Henley 4s & 8s Head 15th February

Following his occasional series of the Oxford Brookes experience, Trevor reports on the next race in the build-up to the Men's Head of the River.

My quest for rowing success with Oxford Brookes continued on saturday at Henley 4's and 8's head. The super-observant (or merely Sudbury-geeky) would have spotted 3 oarsmen with Sudbury RC connections - myself masquerading in the burgundy of Brookes, Peter masquerading in the cerise of Leander, and Master A. Hogsbjerg masquerading as a scooter-riding spectator. I spoke to him for a while - prompting one of the Brookes coxes after training yesterday to ask how old my brother was - but Peter was rowing early and then dashing off to the England rugby game so we didn't speak.

To the serious stuff. It looked like we were just doing 4's, from the trailer that turned up - until the boatman dropped it off and came back with the other one with the 8's on it! It took 2 of us hours to unload all the oars - we needed 32 - and when laid out they covered most of Lion meadow! The rigging went surprisingly smoothly considering all the riggers look the same and no-one could remember which belonged to which boat or whether to use the higher or lower sets of holes....it could have been a nightmare!

There was quite a strong stream flowing, so during the briefing from the coach it was impressed in no uncertain terms on coxes and steers the importance of staying right in at the side:

"You must have the strokeside blades practically in the grass...you'll lose minutes out in the middle and you're wasting your time coming. It's not going to happen ok?"

Funily enough the worst offenders all day were Henley RC and some of the Upper Thames crews, racing on their own patch - but then for them they were racing up the wrong side. Sam Dixon would have excelled...

All the Brookes crews were new permutations of the squad, so were scratch in the sense of not having rowed as that crew before. It was quite difficult doing a slide-build warm-up on the way to the start in really quite lumpy water down around the Barrier & quarter-mile (or, perhaps more clearly, the Redgrave bar...) but we all got on with it.

I was at 2 in a S2 4+ - labelled the 'B' crew but not because of anything sinister. We were chasing a Thames RC crew and ahead of them our 'A' crew. As much trying to beat other clubs, there is the edge of racing one's squad mates in other boats, and knowing that the coaches are watching and comparing the crews. Somewhat confusingly there were 3 Nick's in my boat, so "Come on Nick" had varying effects!

We had a good start and shot off, coverhauling Thames and passing them before Temple Island. The first time I ever did the sculler's head here I remember taking ages to battle into the wind and waves and get past the island, which takes a surprisingly long time. The knowledge that there is over 2000m to go when already feeling tired wasn't good then, but I had no such problem this time. We also quickly passed a Henley RC crew who were so wide that one of our crew didn't even see them!

Our exertions in the first 1000m had seen us catch up with the other Brookes crew, but our cox never actually told us this so I didn't think we were close. They went away from us a bit, having us to push off, whilst we sagged a little having a traffic-free course to the finish. Another striking thing about this head course, another legacy from it being The Regatta course, is the bendyness...there are actually some sizeable bays scullers get sucked into. It was a bit of a toss-up on Saturday between following the bank to stay out of the stream, and taking straight lines to minimise the distance.

Our cox was in no doubt and opted for the former. Nick and I on strokeside were scared twice in the race, by the centimetre-perfect judgement of width...and in a bow-loader too. It was rather close for comfort....and Nick's steering strategy seemed to be to point slightly towards the bank and make repeated calls to me in the 2-seat to pull us out of it...

It seemed to work though and save a final scare in the last 100m where a moored cruiser almost relieved me of the paint on the end of my spoon, it was a good final stage and we had caught up with the other Brookes crew again. The rate had been called by Nick throughout although the boatman afterwards claimed we were a pip or two lower than the 34-35 claimed.

We won! :-). Great to win of course and great to beat the other Brookes crew by 11s. It was a good day for the club, winning 11 out of the 14 events we had entries in, with two seconds, and a 4th place. It's a bit weird winning in a club where everyone else wins too, as there is an element of relief not to have lost, rather than joyful surprise at having won if you see what I mean. Still very satisfying, of course, but subtlely different. I suppose if you lose when everyone else wins it would count against you, whereas if you win when everyone else wins it does not necessarily count for you....

Good to come away with a pot though. The coach is pleased with winning so many divisions, but pleased rather than ecstatic. It was the required result... On Sunday he made special mention of the women's 8 (they have hardly been out as a whole 8 this year and beat some set, neat-looking Upper Thames and UL crews); the E4- and our crew.

As a reality check though, yesterday I was "rewarded" by having to row bowside, as there were a number of bow-siders missing for different reasons and so I was in a 4 made up of 4 stroke-siders! It being Brookes there was little mercy (but much jocularity) so I found myself doing 20+km and all the bits of work, sitting at 3. After I'd tired out my new inside arm by pulling with it and thus HAVING to use the other one (ie the correct one) it wasn't as bad as I'd feared, but it felt a bit unkind, being tired from racing as well! Although we were neat enough by the end, let's just say we weren't going terribly straight!

Trevor Chambers