30 January 2023
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd reads Henley’s runes.
The other day I parted with £50 for an absolute bodice-ripper guaranteed to keep you turning pages into the small hours – Regatta Records 2015-2019, published by Henley Royal Regatta. This door-stop records every race held in those five years and every statistic that you may never want to know. However, if like me you are a commentator on the sport, a dip here and a delve there among its 576 pages reveals trends in rowing and the regatta, and indications of the way we live now. And caps off to the Stewards, particularly the tome’s editor Sir Steve Redgrave and its proof reader Professor Boris Rankov for making a neat job of such a comprehensive work. My delving has found only one spelling mistake, and that is the name of a Diamonds winner. No, I’m not going to tell you whom.
Numbers set the framework for HRR’s development. When the Stewards Enclosure first opened in 1919, 300 subscribers enjoyed listening to a band, consuming first-class catering and making use of a landing stage and boatman to tether their craft. A hundred years later the enclosure has 6,500 full members, 800 retired members, and a waiting list of over 1000. The membership figure is stable but retired members increased in number by 200 over the five years.
Regatta goers have more to see than what was on offer during the midst of the nineteenth century. The first regatta, staged by local bigwigs in 1839, had two events and one day of racing. In 2019 there was a record entry of 660 rowers with over 350 competing for 22 events over five days, with a sixth day on the horizon.
But the big two advances of the period are the coming of broadcasting and the rise of women. In 2015 Regatta Broadcasting brought every stroke from start to finish to screens in the regatta enclosures and to your living room. Drones drone, cameras whirr from new course-side platforms, and moving pictures stream to HRR’s YouTube channel. Highlights follow each day’s racing to keep you in touch, and the BBC’s red button comes into play on finals day. Stewards Neil Chugani and Sir Matthew Pinsent have been the movers and shakers in this enterprise.
Since 2015, says the official report, HRR and partner Sunset+Vine have used these new technologies to produce a popular viewer experience. But one unfortunate effect which the Records doesn’t mention is the demise of Regatta Radio, the station that used to commentate on every race and could be picked up for several miles in the surrounding country. Once the stewards established TV coverage, sponsors no longer signed up for the radio station.
The second vital change was a markedly bold step towards offering women the same opportunities for racing as men. To this point, progress was slow. Henley Women’s regatta, held two weeks before the Royal, began in 1988 with support of the Stewards after their invitation events for women in the early 1980s were discontinued.
One obstacle to including women’s events in the HRR programme at that time was that the length of the course for women’s international rowing was half that for men, thus requiring pontoons to be floated into position to start races. But this problem blew away after the Olympics in 1980 when women adopted the men’s distance of 2000 metres. Then along came a new World Cup series for male and female single scullers, and from 1993 to 1995 a round of the cup took place as an integral part of HRR. The pathway to women’s participation was opening up, and the idea gradually took root among rowers, coaches and even the most resistant Stewards.
So in 2017 three new women’s open events – W4-, W2-, W2x – were offered. This brought the number of open Henley events for women to equal that of men. The new events now have trophies – the Town Challenge Cup for fours, the Hambleden Challenge Cup for pairs and the Stonor Challenge Trophy for doubles. The history of the cups records the Town Cup being offered for coxed fours in the first regatta in 1839; the Hambleden being presented to the regatta by Lord Hambleden for pairs at the Peace Regatta in 1919, while the Stonor trophy commemorates Thomas Stonor, later Lord Camoys, who chaired the organising committee for the first Henley regatta.
The number of female Stewards increased between 2015 and 2019. Among their number are Dr Lady Ann Redgrave, Dr Cath Bishop, Guin Batten, Miriam Luke and Dame Katherine Grainger. And more female officials were in evidence helping to run the regatta. There were, of course, a number of deaths among members of the self-perpetuating oligarchy, among them Daniel Topolski, Sir Adrian Cadbury, James Crowden and the first female, Dame ‘Di’ Ellis.
The 2019 regatta included a one-off event for mixed eights from the forces to mark the centenary of the 1919 Peace Regatta. The six eights in 1919 – GB, USA, France, NZ, Canada and Australia – raced for the King’s Cup, which was presented to the regatta by King George V. It was won by the Australian Army, and is now the top trophy in Oz, awarded annually to the champion men’s eight.
In 2019 the daily programme replicated the design of the 1919 edition, and mixed crews from the Netherlands and Germany joined the original six for the new cup. The cup incorporates items of war memorabilia donated by the participating crews and remains in the regatta’s vaults.
On Friday 1 July 2016 the regatta observed the national two-minute silence to remember those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme, a hundred years before. Poppies were worn.
Another change occurred in 2017 when the regatta negotiated partnerships with three prestigious British brands for the first time in its 178-year history, namely the Bremont Watch Company, Hackett London and Aston Martin. These partners were chosen for their ‘British heritage, premium offerings and synergy with HRR’s values and ethos’, according to Records. Bremont produces beautifully engineered timepieces and has its headquarters in Henley. Aston Martin makes a marque of automobile that ‘qualifies for official automotive partner’, and Hackett retails renowned clothing.
In 2018 Moët Hennessy became the regatta’s official champagne partner. The claim in the Records that the 2017 sponsorships are the first, however, is not quite accurate. In 1989 De Beers, the miners of rocks, sponsored the 150th anniversary of the Diamond Challenge Sculls. All the living winners who had not been presented with a Diamonds ‘pineapple cup’ on winning the final received one courtesy of De Beers at the Stewards’ tea party, and the practice of cups for keep was restored.
Through the five years under review, the Stewards’ Charitable Trust distributed over £1m to beneficiaries such as the Ball Cup North and South that arranges racing for small junior schools and clubs. Donations also went to the Rowing Foundation for their support of 35 projects, and Warrington Youth Rowing that has spread from Cheshire to seven schools in Liverpool. British Rowing’s coaching scholarship scheme has also received support.
Another change came in 2015, when Mike Sweeney, the newly elected president of HRR, gave the prizes away. Sweeney succeeded Peter Coni as chairman of the management committee in 1992 until 2014. Sir Steve Redgrave became vice-chairman for the 2014 regatta and took over the chairmanship in 2015.
One of the lessons I learned while writing the regatta’s history (Henley Royal Regatta, Stanley Paul, 1981) was that one reason for Henley’s longevity was the Stewards’ cautious attitude to developments in rowing. To follow but not to lead ensures that the runes are read thoroughly before changes in boat types or racing rules are introduced, thus allowing national and international bodies to be the pioneers.
During the five years to 2019 changes gathered pace at Henley, particularly in broadcasting and women’s events, in answer to the creation of a World Cup and World Rowing’s accompanying assault to get more exposure and better publicity. And those years portended what was soon to come, namely additional events for women’s club, student and junior crews, and a sixth day of racing to fit them in.
But further change was held up by the Covid pandemic that stopped 2020’s regatta altogether, and severely compromised that of 2021. With the addition of the sixth day, things returned to ‘normal’ in 2022, although several other changes were made to accommodate the ever-increasing number of competitors, like larger boat tents, cafes and official souvenir shops.
Well, thank the powers that be that Henley Royal Regatta continues to record every move by every name from 1839. I’m sorry that Records did not live up to its billing as a bodice-ripper, but I hope you know now why the Stewards followers be, not leaders.