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.
“It’s as rowing used to be, has been for 150 years,” Spracklen said. “It’s also a unique spectacle that I think every rower should experience in his lifetime.”
Spracklen, a Briton who has coached internationally for decades and whose crews have won Olympic golds and world championships, also brought the Canadians to check out the 2012 Olympic rowing facilities nearby.
“It was amazing,” said 23-year-old Canadian rower Thomas Morley, whose Brock University crew succumbed after three successful heats in the university-oriented Temple Challenge Cup.
“The tradition, a completely different style of racing. We’ve never been to anything like this.”
Unlike the multi-lane courses at the Olympics, competitors at Henley race only one other boat a time in knock-out heats along its 1 mile 550-yard course, a bit longer than the standard international distance of 2,000 meters.
Off the water, competitors and spectators must adhere to the strict rules that have traditionally governed the dress and comportment of the British upper classes at play.
Guests and members who are admitted to the Stewards’ Enclosure, where there are grandstands, deck chairs, champagne bars and restaurants, must dress the part.
“Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, and a tie or cravat,” say the instructions on Henley’s website.
“Ladies are required to wear dresses or suits with a hemline below the knee and will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind.”
Masterson, whose dress just made the cut, had a close run entering the Stewards’ Enclosure with security keeping a beady eye on whether her knees might be considered to be on show.
Ladies are also encouraged to wear hats and chancers are told in no uncertain terms that journalists, jeans, shorts, the use of mobile phones and children are strictly prohibited.
This year, the German crew RC Hansa Dortmund are considered the top eight, with Spracklen’s Canadians hot on their heels.
There are 19 events in total, comprising challenges for crews of eight, four, two and single sculls.
Jim and Terry Byrnes, who are visiting to watch their son Andrew in the Canadian national crew watched as the Canadians took their first heat.
“It’s really about the most exciting thing you can imagine to see your son coming down in the lead,” said Jim.
Editing by Steve Addison