The best British Championship you’ve never heard of
The River Thames is a river that flows through Southern England, namely London, and is the longest river in the entirety of England. The river is usually packed with hired boats for the avid boaters, has walkers following a beautiful river walk, or may even have fishermen in the best inflatable dinghy trying to find the right spots to discover the over 25 species of fish found there. However, there is one day every year when this comes to a stop. Every year, on a murky Thursday in autumn, the River Thames plays quiet host while some of the best rowers in the country, and sometimes the world, do battle on its troublesome waters.
The annual Boat Races between Oxford and Cambridge take place along the same course and enjoy a far higher profile – up to seven million people watch on TV while thousands view from the banks.
The Wingfield Sculls is arguably far more exciting, with up to six boats side by side. For the second successive year, one competitor capsized mid-race, got back in his boat and completed the course.
Sir Steve Redgrave won five straight races in the 1980s, while reigning Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale has won on two occasions and Alan Campbell – who won Olympic bronze at London 2012 – has triumphed five times in the event that finishes outside his rowing club, Tideway Scullers School in Chiswick.
At stake are the titles of British Amateur Sculling Champion and Champion of the Thames, which date back to the 1830s.
But despite the big names, the thrills and spills and the silverware on offer, the plaudits are restricted to a very tight circle. The races are watched by a handful of former winners, supporters of the handful of competitors and a few people who just happen to be passing and wonder what is going on.
Two new champions were crowned on Thursday: one who is still taking the first steps in a career she hopes will bring success at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the other at the end of a glittering domestic and frustrating international career.
Jessica Leyden is a 21-year-old from West Yorkshire who in 2013 became the first British woman ever to win a world title in the single scull, at the World Rowing Junior Championships.
Arguably the favourite on paper, she was a Tideway novice taking on last year’s runner-up, Georgia Francis, whose training outings from the Imperial College boathouse regularly cover the four-and-a-quarter-mile course from Putney to Mortlake.
Francis went out hard and took a boat-length’s lead but Leyden looked more comfortable and gradually worked her way through, taking the front for the first time just after the Mile Post and going on to win by 13 seconds in a time of 22 minutes 32 seconds.
Former Commonwealth Regatta winner Pippa Whittaker finished third with Tideway Scullers lightweight Mimi Carlton fourth.
“Just being on the river teaches you some vital skills because it’s not very forgiving,” said Leyden. “I just wanted to get out on my rhythm and pace. I knew the start wasn’t necessarily where I was going to show my cards.”
The Wingfields has only featured a women’s race since 2007 but the quality of the competition has seen it quickly absorbed within the culture of the almost-200-year-old event.
Leyden admitted: “I didn’t really hear about [the Wingfields] when I was young in the north. It’s not really known up there!
“It’s old and prestigious and it has all these people who care so much about it. It’s pretty special.”
While the women were recovering in Mortlake, the men’s race was getting under way in Putney and, although the margin of victory would end up being huge, the event was packed with excitement and incident.
Jamie Kirkwood tweeted a photo of his takeaway curry on the night before the race. He claimed only to have had 10 training outings since retiring from international rowing to take up the post of assistant coach with Oxford University women a month ago.
However, the 27-year-old from Northumberland is a classy sculler. He has finished as first or second lightweight in Great Britain trials in each of the last three years but was never selected into the top boats for major events and has clearly become frustrated and disenchanted with the national set-up.
On the less-favoured outside station on the Middlesex side, he snuck up on the field while the rest were battling each other, taking a length’s lead by the time the race passed Craven Cottage football ground.
Nick Middleton and Frazier Christie – two young heavyweights who will expect to be in contention for international seats in the next few years – were in the middle of the battle, along with defending champion Tim Richards, who admitted before the race that his medical studies had taken priority over training this year.
Christie, 23, fought hard despite lacking experience in the water while Middleton traded blows with Richards, at times literally.
As one of the organising committee of former winners, Olympic champion Greg Searle was picked to make his umpiring debut this year and had his work cut out in just his second race in charge.
He warned Middleton for his steering but the Chertsey sculler had nowhere to go as the fifth racer in the line-up, Dan Boddington, was on his inside.
When Middleton and Richards clashed blades for a final time, the former came off worst and capsized into the chilly Thames. Richards was slowed and Kirkwood finally broke free, romping to victory by 40 seconds in 20 min 56 secs.
A frantic final sprint behind saw Boddington then Richards then Christie finish within a couple of lengths of each other, their run-in to the finish disrupted when a lifeboat on a training exercise created a huge swell around the Chiswick bend.
“I had a good start and managed to break clear of everyone before all the mayhem happened. I’m really happy,” said Kirkwood, who finished third when he last raced, in 2013.
“I think it’s a massive race. I had always wanted to do it before I did it the first time and since then I’ve always wanted to do it again. I know a lot of the GB team want to do it. It’s just about fitting it in around training.
Kirkwood will be back on this course ahead of the Women’s Boat Race next April and he said: “Obviously it’s just two eights in the Boat Race but I’ve learned a lot more about the current, the line and just how crucial the start is and how to pace it so I’ll take all that back to Oxford.”
Searle, who won the race three times from 1998 to 2000, when he was the Great Britain team’s single sculler, believes scullers can only benefit from taking part in a race like this.
“Finding opportunities to race and get watermanship experience are really valuable and to race in an event like that where the blades are knitting together and you have waves,” he said.
“As we saw on the Lagoa in Rio [during the Olympics], rowing isn’t always a sterile environment; it’s tricky and difficult and you have to adapt to things that change.”
“It would be great for the Wingfields if the best scullers in Britain were doing it and I think it would be good for the scullers to be getting the experience but I also recognise they’ve had a busy time and maybe prioritise other things higher. I totally understand their choice.”
Leyden for one, though, will be back for more. “I’d like to [defend the title],” she said. “It would be cool if it could become an annual thing.”