Henley Royal Regatta – a review

press box

my view from the Press Box for Henley finals

Well, that’s Henley Royal Regatta over for another year, but what a Regatta! This one will be remembered for a long time to come and will be spoken of in the same sort of terms as the 1989 regatta (which in my opinion was the best in living memory). This year had everything, upsets, close finishes, dramatic crashes and, of course, THAT disqualification.

I was lucky enough to watch the finals from the Press Box with some of the most experienced rowing-watchers in the world (and we could hear the TV commentators who were seated directly below us).

These are my thoughts on the finals….


The Diamond Challenge Sculls

H.Obreno, Belgium beat A.M.O Drysdale (West End Rowing Club), New Zealand by 2 lengths 7.56

When the entries were announced for the Diamonds I looked at them and thought “this is going to be a good one, and should give Mahe a good workout en-route to a record-equalling 6th Diamonds title”. Well, I was almost right. The final turned into an epic and possibly the best diamonds final I’ve seen in my 32 years of watching Henley. Everyone assumed that Obreno would give Drysdale a run to the Barrier but then the massive diesel engine that Mahe has would take him through and away. Well, no one seemed to show the script to Obreno. He got the jump on Mahe off the start but did so by actually under-rating the Olympic champion, something he did for the whole race. Obreno was sculling incredibly efficiently and smoothly. Every time Drysdale pushed the Belgian was able to respond. Coming past Fawley Drysdale pushed and got his nose in front, the comments from within the Press Box were that Obreno had given him a good race but Mahe was going to walk away with it. When Obreno held the push and then responded the experienced hacks in the box were dumbfounded (and that’s not something that happens too often). Every time Mahe pushed the Belgian responded. It was an astonishing demonstration of match race sculling.  One silver lining of this defeat from a selfish perspective is it means we might see Mahe back again in 2017 to try and get win number 6.


Hanes Obreno of Belgium, the surprise winner of the Diamond Challenge Sculls


Right, let’s talk about “that” race, the final of the Ladies Challenge Plate, the results state that Leander Club beat Amsterdamsche Studenten Roeivereeniging Nereus Holland by Disqualification. First of all I want to talk about the race itself, an epic that is worthy of going into the annals regardless of the post-race fall out. The Dutch students clearly decided the best race plan was to go out hard, get a lead and dominate Leander and that’s exactly what they did. They had half a length at the end of the Island which was almost a length at the Barrier. This is where it looks like they tried the “dominate” part. Coxswain Tim Van Den Ende drifted across into the middle of the river possibly in an attempt to intimidate his rival, Ian Middleton, in the Leander boat or to send “dirty water” onto the Leander bowside and disrupt their rhythm. Umpire Boris Rankov was having none of it and warned Nereus to return to station. For more than a minute his flag was raised but Nereus didn’t respond. Eventually they did move back and the Leander fightback had begun. Coming through Fawley Leander had narrowed the gap to half a length but Nereus responded and at Remenham the lead was back to nearly a length, but Leander came again and at the start of the enclosures it was back to half a length and Nereus were warned again and Leander put in a massive sprint, but it was just too late. Nereus crossed the line 3 feet ahead of Leander.

The relief and emotion were tangible from the Dutchmen and the expletives from 3 seat Jaap Scholten after crossing the line probably didn’t help what was to come. Umpire Boris Rankov raised the red flag…what was going on? Did he rule that Nereus had washed down Leander? It was difficult to hear what was going on, but what we did hear was Rankov saying “I need to talk to Steve”….Redgrave, the Chairman…clearly something serious was going on. Two hours we waited, speculation was rife, word was there was going to be a re-row…but if Nereus were guilty of interfering with Leander surely that would mean a disqualification not a re-row?? Eventually the decision was announced….Nereus were disqualified for “unsportsmanlike conduct”….that caught us on the hop. It turns out that Boris Rankov was becoming increasingly frustrated that Nereus were ignoring his warnings, so it would appear was Diederik Simon the Nereus coach. Worried that Rankov was about to disqualify his crew he frantically gestured to his crew to move over. Unfortunately for Nereus this was in direct contravention of rule 41:

(n) No boat shall follow any race for the purpose of directing the course of a crew, nor shall a crew be given any advice, assistance or steering aid during a race. A crew which receives any extraneous assistance during a race may be disqualified by the Umpire. In particular, the use of any form of megaphone by supporters is forbidden

The first thing Rankov did was to check the margin of victory. This, for me was crucial. If Nereus had won by a reasonable margin, say more than a length, then Simon’s intervention could not be interpreted as having influenced the outcome. In that case it was unlikely that Nereus would’ve been disqualified. Instead it may have resulted in Simon being sanctioned. But, because the margin of victory was so narrow there was cause to believe that the signalling from the coach, regardless of whether the crew saw it or acted on it, could have influenced the outcome. In that case a disqualification was the only option.

Rankov has come in for a huge amount of criticism, some calling for him to be barred from umpiring in the future. I think this is grossly unfair. He’s one of the most experienced umpires in the country and his skill and impartiality is unquestionable. What perhaps needs addressing is the fact that Boris was wearing a Leander club tie whilst umpiring a race involving Leander. For the sake of impartiality it perhaps wasn’t the smartest sartorial choice.

In my opinion I think Rankov made the right decision in very difficult circumstances. For the stat geeks out there this was the 5th time since the war that a Henley final has been won on a disqualification (but only one of them was in a coxed boat):

1970 – Wyfold: Thames Tradesmen disqualified against Trident RSA

1972 – Stewards: British Columbia disqualified against Spartak Moscow

1981 – Visitors: UL disqualified against Durham

2014 – Wyfold: Tideway Scullers disqualified against Upper Thames

2016 – Ladies Plate: Nereus disqualified against Leander.



If that wasn’t enough drama more was to come in the final of the Visitors Challenge Cup. Thames Rowing Club v The University of California Berkeley. The smart money said this was going to be an easy win for the students from California (well, two Dutchmen, a Dane and an American) up against what Rachel Quarrel writing for Row 2K.com somewhat unfairly described as “domestic pluggers” from Thames Rowing Club. Thames had half the crew that won an historic Thames Cup in 2015. In the first half it looked like the race was following people’s expectations. Cal opened up a length lead and looked likely to pull away. But Thames had other ideas. They held the Americans to a length and then began to reel them in. As the pressure came on the American’s technique began to suffer as did their steering. Umpire Matt Pinsent warned Cal as they came along the enclosures. The Americans responded and it looked like the valiant charge by Thames, who had closed to within ¾ of a length, would be in vain. But the Americans veered across the lane and were warned again by Pinsent. The Americans responded again, but too much and they clattered into the booms just yards from the finish line, nearly capsizing in the process. They ground to a halt and Thames crossed the line first. An astonishing race, and a brilliant result for what is a “true” club crew (not something we see too often in the Intermediate events).

(check out the brilliant photo coverage on row2k.com )


The Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup

R.Braas & M.Steenman, Holland beat B.Demey & E.Jonville (Aviron Grenoblois & Cercle Nautique d’Annecy, France) by 3 ¾ lengths 7.35

Steenman’s 2nd Goblets win in three Regattas, and as he said afterwards, it was a relief to be able to race with his regular partner this year (in 2014 his usual partner, Rogier Blink was injured and Steenman’s brother in law, Julien Bahain stepped in at the last minute – their first ever outing in a M2- was the night before their first race – and they went on to win). To be honest anything other than a win would’ve been a major surprise in this event. Braas & Steenman are the Dutch Olympic pair and are strong contenders for a medal in Rio. No other Olympic boat was in the draw. The best race in this event was the semi-final between the French and GB squad pairing of Callum McBrierty and Ollie Cook which the French won by 2ft! There was drama in the other semi-final when the Germans suffered equipment failure just off the start and were lucky to stay afloat. In the final the Dutch were never really troubled by the French squad boat and   it was a good workout for them to take a victory in their final race before the Olympics.

The Remenham Challenge Cup

Princeton Training Centre beat Leander Club and Tees by 4 ¾ lengths 7.00

This was one of the few events in the Regatta which was pretty easy to predict as soon as the entries were released. The GB development boat gave it a good go but were simply out-muscled by the US development boat. What is so awesome about the US system is that the PTC crew were probably the 2nd fastest women’s 8 in the world to their own no.1 Olympic boat. I can’t say I find the Americans technique particularly pleasing to watch, they give it a big old heave at the finish, but boy is it effective! You can’t argue when they’re winning like they do.


The Princeton Training Centre, winners of the Remenham Challenge Cup and possibly the 2nd fastest W8 in the world at the moment

In The Grand it was also expected that the result was never in doubt. The Dutch Olympic 8 were the class crew in the event. But, what many people didn’t expect was that it would be the GB U23 crew, Nautilus, who would face them in the final. To get there they dispatched both the Spanish and Italian senior men’s crews. In the final the young Brits made sure the Dutch had to work for the win going down by just ¾ length. What’s clear from the great performance from the British is that the future is looking bright. Almost all the crew are students at US colleges, so far no one that has gone to study in the USA has made the transition to the senior GB squad. I’ve a feeling at least one of the Nautilus crew will change that and will be on the start line in Tokyo.

Leander Club have won the Prince of Wales Challenge Cup for the last 6 years but this year their run came to an end. The Schuylkill Navy High Performance Centre was mostly a scratch crew but put together from athletes who had raced at the US Olympic trials. It was a fabulous race, again the US jumped out to an early lead and led the Leander crew by a length at Fawley. But, then they started to reel them in. Approaching the Progress Board it was still ½ length but Leander were flying and closing the Americans down. But they ran out of course and lost by 4ft. So, Leander suffer their first defeat in this event since 2009.

Elsewhere, Eton showed their outstanding ability in taking the Princess Elizabeth (their 13th). In the Fawley, Claries Court won at Henley for the first time in the school’s history  In the Prince Albert Edinburgh University also made history by becoming the first Scottish University to make a final and then they went on to win.

The Temple pitted Oxford Brookes, the best student eight in Britain, against the Harvard Junior Varsity 8. Brookes dominated the race and ran out winners by 3 ¼ lengths. I received some criticism when I suggested on twitter that the number 1 British University crew should be able to beat an American University 2nd 8. I would love to see the top Brookes student 8 take on the Varsity 8’s from the likes of Yale, Washington, Princeton or Cal. But, congratulations to Brookes, they looked likely winners from day one. What they might have to be wary of for 2017 is the Stewards “suggesting” they might want to race in the Ladies Plate 😉

In the Double Sculls it was a good win for Nick Middleton and Jack Beaumont over a scratch double of Fridman and Fistravec (both scullers who missed out on qualifying for the Olympics in the singe scull for Israel and Slovenia respectively). The Leander boys seemingly don’t know how to lose at Henley, as I understand it Middleton has won 21 straight races and Beaumont hasn’t lost since the Fawley in 2010!

The girls from Gloucester Hartpury won their 3rd straight Diamond Jubilee title and the Senior GB W4X beat a talented Polish crew to win the Princess Grace (Steve Redgrave was probably the most relieved man at the regatta with this win as it meant he wouldn’t have to try and pronounce the Polish crew “Akademicki Związek Sportowy AWF Warszawa and Klub Wioślarski “Wisła” w Grudziądzu” at the prize-giving!)

So all in all it was a fabulous regatta, there was some great racing, the video coverage and commentary were world class and it proves that done well rowing can match any sport on earth for drama and excitement.

I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings.


2 thoughts on “Henley Royal Regatta – a review

  1. trewinb

    Excellent review (as always). As a former umpire I have to stand behind Rankov. Incredibly brave decision to apply the rules as written. Incidently in 1972 that crew should have been called Vancouver Rowing Club, not University of British Columbia, but the students appeared to independantly change their name once VRC had paid their way over. There used to be an arrangement that during the school year they would row as UBC and in the summer they would represent the sponsoring Vancouver Rowing Club, who provided the facilities, coaching and boats. Another good reason for disqualification.


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