The 2021 Wingfield Sculls: History Against the Stream
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”.
“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.
My photographs and captions are accompanied by a lightly edited official race report (in italics).
The 15th Women’s Wingfields
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 180th Wingfield Sculls
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.
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.