The Henley Classic 2016: Review – A dawn swim

By Flipper Fingers

January 18, 2017  

Months following the event to allow time for reflection, SW club secretary tells of the Henley Classic endurance swim and all that happened that fateful night.

Alex takes on the Henley Classic. A 4am swim up the river Thames. What goes through the mind of this man in this classic British event and in a world where people tell you ‘you have to do this event’ more regularly than you hear your own name – is the Henley Classic worth it for the cost and early bed time?

——- Part 1 ——-

… One arm, then the other, slapping the surface like two great, rigid oars, but without their propulsion. Indeed I seem literally to be going nowhere, judging by the stadium seats not moving to my left, despite superhuman efforts. Gasping underwater – if this is possible – while taking great gulps of air above it, mingled with flecks of foam, weed and fish. The end of the Henley Classic endurance swim 2016 is in sight – a great arch like in any race, framing the church of Henley on Thames beyond – yet it seems to be getting further away rather than closer. Ah yes, the current is now pushing me backwards. ‘ARE YOU OK?’ shouts a canoeist, but by the time I respond he’s off. I continue on – no giving up now. Not when the end is so close. An owl once again flies overhead – could it be the same one I saw at the race start, which has been tracking me all this way?

A wond’rus bird, the Barn-y owl,
With crookèd beak and beady scowl,
My clumsy walk; His soaring flight;
My ageing eyes; His crystal sight.

George readies himself

——- Part 2 ——-

The Henley Classic is an endurance swim like no other, commencing at the ungodly hour of 4am at the start of the British summer. The race sees swimmers swim a mile upstream along the Thames, following the route of the famous Henley Rowing Regatta – won by Jonny Smith Walrus as part of the Henley Rowing Club Men’s VIII many moons ago – before emerging into the summer dawn just outside the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames. The fact that it is an upstream swim can make a big difference depending on the rainfall prior to the event, and 2016 was the toughest of the 3 years in which I have done it due to heavy rain in the weeks preceding the event.

Skyward – he thinks – will surely see,
Him safely borne away from me.
But shotgun forms twixt sky and Earth,
A bridge – of sorts – with little mirth.

——- Part 3 ——-

In my delirium I think back to the start of the race. The walk down to the swim start from around the halfway point was exciting but daunting: exciting due to the collective nervousness, the lights, the torchbearer; daunting due to the knowledge you will be swimming that same distance and more, and the inky black water waiting to swallow you up to one side. The elites – greased up with goose fat and in speedos – are called first, then it’s everyone else to follow in their various categories. An owl swoops low overhead, reminding all of the ungodly hour. The water is, thankfully, warm – no prospect of a freakout here – but still needs some acclimatising. As I break the surface I wake up from a stupor that both makes me realise where I am and question how I made it safely from Bristol in the car. Thrice blows the starters horn…. And I’m off. As my rhythm begins to settle, verses seem to rise up out of the water and into my brain about the owl seen earlier, and a poem begins to take shape. Strangely, many months after the race I was to learn that the same had happened to my good friend Wetbeak.

His only hope: my nervous finger,
A fleeting thought – perhaps I linger?
Perhaps I let the bird fly free?
Perhaps I grant him clemency?

‘Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling together’. Wetbeak and Edwin.

——- Part 4 ——-

It is, without a doubt, a thrilling experience. Swimmers gather from around 2am in the black of night, don their wetsuits (or speedos, for the elites), follow a torchbearer along the banks of the Thames in the twinkle of festival lights that line the route, and then descend into the water at around 4am. The various waves mean that you can enter regardless of level – even if an extremely slow swimmer. Once you’re on your way it is a surreal experience, the lights and stars reflecting off the water and great stadia – set up for the regatta – lining the bank, the passing of seats evidence of your progress (or lack thereof). Other than the sound of splashing silence reigns, with no cars or signs of the usual trappings of daily life anywhere near. Suspended in a watery purgatory, the only option is to repeat the motion of the swim – left, right, look, breathe… – and move on. The feeling is sensational. Also the knowledge that if you make it to the end, JSW might be waiting with a hot coffee and a bacon sandwich.

But no. I fire my shot of course.
And no, I don’t feel your remorse.
Your humanity is quite disgusting!
Your morality will leave you starving.

William in action

——- Part 5 ——-

Another flashback, this time to two years ago and the first time I undertook this event. We had gathered at The Olde Tumbledown Nunnery the night before, with a mutual pact that we would all awaken at 2am. Unfortunately no element of the pact involved someone in charge of an alarm, so each slept merrily with the thought someone else would do the act of awakening. A blood-curdling shriek at 3am pierced the night air, and within minutes we were on the road, 5 grown men in a small Ford KA, one loaf of Jamaican Ginger cake each. ‘Don’t they drive on the left in the UK?’ I quizzed Jonny. But he didn’t seem to hear and was making good progress so I left it at that. Wetbeak bellowed something inaudible over the roar of the engine: ‘Hadders! I wouldn’….too much….jamaic…inger cake!’ Whatever warning he uttered was lost to the night air. I finished my loaf and looked out of the window as we hurtled towards the Henley Classic and what lay beneath.

Muzzle exhales its murd’rus cloud;
The majestic bird – wise, proud –
Pirouettes mid flight ingloriously,
Then falls to ground, obediently.
Dead.

——- Part 6 ——-

The organisation of the Henley Classic is excellent. Once you’re there, parking is dead easy (in the fields right by the swim), with just a short walk to the main hub where you can change, grab a bite to eat and deposit your kit. Getting hold of your registration documents is straightforward, and you can then poke around the various items of kit they have for sale, which includes some nicely designed clothing. After the walk to the swim start, you deposit any items you’ve walked in (flip flops etc) and anything you want at the end of the swim (towel/hoodie etc.) into a designated box, and this will be waiting for you at the end. Despite being an increasingly popular and well subscribed event, it has maintained the close and friendly atmosphere of a local gathering, with everyone brought together by the prospect of dipping into the water at such an early hour. The ‘local’ feel is enhanced by quirks such as the Oxford vs Cambridge race – where current and former students of Oxford and Cambridge universities can have their times added to an overall time for that university. All in all, for the price of £35, it is well worth doing. As is to be expected, stuff for sale (such as bacon sandwiches – £5 a crack) is not cheap, but then I suppose it is par for the course at ‘London’ prices. Paying in advance (when you register) for a mug of coffee (you keep the mug as a memento) and cake after the event is well worth it, as both coffee and cake are delicious and limitless.

‘though glorious in life, death treats all the same,
As I cut out your bowels, and spoon out your brain.
So you, my owl, must lie like others.
I leave you here. Just bone and feathers.

The swimmers, after the event. All made it out alive

——- Part 7 ——-

It occurs to me that the reason for my flashbacks is that I’m not getting enough oxygen and am creeping remarkably close to a watery grave. This is not how I remember the race: in previous years, after settling into a rhythm it was just a case of keeping going at that pace to the end; this year, the rhythm is not enough to maintain momentum, and each stroke is a gargantuan heave at the very limits of my meagre ability. Pulling myself together I redouble my efforts – this is the toughest bit, when the end is in sight in the hazy morning yet still so far off. Shoulders burning, arms struggling. Is that a bacon sandwich I can see floating on the surface, just out of arms reach? I imagine the others having finished, heckling from the shores; my towel thieved, used for something indescribable before being replaced, as at the training camp so many years ago. I struggle on, and before I know it the arch passes over me, taking at least 5 minutes despite only being under a metre in width, the channel it forms funnelling the current to its strongest yet. Breast-stroke to the end and I emerge: dizzy, delirious but delighted. Looking behind I see Mr William close in my wake, and see how I must have looked: each stroke carrying one’s body barely centimetres forwards.

Off to the cabins for a hot coffee, some cake, then back to JSW’s for eggs and bacon. Oh, and a 50Km bike ride.

Summary – The Henley Classic Review

The ratings for this event are as follows:

Sign up Procedure: 10/10
Value for money: 9/10
Organisation: 9/10
Enjoyment: 9/10
Thrill factor: 10/10

After the Henley Swim we ride out into the hills.

The Owl – A Tale, by Wetbeak and Haddock.

Based on the original tale ‘The Mountain Goat’ by Wetbeak

A wond’rus bird, the Barn-y owl,
With crookèd beak and beady scowl,
My clumsy walk; His soaring flight;
My ageing eyes; His crystal sight.

 

Skyward – he thinks – will surely see,
Him safely borne away from me.
But shotgun forms twixt sky and Earth,
A bridge – of sorts – with little mirth.

 

His only hope: my nervous finger,
A fleeting thought – perhaps I linger?
Perhaps I let the bird fly free?
Perhaps I grant him clemency?

 

But no. I fire my shot of course.
And no, I don’t feel your remorse.
Your humanity is quite disgusting!
Your morality will leave you starving.

 

Muzzle exhales its murd’rus cloud;
The majestic bird – wise, proud –
Pirouettes mid flight ingloriously,
Then falls to ground, obediently.
Dead.

 

‘though glorious in life, death treats all the same,
As I cut out your bowels, and spoon out your brain.
So you, my owl, must lie like others.
I leave you here. Just bone and feathers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *