For the women’s squad, the season of racing in 8+ boats had a bitterly cold start in Wallingford on 25 November. Indeed, the day was Baltic from beginning to end - tinfoil blankets were needed by some and even the hardiest were seen with covered arms and legs.
In Division One, three 8+s went out and three came back - at varying speeds - over the 4250m course. This was the ‘kicking the tyres’ portion of the head season and the combinations would not remain as they were.
There were no wins in Division One although the top boat was beaten by some very speedy Oxford crews. After a minor exchange of youth for experience the top 8+ became a Master’s A/B/C 8+ for Division Two and thrashed the opposition. Finishing in a time of 16:50.6 they had time to land and put the kettle on before the next crew in their category crossed the line, a whopping 1 min 47 seconds later!
With Christmas a distant memory, and some seat racing having focused minds, along came Quintin Head on 27 January, 4600m from Chiswick Bridge to Harrods Furniture Depository. Three 8+s from the Performance Squads had become two, one racing in Champ category; the other in Senior. Crews were changed and changed again due to a barrage of illness and injury and the eights that raced were not quite the line ups the coaches had intended. However, efforts were valiant, times were close, and in the end, everyone was suitably schooled by the women from Cambridge University.
An 8+ from the Development Squad also joined the Lea delegation at Quintin, with the prospect of the new Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (WEHORR) Beginner’s category in mind, and they did very respectably, coming 10th out of 23 with some crew members in their first ever race.
More seat racing in February resulted in four WEHORR crews being decided upon, announced and sent for testing. The top two crews made for Hammersmith Head on 2 March to race from Chiswick Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge. Despite coming fifth of five in Champ and seventh of seven in Intermediate, the times were very close across the field and performances respectable.
On the 3 March the inaugural Head of the East took place at St. Neots Rowing Club. The day was a windy one and racing was in doubt until it was in progress. Along with two Mixed Masters 8+s and two Novice/ Development 8+s the WEHORR C and D 8+s also had a run out. Conditions were tough and changeable but there was a Mx Mas and a Nov/Dev win.
On 9 March the top women’s 8+ raced at Reading University Head. They reported a good row (despite the persistent winds that seemed determined to plague the month of March) and posted a decent time in Division One Band One. However, Oxford Brookes A and B crews were the winners on the day.
16 March was supposed to be the day of WEHORR, that 6800km race from Chiswick Bridge to Putney Pier with almost 3000 competitors that is the pinnacle of women’s head season. However, after a week of ‘will they, won’t they’ worthy of Ross and Rachel, the windy weather won out. A shortened field had been on the cards, and a shortened course had been considered, but in the end the weather as it was made racing unsafe and WEHORR 2019 was not to be.
The WEHORR Beginners boat went to Kingston Head a week later on 23 March to give all a glimpse of how well they might have done at WEHORR. They came second in Band Two, three seconds behind the winners.
That might have been it for head season for the women if it weren’t for an unexpected invite from the Head of the River Race (HORR) organisers. The top divisions of would be WEHORR crews were welcome to row in the men’s event. That meant the A and B crews would get to race the 6800m. However, as the men’s event had not been in the women’s calendar, there was some unavailability to contend with. In the end the A boat and a combination of the original B and C boats headed for HORR.
“The women are here to row” a Lea man was heard to exclaim when 16 of them descended on the trailer to rig their boats. They were indeed there to row and to row well. The winds had finally abated, the sun shone, and our Director of Rowing jumped in to cox. A lengthy marshalling time was made more enjoyable by the masterclass in rowing provided by the Oxford Brookes Men’s A boat. The Lea Women’s A crew finished 6th of the women’s boats and beat 84 men’s boats. The B/C boat came 17th of the women’s boats and beat 41 men’s boats. The next day a Lea Composite WMas8+ stormed home to win Veterans Head of the River Race.
Not at all the end to head season anyone would have predicted but a pretty good end all the same.
Paula Jane Murphy is a member of the Lea R.C. Women’s Performance Squad