Rowing into a new era: Henley Royal Regatta

Henley Royal Regatta is the world’s most prestigious rowing event – no oarsmen’s trophy cabinet is complete without a win at Henley.  Whilst technically a club level event, you will find international crews rowing underneath the colours of a club, and Leander Club, near the start of the course is the traditional home club of team GB rowers.

Windsor Boys School on the Henley course

Each year for a little over a week, the longest straight stretch on the Thames becomes a flurry of activity, as marquees are erected, boat trailers arrive and an entire year’s worth of training comes down to what happens on this 2km stretch of water.  Henley Regatta dates back to 1839, and for the first part of the 20th century, every Olympic rowing event was held here, no matter which nation was hosting the Olympics.

But Henley Regatta has moved beyond being an event solely for rowing enthusiasts – it has become a festival in itself.  On the Saturday it can take an hour to walk the length of the course for the path and riverbank is lined with people from start to finish, making Henley the noisiest place to row in the world.  But many of those coming are there less for the rowing, and more to guzzle Pimms in the sunshine, catch up with old friends and be astonished at the sartorial decisions behind Boat Club blazers.

At the riverbank to watch the rowing

I have attended Henley Regatta each year for the last 13 (except for 2006 when I was rolling around in the mud of New Zealand).  Many of my peers rowed for my school at Henley and we use it as a good reason to catch up each year.  It has long been a tradition to camp each Friday and Saturday night, originally at Swiss Farm over near Hurley, but now at the Copas’ Partnership’s Glebe Farm, located behind the Barn Bar.

Ah, the Barn Bar – the traditional venue to organise a reunion with old sporting chums.  Located near the start of the course, it is a lovely place to spend the day in the sunshine.  But over the years, as Henley’s popularity grew, the Saturday night crowd that arrived after the finish of the racing, became less savoury, with the associated ill-effects familiar to every town centre on the weekend.  Nowhere was this more apparent than the Barn Bar, whose low fence made entry enforcement a nightmare for security.  But this year there was a noticeable improvement – The Thames Valley Police provided excellent coverage and patrols for the length of the river, and Barn Bar’s double fencing and diligent security meant that problems of passed years barely reared their ugly head.

The start of the course is a great place to witness a race from.  Up by Temple Island, the start has a certain calm about it, as crews go through their last-minute preparations, rituals and focus.  The tension is palpable as they coil their honed bodies over the blade for that first stroke, which can win or lose a race.  Also there this year was the team from Row2Recovery, a soldier charity set up with the intention of assisting the rehabilitation of injured servicemen.

The Row2Recovery team will be rowing across the Atlantic.  No mean feat, you will say.  But what makes this particularly challenging is that the competitors, being leg amputees thanks to the ministrations of Afghani insurgents, will have to provide all the power from there arms.  “What’s so wrong with that?” you might ask, “After all, rowing is a pulling sport.”  Not so, dear reader – around 80% of the force of a rowing stroke comes from the push through the legs and glutes, with the arms largely being just a method to transfer energy through to the oars.  So, using only their arms makes this even more of a Herculean task for our injured heroes.  Their aim is, “to break down misconceptions about what life is like for an injured solider and their family.  It will champion the extraordinary achievements of people with disabilities, and inspire others with life-altering injuries to realise their potential.”

The Row2Recovery team set at the end of 2011 so be sure to visit their website:

Swimming The Henley Open

Another recent addition to the Henley scene is the Henley Open.  It started a few years ago, when two chaps who had retired from rowing, decided to swim the course first-thing in the morning instead.  The swim has grown in popularity to the extent that two events are needed: the Classic, the elite competition, is very limited in number; the Open has a greater capacity and is held a few weeks later.  A great way to enjoy the Henley regatta course without having to learn how to row first!

This was the busiest Henley Regatta I have attended, testament to the growing popularity of the event.  The atmosphere was great, and the rowing was, as always to the very highest of standards.  Copas’ camping organisations are a great way to spend a weekend at Henley, with all on-site facilities and proximity to the course.  The increase in side-events, such as the Jongleurs tent, mean there is much more to do than just watch rowing.  But it is still the unique tension, grit and athleticism of this most gruelling of sports that makes Henley worth attending year after year.