Henley Royal Regatta

Posted by Matthew Tarrant on Monday, July 14, 2014 Under: Rowing

Henley Regatta is a very special event, with an atmosphere that is unmatched in my experience.  There is something about the smell of the boat tents and the freezing cold showers; riverbanks filled with hundreds of spectators  reuniting with old friends and enjoying the sunshine; loudspeakers everywhere informing you how races are progressing; and start procedures given to you by an umpire in a beautifully crafted wooden motor boat as you attach to the starting blocks, in front of an audience mere few feet away.

The regatta only occurs once a year and for many it’s the pinnacle of their rowing career (not taking into account Henley Women’s Regatta, for oarswomen only.)  Hundreds of rowing clubs from around the world train throughout the year with the sole goal to win Henley Royal.  Many do not make the qualification times to compete but some athletes are fortunate enough to race at Henley year after year, some sadly only falling at the last hurdle.  In comparison to the huge number of entries, only a few will know what it feels like to win the regatta.  I have been lucky enough to win four times over eight years, picking up my first medal back in 2009 in the Prince Albert Challenge Cup (University Coxed Fours).

My first experience of Henley Royal was in 2007 in the Fawley Challenge Cup (Junior Quads) representing Walton Rowing Club.  My experience of competitive rowing to this point had been very limited!  Luckily for me, I had a very patient crew who spoon-fed me along the road to Henley.  I remember the drive to qualifiers’ that year: my coach had been repeatedly quizzing me, to the point I had been forced to break silence and sheepishly admit “I have no idea what Henley Regatta is, sorry.”  This was met by silence then a lot of laughing in disbelief!  We ended up having a successful row, but the joy of successfully earning a Henley racing slot was short-lived, as we got knocked out in the first round by Borlase.

This year at Henley took me back to my first, when I raced in that Junior quad.  As I say, there is just something about the Henley atmosphere that feeds your nerves and gets your adrenaline going.  Despite my best efforts, it seemed impossible to block it out.  Ever since my first win in 2009 I had always wanted to win ‘The Grand, as I saw it as the top event.  This year I was given the opportunity to do so, in a very new but strong crew, with a good mix of experience.  We only had one crew to beat: France.  We had come up against the same boat at the European Championships and World Cup II, so we had a good sense of their strengths and how they may pace the race.  But, at Henley, anything can happen.  You may hit the booms or get knocked off rhythm by freak waves from passing boats.  You also have the stream to contend with, giving advantages to each side at different stages of the race.

Once again, we boated from Leander Club.  Before the race we met in one of the bays with our coaches to have a final run through the race-plan and clear up any worries amongst the crew.  Once done, I tend to put my sunglasses on as an attempt to separate myself from what’s going on around me.  All I needed to do now was wait for the call to lift the boat to shoulders and walk to the pontoon.  You push off to cheering and applause; hearts pumping and heavy breathing; sliding up and down in an attempt to control the nerves; and pats on the back- reassurance from the crew mates that will be there to back you up on every stroke.  Rowing up the course into the warm-up loop on finals’ day can get very overwhelming if you’re not used to it.  You’re rowing past hundreds of (often intoxicated!) athletes, screaming at you from a few feet away whilst boats race past you in the opposite direction, followed by the umpire launches.

Warm-up complete, you are connected to a floating pontoon with a young volunteer grasping your boats stern in place.  All that is left is for the umpire’s launch to emerge from behind Temple Island and begin the start procedure.  At Henley, the signal to go is a dropped flag, as opposed to the green lights at international races.  Before you know it, the umpire calls: “attention” and, simultaneous with the flag, “GO!”  France were fast off the start, taking an early lead.  But this was soon closed as we passed the end of Temple Island.  The French are a higher rating crew, which helped them in the first 750m where they regained the lead and opened out to half a boat length.  But here we found our rhythm.  Emphasising our power over rate, we slowly took over.  While it was probably not the prettiest rowing to witness, we pushed through the French and had no trouble moving out to a clear water lead.  The rest of the race didn't change much and we crossed the line to loud applause, one and half  lengths clear.

Every win at Henley is a real honour.  Every time feels more special than the last.

In : Rowing 

Tags: henley royal regatta 2014