ALMANACK : Caught in wake of the blazer trail

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The Independent Online
PITY the sporting British male in summer. All that silly dressing- up: sweltering in morning suit at Royal Ascot, knotted into egg-and-ketchup tie at Lord's, and at Henley obliged to sport that sartorial abomination, the candy-striped boating blazer. Readers who clocked Tony Marlow MP at John Redwood's press conference last Monday will know the kind of anti- fashion item we mean. The garish colours and bright buttons of these de rigueur Henley items were as fine a recommendation for powerful sunglasses as the sun itself.

The bright blazer brigade are, for the most part, ex-rowers who have earned the right to their gaudy gearthrough years of hard work on the river that runs past the marquees they now adorn. But as they reminisce about past triumphs in the Stewards' Enclosure, the site of maximum social cachet, the serious business of the Henley Regatta is going on a little upriver, where the crews assemble.

The contemporary rowers are far from innocent of fashion villainy, but their crimes are committed in the interest of comfort and aerodynamic efficiency. In the competitors' restaurant they sat in gaudy leggings and besloganed T-shirts and discussed tactics over dishes of pasta and vegetable pie. Many of the T-shirts had aggressive messages on the back, presumably to encourage greater efforts from the next oarsman in the boat. They said things like: "Don't make me do it. Don't make me beat you again." A door at the back of the restaurant tent led into what is really the most important marquee at the regatta: the Boat Tent.

In the steamy heat of Wednesday afternoon the vast interior of the tent smelled agricultural, a mixture of sweat and steaming grass. The long, lean boats were stacked four high in countless rows. In the narrow alleys between them, teams lay on the grass to rest before races, or conducted pep-talks and post-mortems.

A four from the Upper Thames Rowing Club dissected their defeat by a Molesey crew. "We got a good start," Nigel Villars, the No 3, told us, sweat dripping down his bare chest. "We went off high and hard, as we say. But they were simply a stronger crew. We were just getting ready for a push, and they pushed before we did. Still, we're not totally disheartened - we're racing again tomorrow evening."

On the lawn outside the boat tent, mothers and fathers and fans mingled with the crews, ducking in unison as the boats were lifted over their heads to polite cries of "Backs, please." After racing the boats were inverted on cradles in the sun to be washed down and polished ready for the next race. Hulking oarsmen ladled buckets full of water from the river and sploshed them over the shells, narrowly missing spectators.

Readers who know Henley will know why we weren't spending more time in the press box, sited at the head of the course in the middle of the river. It was the middle of the river bit that put us off: the box is reached via a narrow, slightly wonky causeway in full view of the browsers and sluicers, and we didn't fancy providing a cabaret turn for them.

In any case we learned a lot talking with the crews and their coaches. Life at Henley for the competitors involves a sensible diet and early nights, but the rowers derive tremendous pleasure from their racing, and from discussing the sport with their peers from all over the world. The urge to thank opponents for a good contest went further than the obligatory three cheers at the finish line: the Durham University eight had barely stowed their boat before they were off to commiserate with the Agecroft Rowing Club team they had just defeated. We asked the Durham oarsmen about the experience of rowing at Henley. "The noise from the crowd is incredible," Mark Nielsen said. "You row through a canopy of sound. It's quite a reception." But it's hard work. "It's just so hot," Nick Morgan complained. "When I got to the end of the race the boat was flying all over in front of my eyes - sunstroke."

In years to come the crowd will get louder and the sun hotter as Nick and Mark stand with their drinks and recall the race again and again. In their rather unattractive blazers.

OUR thoughts are with six-week-old Fifa Hill, the Bridlington baby girl named after the governing body of world football by her soccer-mad parents. Will this spark a trend? Watch the parish noticeboard for Baga, Aba and Fia . . .

SYMPATHY, too, for the cyclist Tony Rominger, whose waterworks let him down when he was asked to provide a dope test on the Giro d'Italia. After waiting over an hour with impatient officials, Rominger remarked: "It was harder pissing than it was winning the stage."

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