If someone asked you what sporting event takes place in London and involves over 3,600 competitors you may well suggest the London Marathon or perhaps the London-Surrey cycle race. This little known event doesn’t take place on the streets of London but on the river between Mortlake and Putney and has been taking place annually since 1926 (save a few years during the last war)- it involves over 400 racing eights from the Uk and Europe and follows the same 4 1/4 mile course that the famous Oxford/Cambridge boat race crews use and it’s called the Head of the River Race. Those that manage to view it from the bridges and the banks that line the river are normally treated to quite a spectacle – this year was no exception.
Sudbury Rowing Club made it’s usual entry to the race using some of its top rowers. They were greeted on the river to a glorious sunny spring day with a gusting easterly wind. As the race involves so many craft we are strictly marshalled along a mile or so of river while waiting to turn around and make our start in turn. Each boat is started about 10 seconds apart so the wait can be as much as 2 hours; it’s a good opportunity to watch the top crews which often include Olympic Champions, make their first strokes down the start of the course. This of course we did, admiring the perfect rhythms set up by these top crews. Then to our utter amazement one of the marshallers speeds by in a RIB announcing that the race has been cancelled. Complete astonishment from everyone trying to comprehend how the big race could be cancelled on such a perfect day.
It transpires that the gusty easterly wind was more significant than we thought. Most of the course was in perfect rowing conditions but the last straight towards Putney bridge and the finish had a long fetch straight into the wind. That wind would not normally be a problem but combine it with a strong opposing ebb tide and the result is steep standing waves. So bad that 5 boats had indeed sunk. The umpires had little choice but cancel the race faced with the potential of having so many people in the water.
Luckily the opportunity to race was not completely lost. Sudbury had submitted a crew to the Veteran’s Head of the River Race which takes place the following day. The ‘Vets Head’ consists of crews made up from the more experienced, senior rowers of a club and is every bit as competitive as the previous day. This year it was a slightly shorter course and also racing in the opposite direction, starting at Hammersmith Bridge and finishing at Mortlake.
We were treated to another glorious day on the the Thames and that easterly wind didn’t have a disruptive effect as the flood tide would be flowing in the same direction. We had a great start under the bridge with our feisty cox, Ella winding the crew up to a rate of almost 40 strokes a minute. After 30 seconds we dropped to a more sustainable 31 strokes/minute which we maintained down the course.
Sudbury had great race, skilfully steered down the river by our cox. More excitement was to be had by overtaking crews in front and the odd crew managing to catch us. This is even more dramatic when approaching the bridges which have limited clearance between their arches. The finish was customarily met with total relief and complete exhaustion from the whole crew.
Sudbury achieved a very creditable result of 11th place out of 30 in our age category. With a total of 209 boats taking part.