The 2021 Wingfield Sculls: History Against the Stream

Approaching Chiswick Eyot in the 2021 Wingfield Sculls are, left to right: Rui Xu (foreground), Graeme Thomas (background), Jack Keating and Callum Dixon.

23 October 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch witnesses an event founded to discover “the best”.

Even though Henry Colsell Wingfield stipulated that his eponymous sculling race be held “for ever”, he would surely still be pleasantly surprised that, 191 years on, the event continues to take place annually. However, what he would have made of the move of the course to Putney – Mortlake, or of the existence of the Women’s Wingfields since 2007, or of the use of Global Positioning Systems this year, we can only speculate – but I hope that he would agree that this year’s winners, Graeme Thomas of Agecroft RC and Lola Anderson of Leander, were, as he wanted for his race, “the best”.

Lola Anderson won the Princess Royal (women’s single sculls) at Henley 2021 and was also a bronze medallist at World Cup III in the single sculls in June.
Graeme Thomas won the Diamonds (men’s single sculls) at this year’s Henley. The Wingfields is the last rowing event to give a military-type medal to its winners. The ribbon carries a bar for each year that the holder has won the race.

“I think that someone has got sore knees from praying very hard to the river gods to give us a really good day,” said Wingfield’s secretary, Wade Hall-Craggs, after the race. Rough water from wind against tide was forecast, but on the day, the unexpected closure of the Thames Barrier produced slow but generally rowable conditions, the weather was comparatively beguine and the competitors had some interesting tactics planned. 

At London Rowing Club, umpire and 1976 winner, Graeme Mulcahy, gives his pre-race briefing to competitors and officials. On the right is secretary, archivist and 1991 winner, Wade Hall-Craggs.
The members’ room at London Rowing Club was used by Ludum, a performance analysis tool company which provided GPS and live data for the online streaming of the races on the Wingfields YouTube Channel. As well as their position, the heart rate, strokes per minute and 500m split for each sculler could be viewed in real time. There were technical problems, but it was an exciting start for the future promotion of the race. In the 24-hours after the event, it had been viewed over 1,800 times.

My photographs and captions are accompanied by a lightly edited official race report (in italics).

The 15th Women’s Wingfields

On her way to the start, Kathryn Mole of Leeds RC discovers one of the objects that would not be found on a straight 2,000-metre multi-lane course.
The line up at the start of the women’s race, left to right, Surrey to Middlesex: Meghann Jackson of Upper Thames RC, Kathryn Mole of Leeds RC, Lola Anderson and Georgina Brayshaw, both from Leander, Grace Bake of London RC.

Despite the Thames Barrage closure taking the flow off the tide, the wind picked the water along the Putney reach to make the start uncomfortable for all the scullers. It was a tentative start for all. Brayshaw dropped back while Mole and Anderson cut across to Middlesex where Bake maintained a relatively high rate of 32. At London Rowing Club, Anderson was a length and a half up on Bake rating only 26, Mole third, Jackson fourth, Brayshaw fifth.

Anderson may have taken an early and clear lead, but she too was only one stroke away from disaster in the rough water of the opening minutes. However, her initial Ludum stats displayed on the live feed gave her a 500m split of 1.55, five-seconds below her nearest competitor.
A short time into the race, Brayshaw opened up an old wound on her hand. At the finish she assured all concerned that it was not as bad as it looked.
Just over two-and-a-half minutes in, left to right: Jackson, Anderson, Mole, Brayshaw, Bake.

At the building barges off Fulham football ground, Anderson was clear in the middle while two separate battles developed behind between Mole and Bake, and Jackson and Brayshaw. After the Mile Post, Anderson stuck to the Surrey shore while Mole passed Bake and Brayshaw.

Mole, Bake and Brayshaw. All crossed to Surrey long before reaching the development at Fulham football ground. 
This was the scene at six minutes into the race. Anderson was hugging the Surrey shore while Bake, Mole, Brayshaw and Jackson stayed in what usually would be the fastest water.

Still at 26, Anderson passed under Hammersmith bridge well clear. Bake dropping back swapped stations with Jackson. At Chiswick, the umpire had to pass a flagging Bake as Anderson was a distant speck as the sun dazzled on the distant water.

Anderson reached Hammersmith Bridge 45 seconds ahead of her nearest rival.
An example of Ludum’s output. The positions and stats of the competitors are superimposed on a Google Earth view of Hammersmith Bridge. Anderson is represented by the pink spot, Mole by the light and dark blue, Bake by the dark blue and Jackson by the blue and white stripe. Brayshaw’s GPS was not working, she should have been shown between Anderson and Mole.
Approaching “The Old Ship” pub at Hammersmith, Anderson is just visible on the far left and is followed by Brayshaw, Mole and Bake. Jackson is behind, out of the picture.
Anderson, Brayshaw and Bake at Chiswick Eyot, just past the half-way mark. Anderson was nearly a minute ahead of Brayshaw at Chiswick steps.

In the better water, Brayshaw had clawed her way back to lead the chasing pack but nearly forfeited her second place back to Mole by almost hitting Barnes bridge. Anderson was barely in sight of the umpire’s launch as she passed the finish line.

Pictured at Chiswick – with Anderson (left) seeming to have an unassailable lead, the real race was between Brayshaw and Mole (right) for second place. The Leander sculler eventually went ahead of her Leeds rival – though the duel was reignited after Brayshaw nearly clipped Barnes Bridge and momentarily stopped.
Between Hammersmith and Barnes, Jackson (foreground) had overtaken Bake for fourth place. Anderson reached Barnes Bridge 39 seconds ahead of second placed Brayshaw.
At the finish, Brayshaw (second) and Mole (third) see Anderson cross the line over a minute ahead of them to become the 12th woman to win the Women’s Wingfields. For most of the race, Anderson, in her own words, “wasn’t taking in the scenery but was not as pressed and panicked as if I was in the middle of the pack”.

The 180th Wingfield Sculls

Graeme Thomas surveys the water on his way to the start. By the time of the men’s race the Thames Barrier closure meant that the race was against the flow of water so the scullers could row in the inshore zone and take the shortest line around the bends.

The conditions were considerably better for the men because the water was now flowing out, they raced against the stream. Thomas anchored all his power into his first three strokes levering himself straight into the lead at 40. Xu was left ploughing a lonely furrow in the centre as Keating, Thomas and Maxwell went up the Middlesex wall while O’Reilly and Dixon went inside the boats. 

On the start from right to left, Middlesex to Surrey: Gregor Maxwell (London), Callum Dixon (Twickenham), Graeme Thomas (Agecroft) and Jack Keating (Leander). Out of shot on the left were Rui Xu (London) and, on the far Surrey station, Nathan O’Reilly (London).
On the “Go”, Callum Dixon (left) cut behind Thomas and Keating and directly in front of the umpire to get to the Surrey bank.
With Dixon and O’Reilly hugging Surrey, the other four waited until the football ground to cross. The order here is Thomas, Keating, Maxwell and Xu.

At Barn Elms, Dixon had recovered from his dash from Middlesex and had overtaken O’Reilly. At the Mile Post, Thomas led Keating from a close trio of Maxwell, Dixon and Xu, O’Reilly trailed. All the scullers proceeded under the Surrey bank against the stream. Thomas was the only sculler to pass through the centre arch of Hammersmith bridge which allowed the chasing pack to close on him.

Dixon leads O’Reilly at Barn Elms.
A Ludum snapshot of the race at three minutes in, just reaching the end of Putney Embankment before Thomas, Keating, Maxwell and Xu (on the right) cross to join Maxwell and O’Reilly on the left.
After the Mile Post and approaching Hammersmith Bridge, the order is Thomas, Keating, Dixon, Xu, Maxwell and O’Reilly.
Thomas goes wide at Hammersmith.

Dixon passed Keating who clipped a tree off St Paul’s. Along Chiswick Eyot, Thomas set an attacking rhythm at 29 and moved away from Dixon. After Chiswick pier all the scullers crossed over except Dixon who continued round the outside of the Barnes bend. 

At Chiswick Eyot: Thomas, Dixon, Keating and Xu.

The inside arch of Barnes bridge was shut forcing all the scullers out through the middle arch where Dixon rejoined the chasing pack. Xu tucked himself inside Keating around Duke’s Meadows to come through to second while Maxwell closed up to challenge Dixon. 

Approaching Mortlake, Dixon and Keating had swapped second place positions.
Here, Thomas has passed the finish and is out of shot but Xu followed him in second place, Keating third, Dixon fourth, Maxwell fifth and, out of shot, O’Reilly sixth.

Xu almost conceded his second position with a crab five strokes from the finish but recovered to earn a well-deserved second position behind Thomas. Because of the stream, we have to go back to 1861 to find a slower winning time than Thomas’. 

Graeme Thomas of Agecroft RC, the 96th winner of the Wingfield Sculls.
1964 Olympic Silver medalist Bill Barry, who won the Wingfields in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966, congratulates Anderson and Thomas.

Concluding the official race report, Wade Hall-Craggs wrote:

Both our winners had also been victorious at the delayed Henley Royal Regatta in the summer. Today they became true champions of the Thames. All Anderson’s time rowing at university on the Tyne paid off as she managed the difficult water along the Putney reach best of the whole field. Graeme Thomas stamped his authority as a world class athlete on the event from his first strokes. Only his second time on the Tideway he had prepared assiduously by watching videos of previous Wingfields. The Tideway dug deep into its box of tricks to challenge all the scullers making the two new Wingfields winners worthy champions. 

One comment

  1. An excellent account of the races, worthy of the event itself. The written word coming to the rescue of a gremlin strewn live broadcast.
    Thank you Tim Koch.

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