Issue 108 - May 1998
The image of the lone sculler, awake from dawn, driven to great hardship through monastic devotion to a Corinthian ideal is hackneyed and tells only part of the story. In the Victorian age, the successful, professional sculler was carried aloft by adoring fans in the same way as a boxer or jockey is now. Contests were as popular as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and fortunes were bet on their outcome; the World Sculling Champion was a household name.
In the early 1990s champion sculler Peter Haining was discussing the history of sculling and the professional and amateur heroes of bygone days with noted rigging technician cabinet maker John Russell in the Thames Rowing Club gym. Would it not be great to relive those days of famous scullers from the brothers Phelps to the Earl of Iveagh, he conjectured. Russell told him that the boat above his head had been waiting since last century for such a race and in his opinion was match-fit. It was the boat in which Rupert Guinness, later the Earl of Iveagh, won the Diamond Sculls twice in the 1890's. Russell's offer to fix up the shell if Haining would race it (which he did on its centenary at Henley) that germinated another idea.
The championship was thus revived after a gap of some 40 years as the Thames World Sculling Challenge, by Haining three times world lightweight sculling champion, an Olympian who is a professional at heart. The Thames World Sculling Challenge may be won by professional or amateur, regardless of background, young or old, lightweight or heavyweight, male or female. The only pre-requisite is that you must already be a champion to compete
This is truly a championship of champions, a unification event for which only the toughest qualify. It uses the 41/4 mile Putney to Mortlake course, known as the Championship Course because professional world and amateur English titles were won and lost over it. It calls for tremendous endurance, great strength and technique, as well as watermanship. Moreover, this is a race relying on the psychological fortitude and contestants ability to compete 'one on one' - a sublimation of the warfare that goes to the root of sport.
The earliest record of the race is in 1831, only a year after the inaugural Wingfield Sculls (the main amateur title), for what was then called the Championship of the Thames. C. Campbell beat J. Williams from Westminster to Hammersmith. Putney to Mortlake was used from 1846 - 65, after which the venue became a moveable feast between Thames and Tyne, in 1877. The competition became international when it was rowed on the Parramatta River near Sydney, Australia, the great Ed Trickett of Sydney successfully defending his world title against two-times champion J.H.Sadler.
The race has links with the oldest annual sporting event still in continuous existence, the Doggett's Coat and Badge which has taken place on the Thames since 1715: Ted Phelps won the English Championship in 1930 and the Doggett's in the same year.
The championship was revived by John Tierney and Guy Rees under the direction of Peter Haining in 1993, when the race was between Steve Redgrave, Peter Haining and Wade Hall-Craggs. After a closely contested battle, Hall-Craggs beat Haining by four lengths. The latter stamped his authority on the race by winning in 1994 and 1995. The title was wrested abroad for the first time in 1996, going to the Merlin Vervoom of the Netherlands after a close battle with Haining. 1996 also saw the first Women's Challenge, won by Guin Batten, an Olympic finalist that year. A silver Thames RC broach dating from a winning Henley crew of the 1920's was washed ashore on a Brighton beach and arrived back at the club on the eve of the race. It was awarded along with the silver sculls trophy donated by Chas Newens: surely a good omen!
In 1997 the race was an epic struggle, Greg Searle, World Championship bronze medallist, sculled into the December sunset to add the Thames World Sculling Challenge's George Parsonage trophy to the Diamond Sculls he had won at Henley that summer. His opponents were Giovanni Calabrese, 1997 world champion in a quad, Vervoom, the holder, Martin Kettle, Scullers Head and Wingfields holder, and Karsten Neilsen, the lightweight World Champion.
A month earlier Guin Batten stamped her authority on the women's version of the championship in a record breaking race which she completed in 22 minutes, 13 seconds. She dominated the national champion Alison Sanders and Henley Women's champion Rowan Carroll throughout.
© Copyright Regatta Magazine, 1997.
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