Henley: Boats and blazers down by the Thames

Fri Jul 2, 2010 9:47am EDT
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By Paul Casciato

HENLEY-ON-THAMES, England (Reuters Life!) - The elite of the rowing world have been fighting it out this week under the scrutiny of royalty, ladies in summer hats and men in stripy blazers telling of glories past.

Olympic gold medalists raced other elite athletes and gritty amateur challengers in front of thousands of champagne-fueled spectators lining the banks of the River Thames in the English countryside at Henley Royal Regatta.

The jewel of amateur rowing is also a fixture of the British summer season and mixes high society with the hard graft of an unforgiving sport, whose roots stretch back to a maritime past when Britannia ruled the waves.

Princess Anne arrived on a gilded royal barge just after the traditional lunch hour on Friday, rowed by men in red and gold livery, flying a royal standard and applauded by spectators.

Samantha-Louise Masterson, a current British national masters champion visiting Henley for the first time to watch her nephew race in the popular Temple Challenge Cup felt the atmosphere evoked a bygone age of gentility.

"I feel like I'm in a scene from 'My Fair Lady'," she said.

Established in 1839 before international or national rowing associations evolved, Henley abides by its own rules for the sport, but attracts rowers from around the world and enjoys the recognition of rowing's leading bodies.

Canadian national coach Mike Spracklen, whose crew beat the U.S. national squad in the first heat on Friday for the top event for eight man crews, the Grand Challenge Cup, explained why rowers from around the world clamor to compete at Henley despite it's antiquated style of racing and strict social conventions.   Continued...

<p>Rowers lift their scull from the river during the Henley Royal Regatta in Henley-on-Thames, west London July 2, 2010. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty</p>