HENLEY Royal Regatta is always the most prestigious regatta of the entire season and it proved to be an action-packed affair for the Stratford Boat Club crew involved.
The competition takes place on a beautiful stretch of the Thames, with the races starting at Temple Island and finishing in the heart of the pretty town of Henley-on-Thames.
Olympians, international squad crews, the world’s best universities and club crews from all over the globe come to compete at Henley at the start of July to try and get their hands on the little red box handed out to winners.
Stratford were seeking to qualify two boats for Henley this year. The coxless four of Mike Hourigan, Patrick Hourigan, Alistair Collier and Ed Press qualified in the Wyfold Cup after some strong performances in some early season regattas.
The coxed four of Eleanor Willetts, Chris Thomas, Tom Coles, Ed Lewry and Ben Twiney had to attend a Qualifiers’ Regatta the Friday before Henley to attempt to get into the Britannia Cup at the regatta proper. They needed to finish in the top five crews, but unfortunately finished sixth, so ended as the fastest non-qualifier.
After a weekend of training on the course, which is lined with wooden booms all the way along, the coxless four, only one of whom had ever rowed at Henley before, learnt they were drawn against Swan River Rowing Club from Perth in Australia.
The crew from Perth were state champions and had recently finished third in the Australian Championships. They had also been selected by the stewards of the regatta as one of the favourites for the race so the Stratford crew knew they had their work cut out!
The race itself, on the Wednesday morning, was full of incident. It began with the Swan River crew veering over from the start and drawing a small clash of blades with the Stratford boys before getting back on to their side of the river.
They then edged away to a one-length lead but the Stratford crew began to row long and powerfully and slowly started to edge back into the race. At halfway down the course they had reduced the Swan River lead to half a length when the Australian crew veered over the course again, taking the Stratford crew with them and forcing them to scrape their blades on the unforgiving wooden booms.
Luckily Stratford were able to keep going and moved back into the race whilst the umpire was busy shouting at Swan River to get back on course.
As they moved into the enclosures with 500m to go, Stratford started to move through Swan River and looked like a win was within their grasp before two small crabs cost them half a length at a critical time, meaning Swan edged over the line a third of a length up. The drama had not ended though.
The umpire then held up his red flag, meaning he was not satisfied it was a fair race due to the clashes along the course and asked the coaches of both crews to join him in the stewards enclosure whilst he conferred with the Chairman of the Regatta – Sir Steven Redgrave – over what to do.
The solution put forward was to do it all over again – 90 minutes later! Both Stratford’s coach Bill Sullivan and his crew thought that an eminently fair solution as nobody wanted to see a crew, who had travelled halfway around the world to race, be disqualified.
The second race was another humdinger and this time Stratford got off to a length lead after Swan River took their turn to scrape the booms. However, slowly but surely the younger legs of the Swan crew started to assert their authority and they moved into a half-length lead with 500m to go.
Stratford had not given up though and Hourigan in the Stratford stroke seat asked his crew for one last effort as the cheers for the Stratford boys rang down from the packed enclosures. They edged back closer and closer on Swan as the line approached, but it was not to be as Swan prevailed by just three feet – the closest finish of the whole day.
These memorable races can be seen on the Henley highlights package on YouTube. After an exhausted Swan River crew were knocked out later in the week, the two crews spent a lot of time in each other’s company reliving the race and drinking jug after jug of Pimms.
Stratford coach Bill Sullivan said: “It was a remarkable performance by a new Stratford crew composed of four guys, who only came together in May, against such powerful opposition.
“It bodes well for the future of the club that we can achieve these results. On behalf of the boys in the crew, I’d like to thank everyone for all their huge support, as well as all their logistical help with boats and trailers over the season.”
President Paul Stanton added: “Not only is it great credit the men did so well, but it highlights the efforts of Bill Sullivan, their coach, who skilfully managed to get two crew into great condition for Henley.”