July 2018, Henley-on-Thames

There were a few sharp intakes of breath when this was revealed at a private preview in the Steward’s Enclosure the evening before the first day of racing at Henley Royal Regatta. The action at the start of a race can be frantic, blades churn the water wildly as crews push out of the blocks straining hard to take any advantage they can. In these early stages it’s easy for boats to veer off course slightly, particularly for coxless boats relying on a steers-person – already occupied in the intense physical exertion of the moment – to keep the boat straight. There are no buoys down the centre of the Regatta course, an umpire will warn crews straying into their opposition’s path but will rarely warn those heading for the wooden booms on the outside of the course, and potentially catastrophic consequences. Crews do all they can to stay well away.

As I watched from the launch following the race, there was an element of predictability in what was about to unfold. Focusing tightly on the foreground I had a perfect view straight down the course, the white posts either side vanished into the blur as the church loomed beyond the finish line in the distance. Despite the umpire’s warnings the crews drew closer with each stroke, I trained my sights into the space between the boats and waited. The blades almost clashed, I was on the edge of my seat watching things develop, holding my nerves to stay on target as I fired the shutter, as no doubt the athletes were holding theirs! Just over my shoulder stood the umpire, bellowing out warnings for both crews to move apart with increasing intensity as the action raged on ahead of us, neither crew willing to back down. At last the crews got the message and they retreated to their stations under threat of disqualification, but I had managed to capture the drama, a snapshot of the exchange between crews fighting to get to the next stage of the knockout competition – at almost any cost! Umpires do all they can to keep crews apart during a race and, despite the enquiries made, I was unable to say which crews were involved, lest it reveal too much!

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