So it has come to the end of another year. Another cycle of the rowing calendar has spun before us, throwing up the familiar scenes of drama, controversy, glory and passion. Charged with chronicling these events, I find myself stretched to the limit of my literary capacity to encapsulate all that has occurred in the last few months. But, as ever, I shall endeavour to try one last time before handing over the verbal baton to my successor.
Firstly and most importantly, a message of congratulations to our coach, Angelo Savarino, and his wife Denise who gave birth to a healthy baby boy last week. Giuseppe Savarino was born in the early hours of the 4th July a healthy and beautiful boy. As the mentor of our club we all join in wishing the Savarinos well and are proud of the newest addition to the family. We hope that one day he will join our sporting community and show us all how to row properly!
Giuseppe’s birth came at the end of an extremely auspicious week for NUBC at the Henley Royal Regatta, an event that has captured the imagination of the rowing world since time immemorial. The race takes place on a hallowed stretch of the Thames that has given birth to champion after champion. Out of respect for the history and culture of this place, only the toughest, most skilled and competitive crews enter and do battle in a one on one format. Newcastle had entered four crews, hoping each one of them would be able to represent the club in three different events. There were two eights in the Temple Challenge Cup – a competition for academic eights. A coxed four in the Prince Albert Challenge Cup – for academic coxed fours and a composite coxless four entered in the Visitors Challenge – for intermediate fours. Each of these crews would need to overcome certain hurdles before lining up on the start line. The ‘B’ eight had to go through the qualifiers on the Friday before the event, the ‘A’ eight had to prequalify through the Metropolitan and Marlow regatta’s in the preceeding week, the coxless four had to find a fourth oarsmen and the coxed four had to persuade the giant Sam Arnot to use his legs. No small feat we can assure you.
The ‘A’ eight put in an impressive performance in both qualifying regattas and, combined with the good results over the year and the club’s strong reputation, were pre qualified. The ‘B’ eight, despite a similarly strong result at Marlow regatta, had to go through the qualifying regatta on the Friday before. Not to be deterred and whilst the rest of the squad returned to the north, the second 8 spent the week on the Henley course perfecting their unique style of rowing and preparing themselves for the fight of qualification.
46 crews turned up to race over the 2,112 metres. The fastest 14 on the day would qualify with the rest sent back home empty handed. The strength of the B crew lay in their ability to understand their weaknesses. Knowing they lacked physicality and size – with over half the crew being of lightweight status – they tuned their own style into one best described as ‘agricultural’. Short, aggressive and uncompromising the eight stormed down the course laying waste to the crews either side of them. They kept up the tempo, causing onlookers to comment on their racing style and finished the race strongly, leaving nothing to regret. Traditionally, crews would gather under the tannoy to await the announcement, applauding politely and slapping each other quietly on the back if and when their crew was read out. However, the city of Newcastle is not famed for its subtlety or piousness and the second 8 made sure this reputation was not ill founded. The roar following the confirmation that ‘Newcastle B’ had qualified was heard several miles away in greater Marlow and carried on for such a time that the crews immediately after were unable to hear if they had qualified. Such is life and the eight had confirmed their status in the elite and were to compete on the Wednesday.
The Regatta proper began the following Wednesday a passed in a blur of heats, races and showdowns. Following the draw that pitted the crews against enemies both foreign and domestic, it fell to the second eight to start the campaign. Whilst they may not have been the most stylish or fluid of crews, they more than compensated in guts and determination. Stacked against a far larger Bristol crew they proceeded to compete in what one passer by described as ‘a real dogfight’. With both crews consisting of the ‘foot soldiers’ of their respective clubs, it was an evenly matched, if slightly lower profile clash. Following a bout of nerves off the start Newcastle trailed Bristol to the barrier before their solid rhythm and strong stroke rate began to tell. Moving through halfway they smashed up a push and held a length lead over their southern counterparts. Coming into the enclosures the boys in blue suffered a minor technical setback, resulting in a few bad strokes, allowing Bristol back in the game but, inch by slow inch they moved away clocking an impressive win by ¾ of a length. Job done they allowed their two man his trademark histrionics and paddled back to the tents relieved and overjoyed at their win.
Sadly, the first eights race did not have quite the same overtures. They had looked fearsome in the warm up races but, for whatever reason, they did not seem to click when they arrived on the race course. They faced a tough UL crew who had earned a seed from the stewards and had declared it their ambition to win the Temple Challenge outright. It was an unfortunate draw to get but, nevertheless, the boys were confident that, cometh the hour they could prevail. However, as always in rowing, things did not quite go to plan. Although a strong and hugely experienced crew, they were caught napping on the start line and were completely outgunned in the first 500 metres. Coming out of the island they found themselves a length down and staring at defeat. Cracks began to appear at halfway and UL moved to two and a half lengths clear and began to ease their stroke rate down. Newcastle fans urged their eight to strike and strike again, but no such move came and, sadly, the first eight were defeated by two lengths. Dispirited they rowed in, their hopes shattered. The next day the second eight, although determined and plucky, were absolutely smashed by Nereus, the champions of Holland. Ceding more than 2 stone a man in weight and about four years experience, they found themselves out of the race before halfway. They kept the tempo high and inched back to lose by two lengths but, in all honesty, it was Game Over. The opposition were simply too strong.
With both eights out it fell to the fours made up of the celebrities of our club to restore some pride. George Rossiter, Sam Arnot, Ed Ford and Tim Clarke, coxed by Charles Barry were determined to return home with a small red box of victory. And for so much of the tournament it seemed possible, dare I say likely, that this would happen. The draw ensured that they would not meet Oxford Brookes – something of a demon crew to them – until the final and they set about the task of making that with gusto. First up came Imperial College who were duly put to the sword, with Newcastle setting a new record to the Barrier and to Fawley in the process. Bristol followed their London counterparts losing by a country mile to the huge Newcastle four with further records to halfway tumbling. Through to the semi finals, the crew looked in fantastic shape to add another Henley win to Angelo’s impressive CV.
Joining them on the Saturday were the Visitor’s 4- of Murray Wilkojc, Chris Jeffers, Elia Salani and Sean Dixon. Although they too had drawn a seeded crew in the form of Leander ‘The Club’ Club they were quietly convinced that they had it within them to progress to the semis. Billed as a tight race, they were given a prime time slot and the spectators gathered to watch the home club, famed for producing former, current and future world champions pit their wits against the veteran Newcastle rowers. Standing at the top of the enclosures the Toon army were ready to lend their vocal support to their former president and help him win what would surely be a gripping race… We were all disappointed. Newcastle dismantled their opposition with ease and were so far clear by halfway that they had time to enjoy the views. Although there were rumours that their opposition had been mistakenly seeded, there was something delicious about hearing the deadpan commentator announce ‘Newcastle University beat Leander Club, the verdict: Easily’.
So to semi final day. The fans arrived with high hopes and aspirations, hoping the traditional barbeque would be one of expectant celebration. First up were the coxed four. Facing down Harvard University from the USA, Charles Barry had prepared a race plan that would, hopefully, allow them progress to the final. There was a feeling, whether accurate or not, that whoever won this race would take the tournament. England expects…
The race was, truly, one of the greatest I have ever witnessed. Newcastle exploded out of the blocks and roared to a length lead. There they sat, their stern canvas on the bowball of the Harvard boat, stroke for stroke they kept their lead intact. Crucially, they did not manage to break free of their opposition but still, a length is a long way in rowing. A huge push from Ed and Sam in the middle of the boat meant that they maintained their length lead and were sitting tall and imperious. With less than a third of the race remaining Harvard threw all that they had. Famed for their fitness and pedigree, the Americans raised the stakes and reduced our lead to half a length. Up went the rate in the foreign boat to an unbelievable 40 strokes a minute.
The crews swept past us, with 300 metres to go and Newcastle were up by a canvas ready for one last, monumental effort. Level in the last 100 metres Charles urged his engine room to slam the legs in one, final, colossal push. The commentators upgraded their usual tone from ‘monotonous’ to ‘slightly interested’. Through came the crews with ten strokes to go, dead level and blade to blade. Glory awaited whichever crew mastered their own physical limits. But only darkness came. Harvard edged their canvas in front and Rossiter and Clarke were done. Sheer effort and the brutal nature of the sport took its toll and, two strokes before the finish, our heroes collapsed. They had done everything in their power and several things more to try and beat them but, on the day, it was not enough. Although defeat is never something to savour, there are few examples of it coming at such a price. Respect to Harvard, they proved themselves to be an incredible crew and proved it by beating Oxford Brookes by a length in the final. Devastated, the boys paddled in, still suffering the after effects they were unable to lift their boat for a full 15 minutes until life returned to their limbs.
They were joined on the bank by the Visitors four who were beaten by former Irish Olympians in a tight race. With the Irish choosing some unusual steering at the start, Newcastle took the opportunity to push ahead. Moving through the halfway mark, Newcastle still maintained their lead. Then the Irish rediscovered their rhythm and attacked hard. But beating Newcastle is never that easy, and heading into the final 500m Newcastle looked as though – amazingly and against the odds – they might win this one. Alas, it was not to be, as the Irish found something within themselves, pride or fear, to draw level and move past Newcastle as they passed the Steward’s enclosures to the finish line.
So comes the end of another domestic season. Although the club will continue to compete at the National and European Championships the majority of the crews have disbanded and will await the autumn before returning to the campaign trail. There will be another publicity officer ready to relate next year’s campaign and all members, old and new, will await the results eagerly. With another intake of school and club rowers, plus another successful Novice year to be inaugurated, Newcastle will return next year wiser, stronger and hungrier for success. You have been warned.