29 September 2022
By Mark Jabalé, Emeritus Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Menevia
Mark Jabalé was Master, then Headmaster of Belmont Abbey School and later Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Menevia in Wales; he is now a Steward at Henley Royal Regatta. In an article in May, he told the story how he came to be a rowing coach at Belmont. In today’s article he is telling the story how he took some of the school’s oarsmen to race at Henley in 1981.
Most of my fellow Stewards, of which I am one of the oldest, if not the most senior, had School rowing careers, University rowing careers or Club rowing careers one or more of which took them to Henley Royal Regatta once a year. My school, university and later life in the sporting world never included such an event. My involvement only started because as Master in charge of Games at our small Public School of Belmont Abbey, I was faced with either abolishing rowing at the school for lack of a coach or taking up the task of learning all about it and coaching myself. Which is what I did.
Now, that was some sixty years ago and I was an energetic thirty-year-old, with interest and success in three completely different disciplines, rugby Union, swimming and skiing. Of course, the early part of my rowing career did not include Henley as an option; I knew even less about the sport than any of the boys whose rowing I had rashly decided to take over. My first few years were therefore confined to learning how to coach alongside the most junior and inexperienced crews. But that was when I discovered something to rowing, which both intrigued me and aroused my interest: how the whole action of the rowing stroke could be made to look so smooth and effortless, yet make the boat run so fast.
Belmont’s rugby, both fifteens and seven a side were particularly successful, coached by a school contemporary of mine who was an Oxford Rugby Blue and Ireland trialist, so the principal sport was in excellent hands. I, on the other hand, after a few years of learning what made a boat run, began to have ambitions of similar success for the group of boys who were good at neither rugby nor cricket, but had taken to rowing, and were now in my charge. One of the things I did at that time was join the Stewards Enclosure. In those days, of course, as there was no waiting list, I was able to get a quick taste of what it was like to regularly attend one of the most important events in the rowing calendar. It also made me want to have a Belmont crew compete in the regatta.
The only school event at Henley in those days was, of course, the PE (Princess Elizabeth Cup), which is an eights event. We never had a large and strong enough boat club to produce an eight on our own fast enough to compete with the likes of the big and more famous rowing schools. I did want, however, to bring the crews I coached to a standard where they would be able to compete at international level in the World Junior Championships, especially as that was the time when composite Junior crews started to be the norm, rather than the previous practice of single club or school crews in the GB Junior Team.
So, my approach to Henley, at the time, was slightly different. The only two events we could more or less hold our own in were the Britannia and the Visitors; albeit realising we could never dream of winning either. We took to competing mainly in the latter; but also, some years in the Goblets (the coxless pairs event). Usually, I would try and enter my oarsmen for two events, which was perfectly allowable. My aim was to get the boys as much good opposition and practice as possible in preparation for Junior selection and the World Junior Championships. That this was achievable – Wallingford School under the care of Bruce Grainger was enough of an example for me.
Here is a video from the 1981 Henley Royal Regatta. Unfortunately, the TV programme’s segment is less about the rowing at the regatta than the upper-crusters and what they are eating – chicken salad, pâté and strawberries & cream – in the car park.
The year of 1981 was probably our most successful year, as the whole of our First Four was selected for the World Junior Rowing Championships: two in the GB Junior Eight, Chris White and Robert Gibbon, and two as the GB Coxless Pair, Paul Mullan and Mark Woods. Not only was it a first for Belmont to produce four oarsmen for the GB team but, in that year, Belmont were the only school or club to do so. In order to get as much racing practice before selection as we could, therefore that year, we entered Thames Cup as members of Hereford Rowing Club, with four other members of the club, and on our own, as Belmont Abbey, a coxless four, in Visitors.
Our Thames Cup race, in the morning was against Springhill Centre, a selected crew; we put up a good fight but went out to them in what proved to be the fastest time of that day for Thames Cup. Peter Coni, Chairman of the Regatta’s Committee of Management, who always did the entire timetable by himself, was always mindful of the need for time enough for crews to recover if they were doubling up; so, he had put our Visitors race against Princeton University well after the tea interval to give us maximum time to recover. With a very fit four, I felt after the hard morning race they had recovered well enough and were ready for another race. It turned out to be an epic one, with never more than a length between the crews. The official report of the race tells that “Princeton started at 41 to Belmont’s 40, led by half a length at the quarter mile. At the lower rating, generally 34 to Princeton’s 36, Belmont Abbey held them there, and at the Mile Post closed up to force a dead heat”.
This, of course, created a slight difficulty for Peter Coni who always had the welfare of crews at heart; but of course it created an even greater one for me, because I strongly suspected that we would be asked to re-row as last race of the day. And, sure enough, my four who were really exhausted after two very hard Henley races expressed to me in no uncertain terms. Surprise, surprise, over the Tannoy loudspeakers came the announcement that our re-row was to be after the last race of the day, less than an hour later.
I sat on the grass in front of the boat tents with my four prone and exhausted. I organised a hot drink for them and helped massage and loosen their aching muscles. “Father,” was their unanimous cry, “there’s just no way we’re going to do another full course today!” And, unsurprisingly, those were sentiments with which I could entirely sympathise. But this was Henley Royal Regatta, and Peter Coni had decided; so, I knew not to argue.
I had to find an argument which would convince my exhausted crew to go out and give their best. The only argument I could come up with was to say to them: “You know very well that all four of you are possible candidates for the GB Team this year”. Their answer was “Yes we do, so?” I said, “If we were in Hereford, on a training session, we might well be doing twelve 500 m rows; and you’d feel exactly the way you feel now, after eight or ten of them”. “Yes, but this isn’t a training session in Hereford,” the crew said, “and we’re absolutely dead! And we can’t race another whole course”. “Fair enough, then,” I said, “all I ask is can you manage an all-out row to the Barrier or if you can, to Fawley?” The consensus was, yes, they could. So, I said, “Ok, then, do that, and then you can paddle light, and wind down; I will consider that as a useful hard training session”. And we settled on that.
The Princeton coach also found himself with his crew strongly objecting to repeating the contest less than an hour after our race. He went to the Committee Room and said to Peter Coni: “Chairman, you can’t make my boys race again so soon; they’ve had a very hard race and they’re exhausted. Postpone the re-row until tomorrow!” Peter looked balefully at him and in a voice that brooked no argument replied: “The Belmont four rowed this morning in Thames Cup, this was their second race today; they are a schoolboy crew, yours is a university students crew, and it was your first race. If the Belmont coach had come to me and asked, I might have considered it. My answer to your request is no – the re-row goes ahead now!”
A very disgruntled Princeton coach walked off to his crew to give them the unwelcome news. It was therefore a very unhappy Princeton four who reluctantly paddled down to the Start and lined up for their race. My four, on the other hand, knowing they only had to row flat out to the Barrier or at worst Fawley, before calling it a day, thought to themselves “We’ve nothing to lose, so let’s go for it before we call it a day at the Barrier”.
The official Regatta report says, “In the re-row, an hour later, Belmont took the American University by surprise, snatching a two and a half length lead by the quarter mile, which they increased to nearly four lengths by Fawley. They then held off every attack to win by two and a half lengths”.
To do him justice, the Princeton coach came up to me after the race and said, “Well done coach; well-planned out race!” Coni made a point, also, of congratulating me on our win, and thanking me for not putting him on the spot by asking for a postponement.
The following day, a tired Belmont four lost to a strong Lady Margaret BC crew, again in what proved to be the fastest race of the day in Visitors. But we certainly had benefited from good top class racing practice. And all four of them in the Belmont crew eventually did achieve their main aim that year which was to represent Great Britain in the World Junior Rowing Championships in Belgrade.