This inaugural event, hosted by St Neots Rowing Club in Cambridgeshire on behalf of British Rowing’s Eastern Region, was quickly dubbed ‘The Beast of the East’ by many of us once it appeared on our calendars. And whilst there wasn’t any early spring snow, the weather made its presence known throughout the day, as we’ll see.
Many of us are very familiar with the two-day mid-summer festival known as the St. Neots Regatta, where clubs from around Britain camp out in the ‘Regatta Field’ on the west bank of the River Great Ouse and spend a weekend racing on 1000m and 500m upstream courses. The Head of the East was to be a smaller affair, though no less welcoming, and crews would be based at the St Neots RC clubhouse itself, launching from the eastern bank of the river. Running downstream, the 2200m course started just below a weir to the south of the town. The first 1000m was fairly narrow and sinuous, and not dissimilar to our stretch of the river Lea itself. After passing underneath the ‘Town Bridge’ the river opened up as it went past the rowing club on a 500m straight, before finishing on a wide, sweeping curve to bowside.
The Lea entered 16 crews for the Head, with our boats spread over two trailers, and featuring just about every category bar a coxless four. Heavy and consistent gusts of wind had led some to speculate the night before that the race might be cancelled. But in the early hours of the morning the conditions were deemed safe enough to proceed and we rolled up the A1 (M) and M11 before sunrise, as boating for the first division was scheduled for 8:25am. With the trailers parked, the Orange Army set to work unloading and rigging up the boats and encountered a snag: the normally reliable Sid Price had a broken 7 rigger, and none of the riggers from the other boats could be used as a stand-in. Thankfully Jo Baxter was on hand to broker a boat loan from Poplar RC, and the Nov/Dev men were still able to race in Division 2.
But before that, the Dev/Nov women began the racing with a bang. Two crews in coxed fours faced off against each other in Band 1, with a total field of 4. The ‘beastly’ wind was coming from the south and really pushed the crews down the course past the club house. Quite equally matched, it was the boat of Natalie Milmoe, Lucy Davison, Rachel Horigan and Sarah Davis, coxed by Julia Maia that prevailed over their squad mates by a close 3 seconds. As other competitors were to discover throughout the day, the return from the finish, paddling against the mighty breeze, proved a challenging row after the energy-sapping race.
And this contributed to another issue not uncommon to multi-division rowing events, the slipping of the timetable. Since competitors had been allowed to enter in adjacent divisions, boating for the next race couldn’t begin until the boats from the current race had all landed. And that was taking a bit of time…
The Nov/Dev men eventually managed to get out in the second division in their borrowed boat and made a brave showing in the Open 8’s. Following hot on their tail was Ashley Ringshaw in her single; if she had had any opposition she surely would have captured the victory. Also in the second division was a Broxbourne Men’s Masters 4x- featuring in its crew the dual-national Adrian Scott. Given some good-natured ribbing before the race, their victory was celebrated in our ranks almost as much as if it had been one of the Lea boats.
Our Club Masters women’s and men’s squads had joined forces in the New Year with the aim of entering one or more a mixed 8+’s in the Vesta Veterans Head of the River, later in the month. The Head of the East was the first opportunity we had to test out two possible crews, but with fewer than 16 rowers available, we entered two boats but had three rowers who were ‘doubling up’. And unfortunately, there was no other opposition in the ‘Mixed Masters 8+’ category, so we would be racing against each other. Or in the case of the three doubling-up, racing against themselves! The first crew was able to use Eton Phoenix, while the other crew had been scheduled to use the ill-fated Sid Price in the third division, so instead resorted to another of our workhorse eights, Carbo. A fairly heavy boat, it nevertheless proved a fitting substitute. Both crews performed admirably, with the win by the Carbo crew at least reassuring coach Louise Nickerson that her personnel selection was heading in the right direction.
In the middle of the days activities, Paul Steley, who had coxed several of the women’s crews, jumped into trustworthy ‘Jessica’ and finished atop the field of Open Singles, beating out three skilled opponents. All those extra sculling sessions he’d put in had paid off!
Following that the masters turned to small boats while the Nov/Dev women continued in eights. It here that the crew of Nastaran Tavassoli, Ellie Taylor, Francesca Freschet, Sarah Clacker, Natalie Büchin, Yasmine Boudiaf, Ana Salustiano and Natalie Weil, coxed by Leslie Lampe, put in a great time to win the Women’s 8+ Band 2 by 26 second. Francesca Franchi, Nicky Barneby, Antoinette Jucker and Antke Hagen continued their success in the 4x-, adding a win here to one from two weeks earlier at Molesey Vets Head. Nicola Hurley and Iva Vasickova competed in the Women’s Masters Pairs, and though they weren’t able to overcome the time adjustment against their ‘E’ rivals, they raced well. The men’s double of Shaun Griffin and Ian Richardson (your author) surprised themselves with a victory in the Master’s C/D category. It felt like a solid row, despite the increasingly blustery conditions, though we would have liked to have matched the time of Ipswich (and former Lea) rower Bev Goodchild and her partner in their double!
As the day went on, the schedule started to slip a bit while the wind stayed steady. Eventually the organisers, after looking at the forecast, decided to cancel the fifth division, which meant that the competitors in the ‘New to Rowing’ category, who were meant to be rowing on a shortened 1,200m course, were unable to take part. This was a real shame, since the rowers had already all traveled all the way to St Neots.
But that was really the only disappointment on the day. There was a very familiar atmosphere to the whole event as numerous other members contributed to its smooth running: Dave Porter was one of the course umpires and Deva Mitra and Jo Baxter and Sally Lawrence acted as marshals. The host club encouraged everyone to come upstairs to their bar where we could enjoy drinks and food while looking out from the balcony over the river. It was here that they held the prize giving ceremony. Not for the Head of the East the ubiquitous tankard – each winner was given a pewter wine coaster with the logo of the race, designed by the Lea’s very own Lyndsay Segall. The weather was finally easing off, and after photos down by the riverside, we packed up and headed off back down to London. Once again, the Dev/Nov women proved the heroes of unloading and back at the club, in the dark, the boats were quickly put away by a swarm of tired rowers. On to the next challenge!
Photography © Nick Mather
3 March 2019