Jack Dryden |

The Secret Umpire: Reflections of a Henley Steward

In celebration of Henley Royal Regatta, an umpire shares some special memories of this event with our writer Jack Dryden

Established in 1839, Henley Royal Regatta is one of Britain’s most iconic sporting events. Known for fiercely competitive international racing and its unique spectator experience, the event is organised by a team of around 60 Stewards. Speaking in secret, our correspondent caught up with one Steward Umpire about their thoughts on the event and what it takes to adjudicate the tight races.

Our secret umpire has been a Henley Steward some five or six years, but their connection to the regatta goes back many more. “In my teenage years, we used to come down and camp at Swiss Farm,” they tell me, “But I don’t do that now. I like a comfy bed.”

Henley Stewards are self-elected, chosen by their peers on the basis of their skills and experience in the sport. Crucially the whole process, from first nomination to final vote, is conducted in strict secrecy. “You have no idea your name has been put forward until the chairman phones you up and says: ‘I’ve got some good news for you.’ Then you fall off your chair and say: ‘What me?’.”

I asked my contact where they were when they got the call.

“We were out shopping in John Lewis, and I couldn’t get a signal. So, I had to text Mike Sweeney [then chair of the regatta] and say that I’d phone him back. All I could think of was why is Mike phoning? Then he called again, and I was in B&Q. Very exciting. No idea what we were buying!”

Our secret umpire has volunteered at many events, be they river heads or Dorney lake regattas, but they say Henley is by far the most exciting to adjudicate.

“At a multi-lane course, you’re this little blob in a tower. When you’re at the start of a Henley race, you can see the whites of their eyes. You can sense the adrenaline.”

“It’s a very privileged position. As umpires, you appreciate that people in front of you have spent years getting to the regatta.”

Though they didn’t umpire the race, they mention witnessing Mahé Drysdale’s epic comeback to win the Diamond Challenge Sculls in 2018. “It’s in those moments I know the commitment it’s taken from those people to compete and win at that level.”

But with that intimacy and stiff competition, comes a level of responsibility too. “Henley is all or nothing. Losing is brutal. You can see the huge disappointment at the end. But I think that’s part of the umpire’s job, empathising with the crews and coaches.”

When races are close, win or lose can depend entirely on an umpire’s call. I ask my contact what was the hardest decision they ever had to make at Henley?

“There was a coxless four race where it was nip and tuck all the way. For both crews, their steering wasn’t particularly straight, shall I say! It was one of those races where the crews were working absolutely to their limit and to try and steer as well, it was challenging.”

Coming over the line, our umpire had to decide whether the steering had impacted the result. They asked the finish judges to confirm the distance separating the boats, waited to see if either crew would raise a hand to challenge, then awarded the race. But in truth, they were still nervous. “Fortunately, there was a gentleman from the crew that lost who said: ‘As an ex-umpire, I’d have made exactly the same decision.’ And I thought… phew!”

Each day at Henley, umpires are allocated to one of four or five boats or ‘launches’ which rotate to follow each race in order. They cannot choose the races they cover, but they can bow out if they need to. “You may have a crew from your club and say: ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate I umpire this race. I know this crew quite well.’ I think we’re all very mindful of that, of being seen to be fair.”

One could argue umpires are never under more scrutiny than at Henley – with family and friends sitting behind in the launch and drones flying overhead – but our steward is unshaken.

“Everyone will have an opinion. The thing is – you are the only person that’s looking down the middle line. Your passengers are sitting to one side, it’s the same with the TV footage. There are thousands of amateur umpires out there, but we’re the only people that can actually see the line and make the judgment.”

To finish off I ask, what’s the best part of being a Henley Steward?

“The biggest perk is just getting to be a part of that regatta and in your own small way – because the regatta will go on long beyond you pushing up the daisies – knowing you’ve made a little contribution.”

This article was first published in August 2021.