridge, enough to allow passage under – as well as over – the apparently crumbling structure.
A final piece of NF20. Those trying for crew selection but who have poor ergometer scores often argue that ‘if you put an ergo on the water – it sinks’. However, this recent scene on one of the barges moored near Hammersmith Bridge (ready to pick up any bits that fall off) seems to indicate otherwise.

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