Smoke and Mirrors at the Royal Regatta

Veteran journalist, editor, author, writer and co-founder of the River and Rowing Museum, Chris Dodd (right), with one of the newest Henley Stewards, Aquil Abdullah, at this year’s regatta.

11 July 2022

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd at Henley.

And so, to Henley, to test for falling standards in the wake of the royal regatta’s boast of ‘getting back to normal’ after two years of abnormal. Have the Stewards contrived to secure changes for survival while kidding the outside world that their regatta never changes?

Henley in 2015 and in 1844 – the same but different.

For myself, the question of whether Henley ever changes is an annual game of smoke and mirrors. The 2021 regatta was disruption personified when COVID isolation required boating activity to vanish under trees on the Bucks bank, leaving a scar on the Berks side where social life used to be rife. This year, the Stewards celebrated the reappearance of the Boat Tent by adorning it in new canvas, resplendent in traditional blue and white stripes. I’m sure it is bigger than it used to be. Café Regatta (once upon a time the ‘Crews Amenities Tent’) has certainly grown as entries increase.

The return of the boat tents – albeit not the same ones as three years ago.

I learned about change in 1980 when finishing my history of the regatta (Henley Royal Regatta, Stanley Paul, 1981). I spent much of the week with Dick Cashin, the 2 seat in the Charles River Rowing Association eight who won the Grand. 

Coach Harry Parker ordered substitutes into Cashin’s seat for all practice outings because Dick was suffering a pulled muscle. The crew had been on target for a medal at the Olympic Games in Moscow when President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and so they found themselves racing the Grand final against New Zealand, who were in Henley for the same reason.

Coach Harry Parker (left) with Henley Chairman, Peter Coni (right) and the Charles River Rowing Association crew that won the Grand in 1980.

The key thing for me, however, was Harvard graduate Cashin’s scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge. Trinity won the first Grand in 1839. I relied heavily on Warington Wilkinson Smyth’s log for gen about that first regatta. Smyth occupied the 2 seat in Trinity’s Black Prince. A win for Cashin would make a perfect ending for a manuscript that was expected at the publisher’s soon after Henley week finished. I gave Charles River generous space in my report for the Guardian, and I never routed more for a crew to win a race until I stood alongside Steve Redgrave’s Mum when he won his fifth Olympic gold twenty years later in Sydney. 

I was reminded of this as I sleuthed through the enclosures in 2022’s bright sunshine interspersed with 1980-like downpours because Charles River were assembling forty years on (plus a couple more for COVID reasons) to row past the grandstand and sit down to a celebratory dinner.

The Charles River Rowing Association’s 1980 Grand Crew 2022 reunion dinner in Leander. The organiser and bowman, Sean Colgan, is on the right and Dick Cashin (2) is next to him.

Passing the gate to the Stewards private lawn and bar, passing the tree where results are posted, passing the art show tucked under the rear of the grandstand, passing familiar figures making for the members’ floating grandstand, all looks ‘normal’ in the Henley Bubble. All feels sanitised from the wobbly world of Boris Johnson’s government outside.     

The military band crammed into their stand was working through an impressive repertoire of marches and light opera, their scarlet uniforms reminiscent of the Guards band that once played this gig. The champagne bar was doing healthy morning trade despite, or maybe because of, the day’s depressing headlines that I began to review to myself – war in Ukraine, record fuel prices, rail strikes, airport chaos, mountainous hospital waiting lists, COVID surges, food banks, constitutional discontent in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, cuts in benefits but less tax burden for the better off, a ‘booming’ economy but a chronic shortage of skills, labour and skilled labour, a Brexit bureaucratic disaster, a stand-off with the European Union, a housing crisis, and a government ‘led’ by failed Eton oarsman Boris Johnson whose Cabinet could not row a stroke in concert even if they could keep  afloat while Boris blusters his way out of Partygate and into a stream of lies over everything from random statistics to the fountain of refurbishment funds for No 10 Downing Street, his official residence…

Non-aquatic entertainment was provided by the ex-military musicians of the “British Imperial Band.”

How I could murder a flute of Moët. No wonder that the RAF saw fit to fly-past a Hurricane during the regatta. Maybe it’s the only working fighter left. 

The lawns and deckchairs and stands and restaurants were immaculate. The queues outside the ladies’ loos were traditionally long and the men’s traditionally short. But despite no alarming reflections in the mirror, I sensed something hidden in the smoke. Major change began in 1980, the last all-male regatta. Invitation events for women were held in 1981, and this year there are thirteen women among the Stewards and ten events for women’s crews. Equal numbers of events for men and women are offered in open and junior events. 

Lea RC’s Diamond Jubilee crew.

The total number of events is now twenty-six, and a sixth day of racing has been introduced to accommodate them. It’s a great success, say the Stewards: their regatta has attracted a record entry of 739 crews, rowed and sculled by thousands of rowers. It is also more visible, because a few years ago a sea change occurred when dawn ‘til dusk live drone coverage began on YouTube.

But murmurs among coaches, boatmen and club officials of my acquaintance suggested a lowering of standards to accommodate new events and an increase in the draw in several events. Scrutiny of the daily programme – itself having undergone some welcome typographical tweaking – reveals generous work by HRR’s charitable trust in supporting several youth rowing organisations to the tune of millions since it was started in the 1980s. But success for such schemes should surely open the door to Britain’s top regatta? 

The jury’s out. The jury’s out because the secret of change is to always a follower be, never the leader. Growth and success at Henley depend on rowers showing up to compete in fair races, racing that fits with their season’s programme. 

There is more racing at Henley – but is it better?

Meanwhile, there is an awful crush in the luncheon and tea tents, where close-packed chairs and tables dictated intimacy. You might seek solace in the Pink Palace, the club by the bridge. Leander’s new management has changed the tone to attract younger clientele – but not to everyone’s liking. Evening bar food was not served in regatta week. A food court and buffet replaced the previous table service, and an eating-seating tent replaced the previous marquee and its glittering chandelier. The new deck overlooking the river flickered with fairy lights, and the dinner menu in the pukka club dining room never changed its two-choices for a week. A friend who entertains business clients to Leander every year was shocked to be told that reserving a lunch table for ten was impossible. 

A full house?

By the way, I omitted to mention that the 739 entries indulged in hundreds of races, but the immense crowds made seeing them difficult. By the end of the week some usual suspects made sparks fly, including Windsor Boys School, Thames RC, Leander, Oxford Brookes and the Rocket-powered Chinese women under the performance direction of HRR chairman Sir Steve Redgrave. 

And in the press box those dwindling numbers who still have newspapers or magazines to service were hard at work checking on umpire launch movements and swapping stories between RowingVoice, Hear The Boat Sing and Fatsculler.

The climax of my regatta was dinner in Leander’s balcony room with the Charles River Rowing Association. They were thoroughly good company as they awarded illuminated blades to one another while keeping the speeches short. 

Thus, the Royal Regatta returned to normal, smoke, mirrors and all.

4 comments

  1. A bitter sweet article by the incomparable Chris Dodd, reflecting as he does, on the state of the country as well as HRR. However, one change Chris does not mention is the omission of crew weights in the Regatta Programme.
    I have been an attendee of the Regatta since 1962, and who can forget that year’s Grand and the Moto Guzzi crew’s (av weight 13/0) defeat by 1/3 of a length to the USSR Navy crew (av weight 13/6) without ruminating on the weight difference ‘twixt the two?
    Comparing crew weights has been part and parcel of the enjoyment the more attentive spectator gains from some of the gladiatorial encounters witnessed at the Regatta. It will be a shame if crew weights continue to be absent.

  2. My recollection of sculling at Henley in the 1970s and at other UK regattas that included crew weights was definitely smoke and mirrors. Competitors had to provide their own weights with their entries and in the majority of cases they seemed to have very little relationship to reality. I have always viewed any crew weights with scepticism, even including lightweights who can exceed the limits after they re-hydrate post weighing.

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