The following is an excerpt from a document that I wrote in 2009. This section of the document discusses Henley Royal Regatta and my experiences as an eighteen-year-old schoolboy rowing in the Princess Elizabeth Cup for high school eights in 1993. I wrote this because at the time I wanted to take a crew from Tulsa, Oklahoma to experience this once in a lifetime event. This document provided some of the basis for garnering interest and support both financial and otherwise.
In July of 2013, twenty years later, the Tulsa Youth Rowing Association sent a crew to compete at Henley Royal Regatta in the Thames Cup. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time that a crew from Oklahoma was represented at the regatta.
Henley Royal Regatta
Currently, crews from the US go to compete in the event that is probably one of the most prestigious on the world rowing stage. Thirty-two high school eights compete for the Princess Elizabeth cup each year in the first week of July. The event is considered by many to be the world cup of high school rowing. The event takes place over five days and functions as a dual match knockout competition. Crews start racing on the Wednesday of Henley week and if a crew is fortunate enough to win it progresses to the next day of racing. If you are fast enough to make it to Sunday and win, you take home the cup.
I have been fortunate enough to compete at Henley Royal Regatta three times. I look back on these times fondly and remember the time we spent as a crew residing in small bed and breakfast establishments near Henley. The racing at Henley is primarily men’s racing, although now womens crews are starting to feature more prominently. However, a couple of weeks before the Henley regatta there is Women’s Henley rowed on the same stretch of river. The course for women’s Henley is 1500m which is somewhat shorter than the 2112m length that the male rowers must battle over two weeks later. This is due to river traffic pattern and safety concerns.
The schoolboy event is called the Princess Elizabeth cup and there are thirty-two crews many of whom are domestic crews from high schools and clubs from the UK. However, there are also crews from Australia, Canada, the USA, and other parts of Europe. It’s common for crews to win at US Nationals, the Canadian Schoolboy Championships, Stotesbury and decide to take crews to this event. At some schools such as Choate Rosemary Hall (Connecticut) there are often plans to send a crew to Henley once every three years.
From my perspective, Henley is about the tradition of rowing. The event dates back to the mid 1800s and still maintains many of the traditions first started all those years ago. I have visited Henley as both an athlete and as a spectator. Both of these perspectives create a different experience. For example, as an athlete I distinctly remember enjoying the competition, but there always seemed to be a distraction from the social atmosphere that surrounds the event. It was the same from the other side as a spectator. While I was enjoying watching the racing, there was great desire in my heart to be rowing in one of the competing crews.
There is such grandeur surrounding this event. The boat tent is an example of this. Imagine several white marquee tents that hold the best part of five hundred rowing shells. Rack upon rack and row upon row of the finest rowing equipment known to rowing. A crew is allowed some rack space at the start of the week and has a dedicated slot for the entire event. I remember the tent being dark and cool and quiet as crews prepare and finish their practices on the river. The shells inside the tent were stacked up on racks one above each other four high at a time. There were many different colors of equipment that came from the four corners of the globe and wooden oar racks that contained the oars of the competing crews.
The racecourse at Henley is flanked on either side by wooden barriers. The barriers serve to “break and absorb” the wake put out by all of the watercraft that putter up and down the river during the day as races as taking place. The stretch of river that is Henley upon Thames becomes very busy at this time of year. Each day of Henley rowers’ battle over the race course being watched by spectators on the river bank and in either chartered or personally owned watercraft on the river side of the race course
The river is flanked by spectators in the stands that are positioned all along the last six hundred or so meters of the course. The spectators are dressed in pants and blazers for the gentlemen and the finest dresses that need to be cut below the knee in order for entry into the enclosures for the ladies. The Dress code for Henley is essentially important and I have seen many a spectator denied permission to enter the top-level enclosure.
The atmosphere of Henley is second to none. The energy of the Stewards enclosure needs to be seen to be truly appreciated. On display on the river are examples of the best rowers in the world. It is one of the most exciting environments that I have ever been a part of. From this British schoolboy’s perspective, Henley Royal Regatta is really about everything you work for the ten months of fall, winter and spring preparation. It’s an event that means a great deal to many international crews and not just the British schoolboy crews.
One of the great things that I remember about Henley was you stayed in Henley with your fellow crew mates and experienced the whole event for an entire week. We would often arrive at Henley on the Sunday before the Wednesday start (fortunately, most of our A-level examinations were done at this point). At 3pm on the Saturday afternoon before the week of racing we would go to the church hall in the middle of the town and witness the drawing of crews out of the hat to determine what path and which crews you had to race if you were going to make it the final day of racing on Sunday. This event was exciting and we all hoped that we would get an easier draw in the first round before things got very competitive by Friday in the quarterfinals.
One other very enjoyable aspect of the Henley experience is practice rows down the racecourse. A part of our preparation during the days leading up to the event was executing a start and 500m row at the beginning of the course. As you would expect, there are other crews practicing at this time of year. One year we actually got to race a corporate boat from Japan by the name of Mitshibushi Boat Club. We had fun with those guys, beating them by 2 lengths in a 600m piece off the stake boat start.
My first year (sophomore year) our crew lost to Eton College (the eventual winners) by 1 ¼ lengths. It bears mentioning that the Eton crew was loaded with junior international oarsmen and was heavier per man by over two stone (that’s 28 pounds to the American). We gave this crew the closest race that they experienced the whole competition. Although we lost, we did well and felt like we had accomplished a great deal. My second year at Henley we managed to reach the final eight crews only to be knocked out by Westminster School by 2 lengths (Westminster were the losing finalist that year).
By my senior year of high school our varsity eight had won the national schools championship in the head race (nobody believed that we could have done this, but that is another story) and we made it as far as the semi-finals at Henley (this was the fourth round out of the potential five rounds). The thing about Henley and being a competitor is that it’s difficult to focus as the event progresses. Many of your friends and family are on the river bank wearing blazers and pants (gentlemen) or long skirts with big hats (ladies). They are often having a great time socializing and drinking Pimms.
On this particular Saturday in early July 1993, I remember paddling our crew from the boating tent area up the course among the plethora of boats and cruising past the enclosures and crowds. I distinctly remember many people cheering for us as we rowed to the start. Being the intense rower that I am, I was really trying to act tough and keep a stern focused look on my face as I rowed past our supporters. However, despite my best efforts a big smile appeared as we took strokes to the starting line.
We were scheduled to race Brisbane Boys College from Australia. I remember lining up at the start feeling the warm up sweat trickling down my forehead. I had rowed for five years during high school and it all came down to this race. The umpire’s launch pulled into view behind our boat. In the launch our coach Peter Sheppard sat with his stopwatch ready to record our stroke rates as we fired on all cylinders down the race course. My best friend Simon Burmester sat in the seat ahead of me. “Let’s send these Australian’s back to where they came from,” I muttered quietly under my breath. I think that Simon heard me as he nodded his head in agreement. Our crews were aligned at this time and I could hear the encouragement from the fans of our crew to the right of me as the spectators watched expectantly as the crews were put under starter’s orders.
The umpire brought his launch up behind the crews and called both of our crews to prepare for the race. I remember sitting in the three-quarter slide position and taking a deep breath to ready myself for seven minutes of hard work and determination. My crew was poised and ready to go.
“Attention, ROW!” yelled the umpire from the launch.
My crew sprang into action. Eight oars sprung through the water together as our boat rose out of the water and gathered momentum off our first stroke.
I reminded myself to breathe as we gathered the boat together and began to take seats off the Australian crew. We were twenty strokes into the race in no time and were moving through the crew. Our coxswain screamed for more power “Punish them, length and power!”. We had great rhythm and our boat was up to full speed and we pushed away taking even more seats.
About one minute into the race our coxswain called for our stride. The stride stroke is the most important stroke in the race. It defines your race cadence, length of stroke and cruising boat speed. If we could hit our stride correctly and hit our cruising stroke rate, I knew that we could hold our opposing boat at bay.
“In two, in one and STRIDE!”
We pushed together bending our oars to their maximum and we moved into a three-quarter length lead. The boat felt good and Paul our stroke seat was sending down a sweet rhythm and we moved as one down the Henley race course. I daren’t look out of the boat, but I could feel the spectators on the land to my right rushing by and spectators in their boats to the left cheering us along as we moved down the course.
My lungs were on fire at this point and my legs were feeling the two-minute burn. Our boat had continued to move away from the Brisbane eight and by the barrier we had a one-length lead. I was feeling good about where we were in the race at this point.
However, I should not have felt too comfortable because the boys from Australia had something else planned. Slowly they began to move on us. Our coxswain called for a push. Our boat rose out of the water one more time and you could feel the influx of power as we fought to hold them off. We had reached the Fawley marker, which was around the three and a half minute point and the Brisbane crew had crawled back to a three seat deficit and were still moving.
We called for all that we had to hold them, but they kept walking on us. We had hit the last six hundred meters of the race course and the enclosures crept up on us on the right hand side. I could hear the crowds cheering for us as we throttled up again and continued to battle our opposition. The crowds were on our side as the British schoolboy crew tussled with the Australian crew wearing green uniforms from the other side of the world.
The Brisbane crew took another push and I could feel them moving away. My lungs were on fire and my body was in agony from the all of the effort that I had already given. As we neared the finish the crowds grew louder even still, willing us to raise our rate and take one more swing at the Australians.
I dug deeper than I had ever gone before and pushed my legs down as fast as they could go. Where was all of that winter training now? I remember thinking to myself.
“Come on Kingston!” yelled the crowds. We could now barely hear our coxswain over the cheers from the bank.
In our last twenty strokes where the crowd was the loudest we started to pull back on the opposing crew, but I could no longer see them in my periphery. I knew that we were almost done and just need to reach deeper one last time. Our boat surged one last time as we passed over the finish line one length down on our opposition.
I collapsed over my oar, in momentary defeat, but knowing that we had done everything that we possibly could against our opposition. As we continued to row we stopped level with our opposition. “Three cheers for Brisbane” yelled our coxswain.
“Hip, Hip, Hooray…” we responded three times. Likewise the crew from Australia responded and our race was officially complete.