Rowing: Out of their sculls on the riverbank: Owen Slot examines the enduring social and sporting appeal of Britain's most historic regatta

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The Independent Online
DURING Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes's pursuit of the coxless pairs title at Henley in 1987 they came up against one of the more peculiar hazards rowing can offer. Upstream, two girls had also decided to enjoy the water, their canoe had capsized and, two minutes into the final, Redgrave and Holmes, neck and neck with their Soviet opponents, smashed straight into it. As if the offending vessel were not going to sink anyway, Redgrave punched a hole through it in frustration.

The poor Pimenovs were bemused. They were sent back for a rerun (which they lost), they had little understanding of the English language and certainly no understanding of English customs; at Henley, this can mean encountering rogue canoeists or even two fully clothed girls involved in an exhibition of synchronised swimming. Henley has long established itself as a venue where the most enthusiastic punters sign off on the boast that they have seen plenty of Pimm's but hardly a boat all day. As Jonny Searle, an Olympic gold medallist at Barcelona, says: 'It's a bit strange. You turn up for your race and all these picnickers wish you luck; you come back some time later and they have to ask how you did.'

Searle is nevertheless looking forward to the Henley Royal Regatta in Oxfordshire, which starts on Wednesday. 'It's always fun,' he says, declaring that he has missed the place, not having rowed there for two years. The accent is firmly on the place rather than the race. The regatta, which has been running since 1839, is up there with Ascot and Wimbledon as one of summer's essential social stop- offs, yet the garden-party ambience also holds appeal for the oarsmen who provide the sideshow.

Nevertheless, it is the premier event in the domestic rowing calendar, and the course - from the island with Greek temple folly upstream towards town, its arched bridge and Norman church - is an idyllic stretch of the Thames. With 70,000-strong crowds on finals days, those who are interested in the racing provide the most rousing finish an oarsman will experience in Britain. Certainly more so than the University Boat Race, where the Thames is so wide that crews can feel detached: at Henley the crowd is almost on top of you.

As an international event, however, it has long been a minor fixture and international oarsmen have been happy to leave its water unrippled, mainly because it comes only a week before the Lucerne regatta, a key meeting seen as a

curtain-raiser to the main event of the year, whether it is the Olympics or the World Championships.

For two reasons, that has changed. Last year, the inaugural Fisa (International Rowing Federation) Cup, a six-event sculling competition, selected Henley as one of its venues and guaranteed not only the best scullers in the world but also a women's event. Women's events had been tried in 1981 and 1982 but proved too complicated logistically, and otherwise women have only ever made news at Henley for being turned away from the exclusive Stewards' Enclosure for contravening the hemline-below-the-knee rule. The most recent explanation for their exclusion had been that the extra competition would necessitate an extra day and that the Henley lawns simply could not take the strain. But as long as the Fisa Cup is at Henley, women - albeit in only one event - will be there too.

The second change in Henley's favour is a calendar alteration. This year it will run two weeks before Lucerne, the extra week making competition at Henley a help rather than a hindrance to the more important regatta. The result is a proliferation of international teams: the French and Australians are coming for the first time with their entire squads.

What the newcomers will find is a venue that is as original for the boats as it is for the number of boaters on the banks. The course is marginally longer than the international standard 2,000 metres and it runs straight though the river's meanders. This means that when the river is high, there are strong shifting currents that favour different parts of the course. The cox's job is thus more challenging and it is not unusual to see scullers hit the wooden booms that mark the lanes. International courses are marked by buoys, allowing a greater margin for error.

But the journey to the start, rather than the finish, is more hazardous, involving stopping, starting and weaving round a fleet of launches and pleasure boats on the west bank of the river. With this slalom course to complete, many rowers complain that, by the time they reach the start, they find it hard to focus on the race. Rather like the inebriates on the bank.

The irony of Henley, though, is that while the competition has been strengthened, the corporately entertained hordes have dwindled. The economic slump saw their numbers halve between 1990 and 1992 and the figure has picked up little since. Which simply means that there will be fewer there not to watch the rowing.