The Royal Regatta

Ten years ago my college rowing team traveled to England to compete in the Henley Royal Regatta. It was a bittersweet experience for me because I was not selected to be in the boat, and instead was a spare rower in case of injury. However, the other spare and I did lots of good rowing in our two-man boat, and the overall experience was great. I put Henley on our list of things to do as soon as I knew that we would be in the UK this year, and our trip to the coast meshed well with the plan to go to Henley and do some other travel in conjunction with Independence Day.

The Henley Royal Regatta is one of the most historic and famous rowing events in the world. It’s a five-day, head-to-head, single-elimination tournament including events for different boat classes and competition levels, including international, club, collegiate, etc. Each day the winners move on, while the losers go home. The entire 2,112 meter course is demarcated by heavy wooden posts and beams, presenting a real challenge to crews with bad steering. It’s been held every year since 1839, with the exception of years during the World Wars, and served as the rowing event in the 1908 and 1948 Olympics. In fact, the Olympics organizing committee is modelled after the Henley committee.

We didn’t arrive at Henley until the teatime break before the Friday evening session, but found good parking near a playground where Roman and Elena played until it was time to walk to the course. As we walked along the Thames to the Regatta Enclosure, for which we had purchased badges, we joined in with a crowd full of signs of British society: rowers and former rowers wearing blazers, often in the garish colors and bold patterns of their clubs and schools, ladies in summer dresses and fancy hats, even a few people in true formal wear heading to dinner appointments.

Although the weather was threatening, we only had to put up with one short rain shower as we watched the races, which came down the course on ten minute intervals. We were close to the finish line and most of the races had been decided much further up the course, but there were at a few where the outcome was still in doubt and the racing was still heated. Elena didn’t care how big the margins were–she cheered for all the boats, even those warming up towards the start.

After several hours in the car earlier in the day Roman wanted to stretch out and crawl around, but we were sitting right next to the water. Eventually he wore me down and I took him to a grassy area just behind the waterside seating area, where he attracted the attention of lots of people walking by including a security guard, an Italian lady, and a drunk grandpa who exhorted me “not to miss a moment of this time!”

The next day we didn’t have tickets to go into the enclosures so instead we watched from different vantage points further up the course: one at about halfway and the other near the start. On Saturday almost all the rowing is good, even if the races are not all close, so I really enjoyed watching. In between races there’s always something to watch in the veritable parade of boats that occurs on the river outside the course. I think that Elena has an increased desire to row someday, and even though Radcliffe was down by a length to a Canadian National Team boat just past Temple Island, I told Elena that maybe she would be in a boat like that someday. Jenny asked why I wasn’t saying the same thing to Roman about the men’s teams, but he’s still too young to understand.

The hardest part of the day was the walk back to our car because of the throngs of people headed in both directions, overflowing the very narrow path. We escaped into a vendor area for a while and browsed through the tents–Elena even tried out a rowing machine–but eventually we had to return to the stream of people and push our way all the way back. I was not happy when people wouldn’t yield the pavement to our small-wheeled stroller, but managed to contain my anger and only throw elbows at a couple of them.

Sadly, Henley was not the only rowing-related event that affected me last weekend. A strong storm on the East coast of the US did severe damage to my boat. Even though I’m far away, the coach and boathouse manager where it is in storage are taking good care of it, and it should be repairable. I hope so–Elena might win Henley in that boat someday!


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