Rowing: Haining's happy epitaph for watermen: Revival of Thames sculling challenge after 50 years honours memory of ferrymen snubbed by Henley

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The Independent Online
LESLIE 'HAPPY' HASLAM loved it. At the age of 83, he watched with delight as the sporting event he revelled in as a youth was revived on Saturday after a 50- year lull.

The Thames World Sculling Challenge is a deliberate attempt to turn the clock back to the days when Haslam, and other professional watermen, would race for money from Putney to Mortlake.

This time, however, the competitors were champion amateurs, putting up their own prize-money to help a development fund for British scullers.

As Haslam sped along in his launch, clutching photos of the 1924 world champion, Ernest Barry, in his pocket, Wade Hall- Craggs, at the centre of a three-man race, pulled into the lead at Hammersmith Bridge. On the Surrey station, Peter Haining, who this year became the first British world champion since Barry, looked comfortable as the clear favourite.

On Middlesex, Steve Redgrave, the triple Olympic champion, was fading fast. Superior physical strength normally sees Redgrave through, but then he is used to rowing with one oar rather than two, and he was a stand-in for the Olympic champion, Thomas Langer.

By Chiswick Steps, Redgrave was resigned to merely adding some prestige to the rainy proceedings, and shortly afterwards he was swallowed up in the wash as the launch of the umpire, Pauline Churcher, hurried to the fierce battle between Haining and Hall-Craggs up ahead.

Hall-Craggs eventually triumphed by six seconds after Haining had drifted so far from his station that he went through the Middlesex arch of Barnes Bridge, and therefore would have been disqualified anyway.

'Peter's steering was absolutely dreadful,' Hall-Craggs said afterwards, looking rather pleased with his surprise success. As the 1993 Wingfield Sculls and British amateur champion, his challenge had been taken too lightly.

Haining was not too disappointed to miss out on the pounds 1,500 winner's cheque. It was his idea to create the event. A 31-year-old Scot, he confesses to be 'haunted by the memory of great sculling watermen who worked all day on the river, yet never had the chance to go to Henley or anywhere to show what they could do'.

As world champion, Haining wants to give those who ferried the public across the river some belated respect. 'The class system created a lot of rifts,' Haining said. 'The working man was snubbed by amateur rowing.'

For Haslam, the challenge races disappeared along with his profession. After the war, he was in charge of the boats at Reading University, but only the biggest clubs still retain watermen. 'We're forgotten now,' he said.

The building of new bridges did not help watermen. The surviving few had given up sculling by the 1960s to work on tugs, before they were put out of business by the introduction of container lorries.

Yet Haslam still has his memories and his pictures of the last world professional challenge race in 1947. Almost 100 years before, Australian and American watermen had first come over to go head- to-head over the 4 1/4 -mile course with London's best.

Huge crowds watched Barry and the Phelps brothers, Eric and Ted, in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is doubtful if today's amateurs can attract the same interest.

November is the wrong time of year for a champion of champions race because, out of season, everyone who matters is concentrating on something else, and although the inner circle were fascinated to see how Haining, a lightweight, would fare against much heavier men, the incongruous presence of Redgrave remained the principal attraction.

Still, Haining will include the women's elite next year, and if funds can be raised to train another world champion, no one will begrudge him success.

(Photograph omitted)