Henley Women’s Regatta and Marlow Regatta at Dorney Lake, June 19, 2012

It is always harder to write about races that disappoint than those that finish well.  It’s taken me a couple of days to get over the disappointments from this past weekend and to feel like I want to write about the races.  I will let you know about those races at the Henley Women’s Regatta when the girls’ undefeated streak of a year came to an end, but let me begin this recap with the good news that played out for our boys.

The boys spent the past week building upon their racing at Reading last week and worked hard to begin feeling like a racing eight and a racing four.  Rowing an eight is quite different than rowing a coxed four.  The difference over 1500 meters is about 40 seconds.  What that translates to per stroke is that every stroke (of an approximately 150 stroke race), the eight goes about 30% faster than the four.  Think about how a 30% difference plays out in other sports.  If you were a baseball player used to facing an 85 mph fastball, now you would be looking at a pitch coming at you at 110 mph.  Even major leaguers find that kind of difference extremely intimidating.  Rowing a boat doesn’t demand the same skill set as hitting a fastball, of course, but you get the idea.  It takes a while to be able to figure out how to get your power on, to be able to be as effective as you were in a four.  And when you add in the complications of synchronizing eight people instead of four, you see that it does really take a lot of work to make this happen.

So, the weekend’s racing at Dorney Lake, the site of the Olympic rowing events in a little over a month, was highly anticipated for the boys.  First up was the boys four with cox, a boat made of oarsmen from boats 2, 3, and 4.  They were in an Intermediate 2 event.  In their qualifying heat, they had only to finish first or second of three to make it to the finals.  Coach timpani told them to be cagey and row hard but not to go flat out.  They rowed a smart race and finished second to ASR Nereus, a university club from Holland that often comes over to Henley.  Nereus have very cool racing shirts.  They are white with about six quarter inch maroon vertical stripes on the sleeves.  The tradition is that when you make a racing boat, you are given your stripes which you have to sew on by yourself.  They are somewhat irregular looking, depending on each person’s skill with a needle and thread, but tradition dictates that you must do it yourself.  (Our rowers relied on mothers, most notably Mrs. Harwood, Ms. Haberkorn, Ray Dunn’s mom, and Lorayne Black to sew on our blazer patches.  Thanks to all of them.)  To be close to Nereus speaks good things about how our four has come together.

In the finals, a few hours later, the four was told to run with the pack of boats, not to get out in front, not to fall behind.  Steve told them this because there was a cross wind blowing strong and he didn’t want them out in it all by themselves, getting more buffeting than their competitors.  That struck me as very good thinking, although that kind of racing is tough to do when you are young and not very experienced as a boat rowing together.   But Steve reports that Will Anderson, the cox, (and my son, I say proudly) did a very good job of holding them back and staying in the pack.  Then, at the right moment, just after the midway point of the 2000 meter course,, they sprinted for the finish line.  It almost worked to perfection, but with a few final strokes at the end, Reading Rowing Club moved past our guys and took the race by 1.3 seconds.  They were very disappointed, but they had rowed a very fine race, beating Nereus by 12 seconds.  They also beat crews from Christ Church, Oxford, and Wallingford Rowing Club.  It was a very good showing.  A week ago they had lost to Reading by a length.  In this race that was down to about a third of a length.  Things are coming along.

The boys eight was looking forward to racing, especially since a number of American high school crews have now arrived at Henley, and we would have a chance to match up with them.  But it was not to be.  A long day of waiting around for a 1:30 race ended poorly.  In order to catch up on the schedule, which was significantly delayed because of the high winds (more about that later), the Race Committee cancelled the Intermediate 3 eights event.  29 boats, many of them from foreign countries, were told “Sorry, your event will not be run.”  Almost every trip, athletic or otherwise, has its low moments.  This was certainly the Death Valley for the boys.  Coach Madden told me that after putting up with a week of rainy, cold weather, some minor illnesses, and all of the normal things that can go wrong, on Saturday night it felt like, “What are we over here for.”

But the sun always comes out the next day, right?  It certainly did for the boys 8.  On Sunday, the boys returned to Dorney to race in the Intermediate 2’s.  The Sunday races were only a thousand meters, and because their race was scheduled for 8:10 am with the finals at 9:20, it was a pretty good bet that there would be racing.

A word about Dorney Lake.  It was built by Eton College (the famous high school) on a tract of land that the school owned not far from campus, maybe two or three miles as the crow flies.  It took about ten years to excavate what, in effect, is a large swimming pool of eight lanes + another four lanes separated by an island.  (The smaller course is for warming up and cooling down, so that the racing lanes are never impeded by that necessary traffic. )  The cost to Eton to build a world-class course?  The price tag I’ve seen was at a cost of £17 million, but Eton was smart.  It was paid for, apparently, by selling the excavated soil, gravel, and stone.  It took almost ten years to complete, but when it opened six years ago, it was to great acclaim and contained those magic words for school administrators and trustees “Cost Neutral.”  Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this in West Groton?

I’ve been told that it is possible for a person to walk the full length of Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats, on land that is owned by Cambridge University.  That’s 1200 miles.  Eton is not in that league, but they, too, have incredible resources.

The boys won their heat in the Intermediate 3’s in a time of 3:01.  They beat Upper Latymer School, a school in London where former Parents committee member and father of three Groton grads, Jeremy Silverman, went to school.  They also beat a University College, Dublin, boat, a Brunswick School (Greenwich, CT) boat and a Twickenham Rowing Club entry.  I arrived that Sunday morning just in time to see them race the finals.  I was accompanied by Groton’s Director of Development, and tireless rowing supporter, John MacEachern, and the even-more tireless parent, Phipps Hoffstot.  We watched as our boys rocketed off the line, moved out to a lead and then held on for a 1.8 second win over Latymer again.  They won this time by 2.2 seconds, a bigger margin.  But their splits indicated that we slowed down by five seconds in the second five hundred.  It’s virtually impossible for a school crew to row even splits, which is the most economical way of racing – and most likely the goal that everyone aspires to.  The boys will be working on making sure that they follow up their fast take-off with strong times in the succeeding 500’s.  But let’s not quibble about times.  They were excited to win these races, and they should have been.  They have plenty of time to keep working on consistency.

It looked like that was going to be it for the eight, but we got the idea to ask whether we could enter the I 2’s if they had an open lane, seeing as how our event on Saturday had been cancelled.  We’ve come to race, and the more of it we can get, the better.  Our petition to enter the I 2’s was accepted, and we had another race coming up at 3:00.

But not before I was able to watch our boys 4+ in the Im 3.  (The plus on Sunday was Aria Kopp; she and Willy have been sharing coxswain duties for this boat.)  Groton wins heat by 5 seconds over boats from Brunswick, Worcester Rowing Club, and Oxford Academicals (whatever that is).  The winds were way down on Sunday; it wasn’t a perfect day for racing, but compared to Saturday it was heaven.  No need to stay in the pack.  Blast off and keep going.  They did just that, with a newer, sleeker, faster shell and a rearranged lineup that has Bo Harwood stroking.  In the finals they would race old nemesis Belmont Hill School.  Like us, Belmont Hill has a four of younger oarsmen to serve as spares for their eight and for the experience that a trip like this gives them.  The final was apparently a good race.  The Groton boys liked their new shell, and they raced well.  They were third at the 500 mark, 1.3 seconds behind BH and Brunswick.  Groton rowed the fastest last 500 hundred, albeit only by .02 faster than Belmont, but our opponent’s early lead was too much to make up for.  They won by 1.2 seconds.  We went through Brunswick and beat them by 1.4.  So it was excellent racing.

I left Dorney, which was more impressive than I had expected, to return with the girls to watch the finals of the Henley Women’s races, which sadly, we were not a part of.  The boys eight had their third race of the day at 3:00.  The field was not big enough for heats – a few boats had dropped out because of illness; others had left in disgust the day before when the I 3’s had been cancelled.  But Groton lined up against Pangbourne College (until recently a boarding school for naval cadets), Manchester Univ, and Liverpool Univ.  We jumped right out to a lead again, 1.7 seconds at the 500, and then added .3 in the second 500 to win by 2 seconds.  According to Coach Madden, the extra racing on the weekend made the whole day a success.  The boys won two medals – in England they generally give medals for first place only. And the four had come in a close second twice.  It looks to my eye like the eight is beginning to move fast, like they are beginning to really work together as an eight.  I’m excited about further racing.  Well done, boys.

And now the part that is hard to remember although necessary to reflect upon.  Our girls, who had raced so well at Reading the week before, awoke on Saturday to find that the rain and winds that we had seen all week were the worst that they had ever been.  The Regatta Committee had considered cancelling the whole Regatta, and we spent a couple of nervous nights wondering what we would do if that indeed happened.  But because so many crews had travelled great distances to be in Henley, they decided that the show must go on.  Our quad raced first on Saturday at 9:18, one of the first events of the day.  Our opponents were a club from Broxbourne, north of London.  Despite some steering trouble in the high winds – I was told that they topped out at 30 mph – which caused us to hit “the booms,” the long timbers that denote the lanes of the racecourse and in theory help provide some protection from the motorboat wakes that are omnipresent, we were able to win the race by a length and a half, coming back from behind after our steering mishaps

If our girls ever have needed confirmation of the importance of the coxswain, rowing’s equivalent of a jockey, they have received it on this trip.  It takes three people in the quad to do what the coxswain usually does.  One must steer.  Maeve does this by moving the heel of her shoe; the shoe is attached to the tiller cables, so by moving the way she wants to go, she can control the rudder.  If that sounds simple enough, it isn’t.  Allie is the coxswain, calling tens and remembering what the boat is supposed to do on the water, since in England, coaches typically coach from the shore, riding bikes along and shouting out a few well-chosen words.  It’s not easy to talk when you are rowing very hard; certainly our girls are not used to it.  Finally, Olivia keeps track of the stroke rate, by means of a small device called a Stroke Coach.  She does set the pace, so it is a natural thing for her to do, but it’s an added burden.  Everyone in the boat wishes that we could enter a time warp and go back to 1984, the last year in which the quad had a coxswain.  (The Olympic movement, in order to pare down the growing costs of staging an Olympic Games, required all sports to come up with plan to cut the number of athletes.  Rowing eliminated a couple of men’s events and the coxswain from the women’s quad and four.)

Our coxed four raced next and did not seem quite as disturbed by the weather as the quad had been.  They rowed  out to a quick length lead, and I turned my bike around after 500 meters, thinking that they had it made.  I could scout our opponent in the next round< Aberdeen.  Much to my surprise, when I finally saw the four on shore after their race, they told me that their opponents, Durham School, from the north of England had begun to move back on them.  We had to do an all-out sprint to hang on and preserve the victory.  We won by a “canvas,” the measurement they use for the bow decking of the boat, although canvas went out even before wood did.  No, they assured me, they hadn’t had a crab or met with a steering problem.  They had just stopped moving.  I’m still at a loss to understand what happened; I guess I never will know.  But Groton had at least turned in the fastest time in the first round of races.

The quad was next up for their second race of the day.  The wind was now howling, and the Thames which was “at red boards, the Thames River Board’s language for extremely dangerous conditions.  When you get conditions like this, the fairness of the race course is always suspect.  One side of the river is usually more sheltered from the wind or has less current to race against.  But I can’t say for sure that there was any unfairness.  All I know is that our usual fast start was nowhere in evidence and that Henley Rowing Club, the local favorites, moved briskly away from us.  The girls were working hard, but perhaps not as well together as they needed to.  Our time in the morning had been 7:17, very slow, but we did have to stop when we hit the booms.  Henley’s time for this race was 6:56, and we were another five lengths back, about 15 seconds.  Our first  boat at Quinsigamond had won with a time of 5:28.  Here we were in a quad, a boat that moves faster than a four, and we were almost two minutes slower.  Perhaps you can see why many people called it the most atrocious conditions for racing that they had ever seen.  It was not the way anyone would want to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Henley Women’s Regatta.  In a certain way it was hard to be too upset because it wasn’t racing as anyone knew it.  Imagine playing soccer in the pitch dark: you wouldn’t be too upset if you lost.  Being able to see is important in soccer.  And being able to row requires certain conditions that let it be possible.  The Umpire who followed the race said “It was obvious to me that we had two highly skilled crews, but that one of them had more difficulty in the conditions than the other.”  So the girls tasted defeat for the first time since May, 2011.

To compound matters, the coxed four lost a race that was almost a carbon copy a few hours later.  Aberdeen, from northeastern Scotland, who had in the morning rowed a race six minutes after our girls and had a time that was 18 seconds slower, took off and never looked back.  Groton had some trouble at the start with both steering and rowing, and after falling behind began to miss water.  They lacked the strong punch that had been so characteristic of our rowing all year.  Why was it gone?  Who knows?  Three hours before, we had turned in the event’s fastest time, 7:10.  Now, Aberdeen won with an 8:01 and we were a further 16 seconds back.

One of the hardest things as a coach is facing disappointed, no, devastated, athletes, and trying to explain what had happened.  I still don’t really know.  It was clear that we hadn’t done our best, but where did this absolute worst come from?  Were we simply suffering bad luck?  I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know the answer.  It probably helps that both Aberdeen, the four, and Henley, the quad, went on to win the whole regatta.  At least we lost to the eventual winners.

So, we talked about our disappointment – all nine girls in shock.  We know, of course that our entering a quad, a sculling boat in which we don’t have much experience, is a risk.  We have always known that we might do well in this new boat; we might not.  But to have our familiar four meet the same fate suggests that there was something else going on.  I told them that despite the way our trip to Women’s Henley had turned out, the mental image I will always hold of all of these kids is their terrific victories at Quinsigamond, when we swept all four events.  That hadn’t happened for a girls program since 1996.

It was hard to say goodbye to the four girls who left two days later.  They had been such an important part of the team, and now they were finished.  The quad has rebounded and is working very hard to qualify for the Henley Royal Regatta in a special race to qualify that will be held this Friday at 4:15.  The boys 4 must also go through the qualifying race, while the boys eight, which has the luxury of competing in an event that contains 32 entries, is guaranteed of racing in the opening days of the HRR.  I’ll continue to update you on those races.  As I finish this, at 9:00 pm, we are about to head out for a sunset/twilight paddle.  It is one of the highlights of each trip.  Where else can you row until nearly 10:30 at night.  We are only two days away from Midsummer’s Night, so there is a lot of light left.  It is still and quiet.  Hard to believe that just three days ago we were enduring what felt like Antarctica.  I’ll keep you posted on our Friday qualifying races.


PS I’m sorry that I don’t have any photos this time of the boys eight.  Janet Prill has a good album but I couldn’t download from it.


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