Saturday’s Races at Reading

Today we went over to Reading for the Reading Town regatta, the last tune up for the Henley Royal Regatta.  Two weeks ago, we began our trip at Reading, but that was about a mile upstream of where we raced today.  Today’s races were staged in a big field that had been empty two days ago.  But a mini regatta village sprung up quickly.  Every regatta needs to have a few marquees – a fancy word for a tent that you do not sleep in – including one that becomes an Enclosure (i.e. members and swells only), a large dining area, and various ones for officials and announcers.  Add in all of the pop-up ones that each school has and you’ve got a real village along the banks of the Thames.

Before 1966, the Reading Town Regatta was known as The Reading Working Men’s Regatta.  You will remember from an earlier email that I talked about the significance of the British “Amateur” regattas.  (Yes, there will be a quiz on all of this at a later date.)  Well, this regatta today was the half-brother of the Reading Amateur Regatta.  From the program notes of today’s regatta:
The Reading Working Men’s Regatta was established in 1877 and received Royal Patronage in 1896.  At the turn of the century the town enjoyed a half-holiday to celebrate the Regatta and Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, the town’s largest employer at the time, closed for the day.  The Palmer family continued as benefactors of the Regatta until recent times.  The present title of the event was adopted in 1966, differentiation between professional and clerical occupations and manual workers no longer having any relevance, although rowing was one of the last sports to eliminate such segregation in Britain.

The Town Regatta is not quite as elegant as the Reading Amateur, and it is on the outskirts of the city, not smack in the middle.  But for a small-time operation, it is remarkably well-organized and well-run.  It is only 800 meters long, which is very short, but it does serve to let everyone practice the first part of their race.  Today it did not have stake boats at the start to hold the sterns of the boats, so it was not always dead even at the start, but given the near-flood conditions that have been ever present, thing s worked quite well.

This would be the last race for three of Groton’s teams.  The girls quad and boys four would be done after today.  And Sarah Black, our spare for the quad, would have her first and only race.  Sarah rowed in the girls four in the first two regattas.  But because the HRR does not have a fours event for girls, the rest of her boat left for home on Monday.  Sarah stayed and began to row a single scull, something that she had done a bit of last fall on the Nashua.  But getting into a racing single here on the flooded Thames was baptism by fire.  The first few days she worked on making sure that she was balanced and that she could steer and stay out of the way of the bigger boats (everyone else).  But each practice (did I mention that the Brits call a practice “an outing”?) she gained some confidence.  By Wednesday she was doing full power.  Thursday she did some 1000 meter pieces, and Friday some 500’s and racing starts.  That’s a very quick introduction to sculling.  But she was able to row at a 32 – about what she would need to be competitive – and she looked as good as a novice can.  She was entered into the Novice Women’s single.

Sarah had a 9:39 race, so the girls and I rose at 8:00 and zipped out to the course.  She launched her single into pretty good conditions.  There was a head wind and there was a strong current to row against, but nothing like Friday.  This was real racing, not survival.  The 800 meter course allows a spectator to see almost the whole race, although it is always hard to read angles and margins from a great distance.  But as Sarah came into view, she looked good and was sculling smoothly.  It became clear, unfortunately, that there was one girl ahead of her and one behind.  The girl from Sir William Borlase School was ahead, rowing with just a little more confidence than Sarah.  Sarah crossed the line in second place.  It was a fine result for her first race.

It is a surprise to Americans that the English do not give out second place medals or even record the times of anyone except the winner.  I had always thought that Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights had invented the slogan “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”  But it appears that the Brits beat him to it.

Next up, in their last race together – and as Allie reminded us, her last in a Groton uni – was our girls quad.  On the starting line was the Australian school quad that we have gotten to know a bit, Watford Anglican School.  There was also a quad that was half Australian and half Maidenhead Rowing Club.  The girls were hoping that they might beat the Australians – who did qualify for HRR – but it was not to be.  The 800 meter race wasn’t long enough for us to find a rhythm that could move back on Watford’s blazing and well-practiced start.  We rowed the race pretty well, but couldn’t make up the ground we lost at the start.  At the end, we were 1 ¼ length behind Watford and 2 lengths ahead of the Combination boat.

Although it was our last race of the season, it wasn’t a climactic race, so there weren’t tears or great disappointment.  It reminded me a bit of major league baseball.  They play 162 games in a season and there is no one who will ever be close to undefeated.  You can’t get too emotional when you lose a game when you play so many.  We never have anywhere near that many races, of course.  By my count, our first two boats had a record of 7-0 beating 38 boats in 2012.  The third and fourth were also undefeated.  In England, we went 8-3 in the first weekend, 2-2 at Henley Women’s, and 1-1 at this second Reading regatta.

The boys four is a boat that to my eye has improved with each week.  At Reading this weekend they raced hard several times and although they are getting closer to their nemesis Belmont Hill, they came away without medals.  Their first race with Belmont Hill and Brunswick School was a barn burner.  Belmont got out to a slight lead and then Groton began to move back.  As the boats came into the finish line area, Groton was moving like crazy, but ended up a “Canvas” short.  Had there been three more strokes in the race, I think that we would have had them.  That was the closest that we’ve come to them over here.  The boys raced furiously and looked like a strong crew.

They had one more event to row, the Intermediate 2.  In the semifinals, Belmont lost to Durham University by the “Easily” verdict, a huge margin in a short race.  We had a bye into the final with Durham and Balliol College, Oxford.  Our guys knew that the Durham boat had walked all over Belmont Hill and they were determined not to let that happen to them.  We fought very well and stayed right in the race with the northerners.  At the end, it was a loss of 2 lengths, but that’s at least 3 better than Belmont Hill had done.  Our guys went to meet and congratulate their older opponents and came back saying, “They are huge.”  It shouldn’t ever be an embarrassment to lose to a good crew, especially if they are older and stronger.  Our four ended their racing on an up note.  I think that we were all sorry that they would not be bringing medals home, but they really learned to race and to row hard.  I was proud of them.

The big news of the day was that the boys 8 had a break-through race against Belmont Hill and Tabor.  These two boats, both of whom will be strong competitors here at Henley, lined up against us and off we all went.  Groton, on the inside, had a quick and effective start and rowed very aggressively, seizing the lead.  As they came into the final meters, not only were we holding the lead, but we were moving away.  At the end we were half a length up on Belmont and 2/3 on Tabor.  It was thrilling.  Belmont Hill has for many years now been the gold standard in our NEIRA league, and we all knew that beating them meant a lot.  The boys had finally broken through and showed that with a very aggressive race, with laying it all out, we could do it.  It’s no exaggeration to say that it was the most thrilling race of the year.

In the finals of the Intermediate 1 an hour later, we showed that it hadn’t been a once-in-a-season event.  Against Gonzaga H.S. from Washington D.C., a very fine crew that has won a bunch of big races in the States, and Potomac Boat Club, a good club of post-college men, we rowed with just as much fury and speed as we had in the first race.  It was a near-carbon copy although the margin at the end over Gonzaga was a mere 3 feet.  Potomac was a half- length back.  The boys were ecstatic, as they should have been.  They beat some fine crews by rowing and racing well.

We had one more race, and whether it was tiredness or a bad race, I’m not sure, but we lost the Junior 8 to Brunswick and Pangbourne.  Although that was a bit sobering, we had already had our high points.

I’m dashing to finish this because in an hour or so we have our first race at Henley against the Reading Blue Coat School (see an earlier email for details about them.)  I’ll pick up after that race, but I wanted to get this off before then.  There is great tension and intensity surrounding these races, and we need to row well to get the Henley racing started.

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