31 October 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch finds out who is, in Henry Wingfield’s words, ‘the best’.
The famous and glamorous Monaco Grand Prix and the rather obscure, if historically prestigious, Wingfield Sculls share one peculiar characteristic — both events take their highly experienced competitors out of their comfort zones and then put them on a course requiring a set of skills that they may not have fully mastered. The Principality’s Formula One motor race is not held on a carefully engineered and purpose-built racing circuit, it takes place on the narrow streets of Monaco with many hills, tight corners and even a tunnel. The Wingfield Sculls is not competed for on a straight, man-made, six lane, buoyed, 2000-metre course, it happens on a ‘living river’, the tidal Thames complete with bends, tides, variable wind directions, very immovable obstacles and other river craft (at least Monaco closes its streets to other traffic for their event). The result is that the ‘form guide’ for both events may be no indicator of the final result.
Only some relatively minor changes were needed to make the 2020 Wingfields COVID Compliant; on the water, a sculling race for six was always going to be ‘socially distant’. The closure of Hammersmith Bridge meant that the course was not the traditional four-and-a-quarter miles from Putney to Mortlake but the three miles between St Paul’s School and the University of London Boathouse. The Wingfield’s secretary Wade Hall-Craggs said, ‘we don’t have problems, we just have solutions’. With benign conditions on the morning of the 29th, the most exciting and hardest fought Wingfield races in a long time were in prospect.
The Men’s Race
In the men’s qualifying time trials for the 2020 Wingfields held on 19 October, the top six all finished within ten-seconds of each other with times between 15 minutes 13 seconds and 15 minutes 23 seconds. Thus, whatever the result of the men’s race, it should not have been a surprise – but it was. Matt Haywood’s win was, for some reason, not expected, despite him finishing less than one-second behind the two first placed qualifiers on the 19th. He was a gold medalist with the U23 men’s quad in 2018 and 2019 but has little Tideway experience. The favourites were probably Angus Groom (one of the top GB scullers who was fifth placed in the men’s quad at the Rio Olympics) and Sam Meijer (a Tideway rower and 2019 Wingfields Champion with three U23 gold medals who is currently vying for a place at Tokyo).
I was not able to follow the men’s race, but I can reproduce the race report by Wade Hall-Craggs and also some splendid pictures by Ben Rodford. See examples of Ben’s other rowing photographs here.
The times show that conditions changed between the (women’s and men’s) races with the land water almost stopping the flood tide so giving all the scullers and steerers difficult choices on the best line. George Bourne on Surrey… leapt out to make the most of his bend and better water. Angus Groom and Matt Haywood pursued George along Chiswick Eyot, while those on Middlesex struggled in the bumpier water. Using all his Tideway experience, Sam Meijer moved to Surrey to find better water before moving back to Middlesex at the Bandstand.
By the top of Chiswick Eyot, Angus had passed George. The water got worse between Chiswick Pier and the Bandstand and this spread the field out. Angus and Matt drew away from the rest of the field. However, Sam’s dash back to Middlesex paid off so he led the chase to close on the leaders. The water flattened after the White Hart and Matt began to challenge Angus’ lead and, approaching the Ship, he got past. The order remained the same except for Victor Kleshnev getting himself past two tiring Tideway Scullers School scullers, George Bourne and Calvin Tarczy.
When Hayward took the lead, five-time Wingfields winner and 2012 Olympic Bronze sculler, Alan Campbell, said on the live feed commentary, ‘this is a test of watermanship and preparation… it’s not always the fittest, strongest sculler that comes out in front, it’s the one that’s prepared and done this the right way…’
Looking at Calvin Tarczy’s placing, it must be remembered that he is only 20-years-old and that he came second by less than a second in the time trial, beating 15 older and much more experienced men – including former Wingfield’s winners. Twice a Junior World Champion, he is also the youngest winner of the Scullers Head. It seems highly likely that Calvin is a future ‘Champion of the Thames’.
The Women’s Race
Charlotte Hodgkins-Byrne was the early leader with a three-length lead closely pursued by her sister, Mathilda, and by Saskia Budgett. By the end of Chiswick Eyot, Mathilda was moving closer to Charlotte. By Chiswick Pier, Hanna Scott had taken Saskia’s third place. At the Bandstand, the Middlesex bend started to turn in Mathilda’s favour. She later said:
It was really exciting…. Charlotte and Saskia absolutely flew out… I knew that I had to keep with them and stay in my rhythm… which I did… and also managed to clear Hannah – which was difficult. About 750 before Barnes, I was able to control the race and bring the rate down…. I know that I’m strong over a long distance…
Oddly, this was the first time that Mathilda had raced in singles against her sister, Charlotte. However, with the rules allowing competitors to receive steering signals from following launches, she found that nepotism has its advantages:
I could see that Hugo was steering Charlotte into me and Reedy was steering me into Charlotte and we were definitely yelling at each other at one point! Charlotte…. admitted that, had it been anyone else, she would have tipped me in…!
In second and third places, a real tussle developed between Charlotte and Hannah which drew them away from Saskia – who was passed by Katy Wilkinson-Feller after Chiswick Bridge.
It is strange that an event that bestows upon its winners the very grand titles of ‘The Champion of the Thames’ and ‘The British Amateur Sculling Champion’, should be so little-known in the rowing world. However, at least two factors may be working to change this.
Firstly, at national squad level there is currently more support for the event than there had been previously, and, in the future, we will probably see more GB scullers entering.
Secondly, one quirks of the Wingfields is that it is run solely by past winners and the latest ‘Champions’ are, naturally, young and tech-savvy types who are using the Internet and social media to bring a 190-year-old event to a new generation. The Wingfield’s YouTube Channel was watched by 600 people live and by 3,500 within 12 hours. Wade Hall-Craggs paid tribute to the 2011 Champion, Adam Freeman-Pask, for his work with social media and live streaming, building on what Tim Richards (2014, 2015) has done with the website and what Jamie Kirkwood (2016) has done with Instagram.
Looking to the future, there are some very early thoughts developing about running a Junior Wingfields – watch this space. Returning to race day 2020, both winners and losers were delighted to be back in competition again. Speaking to Wade Hall-Craggs, one of the female scullers succinctly – if inelegantly – summed up the last eight months: ‘Not racing is s – – t.’