24 October 2022
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch looks ahead to an event with a long past.
It is strange that two Putney to Mortlake rowing races, both less than ten years away from their bicentenary, both “private events”, umpired by and essentially run by previous winners, should enjoy very different levels of recognition. The Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, founded in 1829, is a world-famous British institution that is held in great affection by the aquatic and the non-aquatic alike, while the Wingfield Sculls, founded a year later in 1830, seems to have been destined to languish in relative obscurity for most of its existence.
Despite its historic claim to be the amateur sculling championship of the Thames/England/Great Britain, the Wingfields is little-known in the sport of rowing and almost completely unknown outside of it. Even at its peak, it was overshadowed by professional sculling and by Henley’s Diamond Sculls – despite once forming part of sculling’s “Triple Crown” along with the Diamonds and with the Metropolitan Regatta’s London Cup.
In more recent years, the GB national squad and national and international competitions have had a better claim to be able to pronounce on who are Britain’s best male and female scullers.
In 1906, The Sportsman newspaper wrote a still pertinent piece:
Carrying with it the title of “Amateur Champion of England”, the race for the time-honoured Wingfield Sculls should in these days create greater interest than it does. It is an old-fashioned contest, decided on lines quite unusual to amateur scullers. The competitors are (steered by) pilot cutters, the distance is the full championship course, and altogether it is a sporting event that causes veterans to think of the old days. Such men as JL Playford, AA Casamajor, WB Woodgate, FI Pitman, Guy and Vivian Nickalls and FB Kelly have won it, whilst the holder is HT Blackstaffe. Yet such small interest is taken in the affair that the reserve fund has to be called upon yearly in order to pay expenses. How long it will hold out cannot be said, but it would be regrettable if it had to take its place in an ordinary regatta programme… for it is the “classic” of the amateur scullers’ season, and should stand out alone.
What then is the attraction of this contest for those “in the know”? It is simply the knowledge that those scullers who have been pronounced as being among the best by modern racing methods may yet fail when tested by the Wingfields. It is not raced on a straight, man-made, six -laned, 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. The result is that the “form guide” may be no indicator of the final result. When commentating on the 2020 men’s race, five-time Wingfields winner and 2012 Olympic Bronze sculler, Alan Campbell, said:
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…
Campbell should know. In the 2009 Wingfields, he was better-prepared than the great Mahé Drysdale and secured his only ever win over the future double Olympic Gold medalist.
There should at the very least be a splendid battle between Rui Xu and Seb Devereux. At the Scullers head on 17 September, former lightweight Xu was the fastest man, starting in 4th place and finishing in 1st in a time of 20.52.11. Devereux finished 3rd in 20.53.24 – but had the disadvantage of starting 54th. After 6,800 metres there was 1.13 seconds between the two. John Drew has recently written about the remarkable Xu on HTBS. In the 2021 Wingfields, Xu, on home water, finished second, 30 seconds behind perhaps Britain’s best male sculler in many years, Graeme Thomas.
While Katie Mole came third in the 2021 Wingfields, she was the fastest woman in the recent Scullers Head with a time of 23.05.78. However, on Thursday she will have the redoubtable Imogen Grant to deal with. Two-times University Boat Race winner Grant was fourth in the double at the Tokyo Olympics. International wins include U23 lightweight singles at the 2018 Worlds, lightweight double sculls at the 2022 Euros and lightweight singles at the 2022 World Cup III. At this year’s Henley, she got to the final of the Princess Royal, the Open W1x event.
On 27 October, the 16th Women’s Wingfield Sculls will begin at 13.30 and the men’s 182nd Wingfield Sculls will begin at 14.45.
John Drew has sent a postscript to today’s article by Tim Koch.
John writes: Rui has a back problem stemming from something torn inside his hip: he has been seen by a physio who has worked with the British National team: he should not have rowed in Boston and has now so aggravated his injury, he cannot row in the Wingfields or, his real aim, the Canadian trials. Too bad for him.