The first day of Henley Royal Regatta is not usually one of the best attended sporting fixtures of the year. It's the day when all the club events begin, the international-standard crews are still trying to avoid the crowds and wash, and the majority of races give "easily" or "comfortable margin" verdicts.
This year, however, saw a healthy flood of spectators along both banks: in the po-faced Stewards Enclosure as well as further downstream, and in the "hostility tents" at "Syphilis Court" over the river. Perhaps they were trusting Michael Fish and his cohort of weathermen, who told us that there were blustery showers in store later this week, and decided that it was better to get off work and have a good day's picnicking now, than to wait until the welly-weather which might hit at the weekend.
Sadly the racing, on the whole, did not live up to the mild, occasionally sunny weather. The majority of races were processional and predictable, with no selected crews pushed out. Nevertheless, eighty crews go home today, and that bare statistic hides the stories of several hundred desperately battling rowers, and their triumphs and despair. Most of the overseas crews survived their first round, but the usual black humour of the draw gave us a handful of grudge-match UK derbies, which kept the supporters entertained at least. Amongst these were the usual Tideway battles: Furnivall versus Thames, Tideway Scullers versus Tradesmen, London 'A' versus Queen's Tower (winners all first). Add to that Exeter against Merton/Balliol colleges in the second race of the day, Clyde ARC on York City, and the brilliant pairings of Crabtree against Rob Roy and Oxford Brookes against Isis at the end of the day, and you have to concede the Stewards have a great eye for a laugh. Of course, they steadfastly maintain it's not in any way done on purpose.....
The press box was convinced that today's quick-ish stream and variable cross-headwind led to a big difference in the stations: fifty-one crews won on Berkshire and twenty-nine on Buckinghamshire, and not all were large margins. If the conditions continue, the effect will be more pronounced as the regatta continues and the races are more closely contested.
The saddest race of the day was a round of the Temple, pitting Norges Handelshoyskoles Roklubb, Norway, against Dartmouth RC 'B', USA. Neither crew had to qualify, being resident overseas, but the Norwegian eight was pitifully out of its depth, and struggled up the course with all blades flailing: in the umpire's words, they were "hopeless, pushed to finish the course". Maria Brandin, the women's singles champion, would have given them a good run, and sadly Dartmouth 'B' got too bored of waiting, to stay around and give them the customary three cheers. Hotly in pursuit came the next race, in which Radley College were demolishing Methodist College Belfast in the Princess Elizabeth. By the time Norges were able to stop pulling, the schools were just 500 metres behind, leaving two unwieldy 100-foot umpiring launches backing frantically off the finish line, as they realised they might not be able to get out of the way in time.
Just before that, Henmania had emptied the enclosures while the drinkers crowded round any spare TV set to find out the result of his five-setter against Jim Courier. Suddenly the competitor's tent was mighty popular, and the early-afternoon races were relatively ignored. Seeds UL Tyrian and Neptune progressed in the Wyfolds (despite Neptune having a scare as Stourport took them off the start), and the Brit Cup progressed into the second round with some solid racing all round.
Some of the best racing was to be found after the cars started to queue for the exit: Trinity College Dublin's 'B' crew came through from behind to defeat Radley's youngsters in the Temple, ten minutes after Rob Roy had done the same to Auriol Kensington in the Thames. Two races later Kingston University in the Britannia nipped a lead off Edinburgh, but the Scottish crew clung on determinedly, and managed to pull through by Remenham, to finish half a length ahead. Barely had spectators recovered their breath, then Black Sheep (named for a brewery) and Royal Navy gave them a Thames Cup classic. Black Sheep 'A' led off the start, but were passed by a strong Navy crew mid-way up the course. However, the Navy shipwrecked close to the Milepost, and Black Sheep immediately capitalised, squeezing back through again to take victory.
The evening also saw the most venerable crew of the day take to the water. Upper Thames RC has for a while been the home of millionaire Walter Scott, who is in the habit of lending Empachers to crews he likes (including the Scottish rowing team). He joined the UTRC veteran squad a few years ago, and their Vet C/D crews have always been hard to beat on the circuit. Coming into the UTRC stable this year for the first time were Oxford boatmen Jim Ronaldson and Pete Burden, while the stern was led by the outstanding veteran pair of Colin Cusack (who suffered several dozen fractures in a cycling accident a few years ago), with Sean Morris (world veteran erg champion) behind him. Completing the set were Graham Lloyd and Jake Morris, token youngster and son of Sean, an ex-Isis strokeman. This bunch did themselves credit, defeating Lea RC after coming through the qualifying race, but tomorrow will meet selected crew R.V. Oberhausen, who put out Ronaldson and Burden's ex-clubmates from City of Oxford in the first round.
Tomorrow most of the small boats events begin, and the seeds enter the Temple contest for student eights and the Fawley for junior quads. Half of the women get a bye to Friday in the Princess Royal Challenge Cup for sculls, but there will be six woman scullers in action, bidding to race them. Searle and Koven's fan-clubs will be out in force to watch them in the Diamonds, and those who get up early might catch a glimpse of the GB four or eight, training when the water and cruisers will allow.