A 'long-read' blog describing Lea RC's trials and tribulations at HRR 2022
After the hard work of the winter and the novelty of a UK-based training camp in Norwich, the squad shook down into a top crew of a coxless four and a second crew of an eight, both aimed squarely at Henley Royal Regatta.
The eight consisted of five athletes for whom this would be their first Henley including eighteen-year-old Finn Mosedale, aiming to gain valuable rowing experience before heading off to Oxford Brookes. The five blended with three more experienced rowers including ‘player manager’ Alex Wildy for whom 2022 would be Henley number eight. Cox Aoibheann McCarthy was also new to Henley, but with race experience on the Irish club scene. Coach Tom Wei guided the crew through the season.
The coxless four consisted of three who made the Wyfolds final in 2021 joined by Marlow Depeza Purvis from the junior squad, where he had made the semi-final of the Fawley Challenge Cup in 2021. Marlow made the change from sculling to sweep gaining more and more control and accuracy in the new discipline as the season went on.
Both crews raced consistently through the regatta season with the eight making steady improvements in boat speed. Equally the coxless four picked up boat speed relative to the known Wyfold competition through the racing season. At Marlow (the last regatta before Henley Royal) both crews acquitted themselves very well.
The coxless four raced in the Championship event, coming second in the B final behind an extremely swift Oxford University crew who should have made the A final. Oxford contained the Swiss heavyweight Olympic Double scull crew from the Tokyo 2021 games coupled with two aspiring GB squad oarsmen. Oxford clocked 6:09 and we came in 6:15.9, almost 8 seconds ahead of the next crew. These times compared well with the A final, won in a time of 6:06. The fastest Wyfold-eligible boat was Taurus (Oxford Brookes alumni) in 6:14 and then Thames Rowing Club in 6:15.
We were therefore up there with the fastest Wyfold crews. In fact at Marlow Regatta we were the third fastest Wyfold-eligible crew, just under 2 seconds off the fastest boat. (Taurus) and 1 second off Thames. The A and B finals were less than 5 minutes apart and the Taurus boat raced in the A final in the same lane as us. We were confident that our times were very similar and boat speeds very close and that the only domestic Wyfold-eligible crews that would give us trouble were Taurus and Thames. We went into Henley on a rising tide of speed, confident that we could turn around the one or two second deficit on the fastest boats.
The eight meanwhile was on a mission to qualify for the Thames Cup. This was a realistic goal for the level of experience, and at Marlow Regatta after the time trial the crew found itself in the mix with other club eights from City of Oxford, Minerva Bath, Maidstone, Royal Chester and the like. The format of racing at the main regattas pre-Henley always gives close racing and the eight had benefitted from some great contests proving that they had some good speed in the last 500m and good fitness levels.
We were hoping that the eight would be pre-qualified for Henley although it would be close. Equally we were hoping that the Henley stewards had seen the speed of our coxless four and would pick us as one of the seeded crews in the Wyfolds, especially since we had made the final in 2021.
Henley being Henley things didn’t quite pan out like that…. Our eight was indeed pre-qualified for the regatta and was spared the stress of the qualifying races on the Friday before the regatta started.
The draw put the eight against a seeded crew from the West End Boat Club in New Zealand. This crew was from Auckland and West End is one of the largest and most successful in the country and the fastest Kiwi club eight at the time. In the event the Kiwis were too strong for us, but our eight put up a good show, and now know first-hand what the standard is. They will be back. West End won their next race before being beaten by Leander.
The four also pre-qualified but the Stewards opted not to seed us. Instead, they went with some slower crews including one from Molesey who had only managed to place second in the C final at Marlow Regatta – behind Derby who were a full 14 seconds slower than us. I do sometimes wonder what goes through the Stewards heads when deciding which boats they should seed. Perhaps they simply have a dart board or some pins and a blindfold. Who knows?
These things do make a difference, unfortunately. Unseeded, we found ourselves drawn in the top half of the draw and with a likely meeting with Thames on day two. If we were successful, we would meet Taurus on day three. So the draw put the crews with the three fastest times at Marlow Regatta all in the same section of the draw. As so often happens at Henley, the eccentric nature of the draw meant the de facto Wyfolds final took place on Thursday, not Sunday. Sadly we weren’t to feature.
Racing started on Tuesday, and we were drawn against Vesta. We had beaten them by 8 seconds at Marlow but knew they had a decent first 1000m pace. They were only a length slower than Thames over 1000m and sometimes at Henley a fast first half is all that is required. We were due to race at 10am so we were up at 6am for a pre-race paddle. We then boated for the race at around 9:15 but during the warm-up the steering foot came away after a bolt sheared. The crew paddled back to the boat tents in pairs, and the race was delayed as we made frantic repairs. We boated for the third time that day just before midday.
A very strong gusting cross-headwind, presented really tough conditions for coxless four racing, in fact as tough as I have seen in 35 years of Henleys. If you watch the YouTube video you can see the strong gusts at the start and the wind in the trees of Temple Island. Flags are straining on their poles and the water is whipped into nasty unpredictable mess. Our crew made a good start and got clear early on, which was just as well. Vesta made hard work of the steering and we won by a good margin of clear water. However, it wasn’t easy and it was a long draining row. At one point the boat was picked up by the wind and shoved sideways by about three feet. It was almost one o’clock by the time they were able to leave the regatta to get back to their accommodation, a full six hours after they had arrived at the boat tents.
In the meantime, Thames had raced at 9:45am against a very slow crew from Fulham Reach, a crew we had beaten by 32 seconds in the Marlow time trial. Their race was over in the first minute. Thames paddled over the course in a much lighter breeze and were off the water and gone by about 10:15. They didn’t even feel the need for a pre-race warm up.
These things matter in club racing. The following day they had a tough race in their legs and a full morning at the regatta. Thames on the other hand were still fresh; and this showed. The fact is that to win at Henley you either need to be fast enough to cope with such curve balls, or lucky. Thames proved too fast for us on the day and rowed away from us steadily over the first half of the course. We just couldn’t match their speed. This was extremely disappointing, especially after being so close at Marlow Regatta.
Henley is a tough regatta. You win or lose and every crew bar one will lose at some point and find themselves sitting slightly shell-shocked on the ground in the tents, trying to come to terms with the fact that a season of hard work is over. The race that just minutes ago seemed to be going on forever, has in fact gone by in a flash never to return.
People will have seen the race, perhaps peering up from their lunchtime Pimms, and most will offer opinions. None will know the detail or what the crew has been through, and few will understand the quality of the racing, the vagaries of the draw or what lies behind the effort. The only thing to do is to grit your teeth, smile politely, remember the good races with your mates and start planning for next year.
We will be back.
One week later and it’s the trials for the England team for the Home Countries Regatta. It’s being held at the docks so we have entered a four with Matt Yeksigian sitting in for an unavailable Jamie Palmer. Four days beforehand Matt tests positive for covid so the four becomes a pair of Ryan Cheale and Marlow Depeza Purvis. They only manage a practice paddle the day before.
They come an agonising second behind a pair from Surrey University containing two GB U23 medallists, and just in front of a pair rowing as Marlow Rowing Club but who are, in fact, two Oxford Brookes athletes, one of whom was in the crew that won the Temple Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta the week before. This is a tough sport.