Last week beautiful Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire hosted the Henley Royal Regatta, arguably one of the most famous rowing events in the world. As long as the weather is ok it is a stunning event and, followed by The Henley Festival, it should definitely be on any ‘to-do’ list.
But I’m not here to talk about rowing, I know nothing about it. I am going to get you excited about an open-water swimming event that shares the same course as the regatta.
In 2004 keen athletes Tom Kean and Jeremy Laming decided that it would be an awesome idea to swim the regatta course. The 2.1km stretch of The Thames is set up for the rowers weeks before regatta starts and there is a constant stream of river traffic throughout the day. Not ideal conditions for swimmers, they just aren’t seen very easily. So, it was decided that dawn was the best time to swim it, and dawn is 4am in July.
It was pretty cool, as you can imagine. Some stunning pictures were taken and lots of hype spread around the town, which meant that the following year there were 20 swimmers gathering to take on the course. Each year it got more popular, so much so that in 2008 it was made an official event and named The Henley Classic.
The swimmers, like the rowers, travel upstream from Temple Island towards the town of Henley and you come out just before Henley Bridge. Upstream means that you don’t get away with anything. Even when there has been very little rain, like this year, you are still drifting away from the start line while waiting for the gun to go off.
The beauty of this event and the reason that you can all put it at the top of your athletic bucket list (before sipping Pimm’s and watching the rowing) is that the organisers have cleverly made separate waves for differing abilities. Open-water starts are horrendous places to be unless you are super-fast from the get-go. It’s like going into battle. It’s known as the ‘washing machine’ and you get a real bashing. But with The Henley Classic you could have a go and enter yourself into the first wave created just for beginners and slower swimmers. Quite civilised really.
The event is hugely popular now with almost 700 competitors this year and the standard is high and competitive. The times that the best were posting last week just blew my mind and apparently it was a slow year. Competitors from all over the world are now rocking up and they also have an Oxford/Cambridge varsity swim.
Walking down the towpath before the sun is up, where a green beam of light is angled across the river to mark the start, with no one around apart from people mad enough to get up at 3am to do this, then battle it out in the Thames while spotting Henley in the distance and the regatta tents along the bank is pure magic. Do it.