by Tom Utescher
“A defining symbol of English life, Henley Royal Regatta is a ‘must’ in the summer social calendar and an unforgettable day out.”
From the website of the Leander Club, a renowned English rowing club that was founded in 1818.
At the approach of Independence Day each year, certain American athletes feel a powerful urge to return to the country from which their forebears separated. They are rowers, and the most historic, venerated event in their sport is staged annually in late June and early July in the town of Henley-on-Thames, England.
Joining the pilgrimage to the Henley Royal Regatta this year were the crew and coach of an eight-oared shell representing University Barge Club on Philadelphia’s famous Boathouse Row. Four members of the party have strong ties to this area, and they made an impressive showing in the Thames Challenge Cup event, moving through the first three rounds in the starting field of 32, and racing in the semifinals on Saturday, July 4.
There, they lost by three-quarters of a boat length to London’s Thames Rowing Club, which went on to win Sunday’s final by a much greater margin. The UBC boat contained two rowers who are Chestnut Hill Academy graduates, Chestnut Hill native Pete Seymour (’04) and Wyndmoor’s Marty Schardt (’09). The coxswain, Andrew Kelly, grew up in Mt. Airy and won the major scholastic race at Henley in 2000, when he was a senior at St. Joseph’s Prep.
For this year’s excursion to Henley, Kelly was once more under the direction of his old St. Joe’s mentor, Bill Lamb, a longtime Chestnut Hill resident whose distinguished record of success as a crew coach stretches back for decades.
For a group of post-collegiate amateur athletes, preparing for international competition wasn’t a simple process. It was, after all, a project that they had to pursue in their spare time. Seymour is employed full-time as a bridge engineer, and Kelly works in finance in Center City Philadelphia. Lamb is a family man who owns a manufacturing company in Ambler, and Schardt is working part-time while also carrying a full load of pre-med graduate courses. With training time not abundant, a high level of commitment was required from everyone.
To race in the Thames Challenge Cup category, a crew must not include any former Olympians or national team or Under-23 national team rowers. Overall, the eligibility guidelines are intended to assure that the crew is composed of high-level amateurs just below the top international standard.
This year, the winning times in the four men’s eights categories would not vary much. In UBC’s division, the Thames club captured the Thames Challenge Cup in six minutes, 37 seconds, while in the events primarily geared toward college crews, Yale won the Ladies Challenge Plate in 6:34, while a university crew from Amsterdam won the Temple Challenge Cup in 6:25.
At the highest classification, the Grand Challenge Cup was secured with a time of 6:21 by a hybrid crew from two highly regarded English clubs, Leander and Molesey. For University Barge, becoming competitive at this level was an impressive achievement.
The Crew Assembles
For decades, the 160-year-old club on Kelly Drive has been the home boathouse for rowers from Chestnut Hill Academy, which recently became Springside Chestnut Hill. In the early 2000’s, Pete Seymour learned to wield an oar there, as did Marty Schardt a few years later.
Even after he went on to row at the University of Delaware, Seymour maintained a junior membership at UBC, and he continued to train there after graduating from college. A few years later, he became part of an effort to form an eight-man crew that would race at Henley in 2011.
The ninth member of the crew of an “eight” is the coxswain. While each rower focuses solely on driving his long oar through the water, the coxswain steers the boat, executes the race plan, monitors the technique of his oarsmen, and varies the speed of the boat by adjusting the “rate” or “rating”, a figure expressed in strokes per minute.
It’s a vital role, and UBC already had an excellent candidate for the job right on the premises. Andrew Kelly had been to Henley twice while he was a student and coxswain at St. Joseph’s Prep, winning the top scholastic prize, the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup, in his senior season in 2000. He went on to become captain of the University of Pennsylvania crew, and as a member of the United States Team in 2003, he won a gold medal at the World Championships in a coxed pair, a boat containing two rowers with single oars and their coxswain.
Following the lead of some other Penn alums and former schoolmates at St. Joe’s Prep, Kelly began to frequent UBC, and he became the logical choice to direct the eight headed for the 2011 Henley Royal Regatta.
In both American high school and collegiate rowing, there are annual major regattas in the U.S. that are the primary focus for the top crew programs. In club rowing, however, the Henley Royal Regatta represents the ne plus ultra of competition.
As Seymour stated, “This is where the top club crews come, worldwide.”
Post-collegiate rowers who never plied an oar at Henley in high school or college want to race there at least once before coming ashore for good, and almost all those who have been there before try to return.
“I always tell people that Henley gets under your skin,” Kelly said. “Once you go there and see what it’s like, you want to go back. It’s sort of like rowing fantasy land.”
Rowers are passionate about their endeavor, and beyond the competition itself, Henley provides an unparalleled setting for athletes from many nations and diverse walks of life to share their love of the sport in its purest form.
The 2011 UBC eight that crossed the Atlantic did not have a formal coach; their guidance and instruction came largely from Kelly in the coxswain’s seat. They were pleased that they reached the quarterfinal round on the third day of the five-day regatta, but above all they were simply thrilled to be drinking in the unique Henley experience.
Seymour, Kelly, and other veterans of that crew began planning a return to England a year ago, and this time their approach was more serious. Kelly enlisted the aid of Lamb, who had mentored many crews at Henley. He quickly sensed their enthusiasm and dedication, and was happy to preside.
“This year’s effort was more focused and directed than in 2011,” he noted. “It was a challenge bringing together these guys with disparate backgrounds and levels of experience.”
Most often, the crew practiced early in the morning, and when winter weather precluded workouts on the water, they climbed onto ergometers (rowing machines which display performance data) or did weight training.
Asked to compare working with these older athletes to his experiences as a coxswain for high school and college rowers, Kelly said, “This is significantly better. At this point in guys’ lives, when they have families and careers, they become hyper-efficient and that makes my job a lot easier. Guys who stay involved at this stage are self-motivated; you only have 70 or 80 minutes to get your work in, and you just do it.”
Kelly was a seasoned Henley performer, as were a few other crew members such as seven-seat James “Wooley” Pardoe, who had already made the trek to England three times as a rower for Connecticut’s Kent School and for Brown University. It would be the second time around for CHA alum Schardt, who would occupy the “two” seat in the boat, right behind the bow man, Seymour.
In 2013, Schardt graduated from Trinity College after helping the Bantams’ first varsity eight earn a gold medal at the New England Championships. His crew ended the season with an appearance at Henley, winning their first race before being knocked out by a Dutch bunch that went on to win the Temple Challenge Cup.
Schardt’s high school career had not overlapped that of Seymour, but he knew of the older CHA rower.
“I reached out to Pete,” he related, “as I knew he rowed at UBC and I wanted to continue rowing. He sponsored me and did an amazing job with the process; within a couple months I was a full member and racing competitively with UBC.
“We decided we had a good enough group of guys to pursue the club event at Henley,” he went on, “and started training on a legitimate schedule. The eight guys kind of fell into place and the boat felt decent. After Bill Lamb decided to coach us, we picked up a lot of speed.”
Preparation and Pedigree
Because of the large number of athletes that want to participate in the storied gathering at Henley, many crews have to earn a spot in the 32-boat draw for their event by engaging in qualifying races held the week before the regatta proper. However, if a crew can demonstrate a high level of performance in the months preceding the English extravaganza, they can be seeded directly into the main draw by the regatta administrators, or “stewards” (get ready – there are quaint British terms for almost everything at Henley).
This is a fairly simple process for U.S. college and high school crews, since the results from the major championship events held late in the spring can be submitted and are recognized. There aren’t many races of this type for club rowers, though, so Lamb came up with a clever plan to adequately establish his crew’s prowess.
The veteran coach has known some of the rowers and some of the coaches on the current U.S. Senior National Team for many years, and on three successive Saturdays, he arranged for his UBC boat to work out with some of the U.S. vessels up at Carnegie Lake in Princeton. He didn’t expect his group to be able to hang with the national heavyweight eight, but rather aimed to have his protégés prove worthy rivals to the U.S. straight four that would also be on the water. This four (containing four single-oar rowers and no coxswain) is an excellent boat in its own right, and is expected to medal at the 2015 World Championships in France at the end of the summer.
“All three times, we were able to keep pace with that straight four,” Lamb recounted. “That indicated to the Henley stewards that we were a crew capable of going in the neighborhood of 5:40 [five minutes, 40 seconds] over 2000 meters. It also gave the younger guys in our boat a ton of confidence.”
These convincing, if somewhat unorthodox credentials were enough to convince the powers that be in England to send UBC directly into the main draw, bypassing the qualifying stage. The crew’s resume was reinforced at the Schuylkill Navy Regatta in the middle of June, when University won the Intermediate Eight event in a time of 5:35, besting the runner-up by 13 seconds.
Lamb’s sagacious preparation did not end there. Before his outfit arrived in England on Friday, June 27, he’d arranged for some scrimmages with fellow U.S. crews on the Thames itself. On Saturday they raced for short distances against Pardoe’s alma mater, Kent School, which had one of the top high school eights in New England this year and had come over to compete against college crews for the Temple Challenge Cup.
“We did short pieces so it would be competitive, and I think it was useful for both of us,” Lamb said. “On Sunday, we went against the Cornell lightweight eight, which basically has gone undefeated for two years. They were one of the favorites in the Temple Cup, where the winners usually go about the same time as in the Thames Cup. We were able to beat them, which again gave our guys a lot of confidence.”
With these outcomes, and with Lamb keeping a stopwatch during the trial runs, there was evidence that UBC should be a legitimate Cup contender.
The Course and the Conditions
Along with 2015 UBC crew member Anselm Sauter (five seat), Andrew Kelly had made his first trip to Henley in 1999 with St. Joe’s, getting to the quarterfinal round. The coxswain made a thorough study of the course, and came back the next year to pilot the Prep to victory.
At Henley, there’s a lot to learn. For many years now, Olympic and international championship regattas have been staged on still-water courses (usually a natural or manmade lake) set up with six or eight parallel racing lanes. The conditions at the Royal Regatta are very different.
Far upstream from where the Thames broadens out near London, the width of the river at Henley limits the racing to two lanes, and in contrast to most river venues, the crews race against the current, instead of with it. The regatta follows a single-elimination or “knockout” format. You lose, you leave.
Rowers from Britain’s two great universities, Oxford and Cambridge, first squared off at Henley in 1829, and 10 years later a town regatta was formalized, opened to other crews, and made into an annual event. It received its “Royal” status in 1851 under the patronage of Prince Albert.
From the beginning, the course was laid out on the Henley “Reach”, one of the longest straight stretches of the Thames to be found for many miles upstream or downstream. It extends north of the town for 2112 meters, somewhat longer than the international standard of 2000 meters. Since it made sense to have the races finish near the town center where amenities could be provided for organizers and onlookers, the starting line was situated at the northern end of the reach, even though that meant crews would be combating the current as well as one another.
The original course included a slight bend at the beginning, alongside Temple Island. Although there were several alterations to the lay-out over the years, today’s course runs for the original 2112 meters, and thanks to removal of a portion of the Temple Island shoreline, it is now a straight shot all the way down.
While Henley town itself is tucked just inside the eastern boundary of Oxfordshire, most of the regatta course is bordered by Buckinghamshire to the west and Berkshire to the east. Named for the two counties, the racing lanes are known as the Bucks and Berks stations. On some portions of the course, one station lies closer to the riverbank than the other, and thus is slightly sheltered from the full force of the opposing current in midstream. There are some minor tributaries that flow into the Thames from one bank, although their effect is diminished by the floating wooden booms that mark the racing lanes.
Still, it’s generally acknowledged that when the river is running high and fast, crews in one “station” can have an advantage over the other. However, due to lighter-than-average rainfall this spring, the Thames at Henley was relatively benign and neutral for the 2015 regatta.
Kelly, who had become a student of the “stations” as a schoolboy, reported, “The course was pretty fair and not as finicky as it can be under some conditions. In 2011 there was a really fast current; this year the actual conditions on the river were really nice, but it was a lot windier and a lot hotter.”
This actually created a problem for one of the UBC rowers, who suffers from severe hayfever and asthma. Outside of the small towns such as Henley, this portion of the Thames Valley is largely rural, and under the dry, windy conditions, various allergens and irritants blew in from the surrounding countryside.
Although UBC won its early races on Wednesday and Thursday by comfortable margins, the afflicted crew member spent well over an hour in the rowers’ medical tent after each outing.
The Philly crew started out in the first round against London’s Vesta Rowing Club, moving on to the round of 16 and a successful encounter with Molesey Boat Club, which is located along the Thames between Henley and London. The margin of victory, which is termed the “verdict”, was recorded as “easily” for UBC’s opening race, which means the winner prevailed by more than five boat lengths. The eights measure roughly 60 feet long, and in the University crew’s second contest, they mastered Molesey by two and three-quarters lengths.
“We had a pretty good idea we were going to be quick,” Seymour said, “but you never really know until the flag drops and it’s time to go. In the first two races we were able to build a lead and then conserve energy later on.”
UBC’s Kelly noted, “The first two days, we raced hard the first two minutes, then brought the rating down.”
On Friday, July 3, the men from Philly received a physical respite. Their quarterfinal opponent was Sport Imperial Boat Club, a near neighbor of both Vesta and the Thames Rowing Club along London’s Putney Embankment. Sport Imperial (which had knocked off Thames in the 2014 semifinals before losing the final to crew from Frankfurt, Germany) had an injury among its crew on Thursday, and didn’t have an eligible replacement. Regatta rules dictated that University Barge had to make an official trip down the course on their own, but the Americans only had to keep up a respectable pace, and not really tax themselves.
“That’s a rare occurrence, and we viewed it as a gift,” said Seymour. “It helped break up the grind of five straight racing days.”
Coach Lamb held the same view, but Kelly, the cox, had mixed feelings about Sport Imperial’s withdrawal.
“It was good physically, but it does mess with your head a little bit,” he opined. “At Henley, the races get harder with each round, and that process helps prepare you psychologically for the most important races. Mentally, I’m not sure if the day off was the best thing for us.”
Meanwhile, Thames Rowing Club had been moving through the same half of the bracket on a converging course with UBC. The Londoners had ripped through their opening race and then had knocked out a crew from Seattle, Wash. by almost two lengths. Their quarterfinal bout was a bit more challenging, but they were able to defeat a German crew from just north of Dusseldorf by two-thirds of a boat length.
Lamb, who had observed that duel, pointed out, “Thames was ahead by four lengths and then shut it down, knowing the Germans would run out of real estate. It was never as close as the final margin made it seem.”
Like many of the foreign crews, Lamb and his UBC rowers were lodged in private homes in Henley or the surrounding area.
“Our host families could not have been nicer or more gracious,” Seymour attested. “They appreciated the fact that we held Henley in such high regard. They seemed genuinely excited to be hosting an American crew, and I think they became even more enthusiastic as we kept progressing in the regatta.”
Beyond the actual racing, Henley has always been a social occasion of the first order. The grandstands, the tents, the restricted Stewards’ Enclosure, and the other gathering places are a whirl of straw hats, blazers and regimental ties, and fancy frocks. Changed from their uni-suits into their dress-up duds, current competitors mingle with fabled former Olympians in the midst of the refined riparian revelry. And yes, there’s still an ample supply of strawberries and cream.
“Getting dressed up for the Garden Party and the other social events is an experience unto itself,” Seymour remarked. “Getting to compete at Henley is phenomenal in so many ways – the whole thing is the quintessential British sporting event.”
After their easy row in Friday’s quarterfinal round, serious business lay ahead for the CHA alum and his crewmates. On Saturday, UBC would line up for its semifinal race alongside Thames Rowing Club in what most aficionados agreed was the stronger side of the bracket.
“Everybody sort of had the feeling that our Saturday race was going to be the real “final” and that whoever came out of that was going to win on Sunday,” Kelly remarked.
The Philadelphians had been strong starters all week, and in the semifinal they pulled ahead by almost a length during the first two minutes. Not unexpectedly, Thames regrouped and responded, but the nature of their countermove caught the Americans off-guard.
“In a race like that,” explained Kelly, “you normally will jockey back and forth for position, and it’ll be a few seats here and a few seats there.”
When one crew’s lead over another is less than half-a-boat length, their relative position is often judged by a smaller visual gauge, the number of opposing rowers, or seats, the leaders can put behind them.
“Thames took a really long, extended move, which is very unusual and pretty risky,” Kelly elaborated. “They brought their rate up and instead of getting three or four seats back, they came right through us and before you knew it they had gotten 12 seats. It’s very rare to see a move like that lasting for a minute and 20 or 30 seconds.”
Lamb remarked, “You kind of think a burst like that is going to run its course over 30 or 40 seconds, but they just kept the foot on the gas. All the credit in the world to them – that was lethal!”
Kelly summed up, “It was a very high-level, difficult move to make, and it changed the complexion of the race. All you can say is hats off to those guys for doing it.”
University maintained its relative position after that, but couldn’t make up the ground lost during the Thames club’s midrace surge. Putting last year’s semifinal setback behind them, the Londoners won by three-quarters of a length and moved on to the final.
The Philadelphia lads were simply spectators the following day, and they saw what they expected. A second German crew, Rudern, Tennis und Hockey Club Bayer Leverkusen from a little outside of Cologne, had moved through the other half of the bracket, defeating local favorite Leander by more than two lengths in the semifinal round.
In the final, Seymour reported, “The Germans hung in for about a third of the race, then Thames made a move, and went on to really take control.”
They were able to ease off late in the race and still win by three lengths. Lamb stayed around to watch some of the other championship contests, and the results reinforced his opinion that UBC had been part of a very solid Thames Challenge Cup field.
In the top collegiate race, the Ladies Challenge Plate, he observed, “The University of Washington has dominated U.S. college crew for the past two years, and Yale beat them in the finals by rowing a perfect race in almost every aspect. Still, Yale’s time was only three seconds faster than the winning time in our event.”
The coach revealed that when he first saw his UBC crew after their semifinal loss on Saturday, they were almost apologetic.
Lamb said that he told his charges, “Are you kidding me? You guys did great, and I had a ball this week!”
He stated, “In 30 years, this is one of the most rewarding coaching experiences I’ve been involved with. We overcame a lot of challenges, like the limited amount of practice time and the very diverse nature of our guys.”
Kelly feels that UBC is now attracting the level of adult rowers that will make for successful Henley journeys in the future. Personally, he’s going to take a pass in order to spend more time with his family, and Schardt won’t make another trip until his academic demands diminish.
Seymour, however, is ready to go if a crew can be assembled for 2016, and Coach Lamb announced, “If they want to undertake it, I’m all in.”
In addition to those mentioned above, the UBC crew included Neil McPeak (stroke), John Lipiros (six seat), Logan Smith four seat), and John Peiper (three seat).