Wednesday, 04 August 2021

Financier flies umpire flag for the last time at memorable final

MIKE WILLIAMS has a real head for figures. The retired banker helped rescue the Amateur Rowing

MIKE WILLIAMS has a real head for figures. The retired banker helped rescue the Amateur Rowing Association, now British Rowing, from financial oblivion.

His efforts helped him on to the executive committee of FISA, the international rowing federation, also as treasurer.

But it’s Mr Williams’s career as an umpire that has given him the most satisfaction in the sport.

He has spent about 17 years officiating at regattas both at home and abroad, including Henley Royal Regatta, although he is now in his final year of umpiring having turned 65.

Mr Williams, who lives in Remenham, explains: “There is an unwritten understanding that you can’t umpire at Henley once you have reached your 65th birthday.”

He was born in Oxford, the only child of Duncan, a maths teacher, and Pam, now 91 and still a visitor to the royal regatta. He went to Oundle, a boarding school in Northamptonshire, near the River Nene.  

“That’s where I first came across rowing,” says Mr Williams. “It was probably my first week as I hadn’t yet worked out whether you had to say ‘sir’ to a prefect or not when this enormous guy came up to me and said ‘you are the smallest new boy, aren’t you?’ I said that I was and he replied, ‘you are not good at cricket, are you?’ and he was right.

“He said that I would be coxing the next term, so I then had to go away and find out what coxing was. I found that a cox does a number of things — he steers the boat and gives the orders to everyone else. He is the organiser of the crew. Coxes also build the skills in how to read a race and work with your crew to be a secondary coach, or even a primary coach if they haven’t got anyone on the bank.”

Mr Williams coxed the school eight at the royal regatta in 1967 but they lost in the first round.

He recalls: “I had been coxing school crews for about two or three years and I had seen pictures of Henley so it didn’t come as a surprise. It was just another regatta but it was slightly better organised than most.

“I can remember the reaction of the stroke the first time we went down the course in training. When we were at the start he looked round his shoulder and said, ‘oh, it’s a long way’ and, of course, it is.

“It is the longest side-by-side race and about 110 yards longer than the usual 2km course.”

Mr Williams spent four years coxing for the school before taking a gap year at King’s College in Auckland, New Zealand.

On his return he read maths and then economics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. In his first year, he coxed the college boat, followed by Goldie, the second crew, a year later and in his third year the winning Boat Race crew.

He raced at Henley three years in a row, from 1971 to 1973, and in the third year the crew made it to the last eight before being “thoroughly thumped” by a Dutch crew.

Mr Williams says: “I was never going to be a fantastic rower because of my size but I do remember my first race steering an eight. I remember the sensation of speed, even though we probably weren’t going very quickly and that was fun. Once you are bitten by that bug, it never leaves you.”

He left university with an “oarsman’s” 2:2 degree and worked in the City as a banker until retirement in 2011.

Mr Williams says: “When I started work in London I joined London Rowing Club, where I rowed for four years, normally in a coxless four, but I would be in the bow seat steering the boat. I was a novice really. I think we won about five events before I stopped and we didn’t race at Henley.”

He became club captain in 1977 as he stopped rowing due to the pressures of work and instead he became a coach and organiser as well as qualifying as an umpire. “When you have a full-time job, rowing takes a back seat,” says Mr Williams. “You can’t train as much and you have difficulty even being a coach because you can’t make all outings. Umpiring was something you could do as it was at weekends.  It meant I could stay involved in the sport without making a huge commitment.”

He applied to his local umpiring commission, which was then the Amateur Rowing Association’s Thames Region, and then had to pass a written exam to demonstrate he knew the rules.

Finally, he had to spend a season undergoing on-the-job training.

Mr Williams explains: “You go to a number of regattas at which you work alongside umpires who will teach you the practical art of doing the job. At the end of the season there is a practical exam on a table top with model boats and you have to sort out a number of races, most of which would never happen in real life. They show you all the situations that could go wrong.”

Soon afterwards, he took some time out of the sport because of the amount of travelling required for his job.

Then he became treasurer of his rowing club, which would involve visiting once a week to count the money, pay the bills and do the VAT return. He did this for about 10 years. In 1989, he was elected treasurer of the former Amateur Rowing Association after being invited by the late Peter Coni, a former chairman of Henley Royal Regatta.

Mr Williams recalls: “Peter and I had a private conversation where he told me that he wanted me to become treasurer of the ARA, where he chaired the finance committee. The association was in a financial hole and needed someone to sort it out. They were using next year’s money to pay last year’s bills and they had an overdraft which was roughly the same size as the budget.

“I did that for 10 years and by the end of my time all their problems were sorted out. What did I do to help sort it out? I started by doubling the fees for members, which didn’t make me immediately popular!

“We also had a lot of help from NatWest who allowed us to buy the offices that we were using to run the association from. We were the sitting tenant and the building was probably worth £500,000 but they sold it to us for £100,000, which was very generous. Then the National Lottery came along, which also helped.”

In 1999, after 10 years, he left the role but stayed on as chairman of the finance committee, which meant attending only about four meetings a year. He finally came off the committee in December 2014 as British Rowing brought in new corporate governance rules which said that no board member should serve more than two four-year terms.

Mr Williams says: “I had been on there for 25 years, so it was my time to step down but they immediately appointed me an honorary life vice-president so I was able to attend meetings but not vote.”

His work with the association also led to him becoming treasurer of FISA in succession to Mr Coni. He was asked to stand for election in 1993 by the then president, Martin Brandon-Bravo.

Mr Williams says: “It was a strange election that only rowing could throw up. There were three candidates, two tall women and one very short man. Martin made a brilliant speech, which was the main reason I was elected as nobody there knew me. In the December that year I was elected as a steward of Henley Royal Regatta, which, I think, reflected the job I had at FISA.”

In the early Eighties, Mr Williams joined the royal regatta commentary team. He started out in the back of a launch from where he had to tell the radio announcers who was leading each race, by how much and at what position the crews were on the course.

“I graduated from that to having the hot microphone in my hands and talking directly to thousands of people,” he says. “One of the nicest things about that job was being at the top of the floating stand.

“The people in there are the most knowledgeable people about the regatta. If the commentator announces something that is manifestly incorrect, they all turn around in unison and say ‘oh no they aren’t’, which means the mistake will be quickly replaced rather than repeated in the next announcement.”

Mr Williams strived to become an international standard umpire, taking his multi-lane licence in 1994 and his FISA licence three years later.

He explains: “If you have an ordinary licence you can umpire river regattas, which will allow you to assist at multi-lane regattas, but there are certain jobs there you can’t do, such as starting the races, so you have to learn to do that. The FISA licence allows you to umpire at international events.”

He began umpiring at Henley in 1999, two years after he moved from London to Pack and Prime Lane in Henley. He moved to his current home in 2007.  

Mr Williams says: “Henley always has had a preference that you have high qualifications and have umpired at other events already that year. It’s so you are not bringing out your dusty flags that you haven’t used for a while.

“Mike Sweeney [former royal regatta chairman] would send out a form to umpires each year for us to fill in to let him know which events you had umpired at in the past year and what jobs you did at those events. I would average about six events a year, which would range from local regattas on the river or the Tideway in London to university world championships.

“The umpire is there for the safety of the crews and to make sure they don’t hit anything at full speed as well as to ensure the conduct of the race is fair. If the crews do their jobs properly and fairly then the umpires have nothing to do but start the race.”

Mr Williams says umpiring at Henley is more difficult than at other regattas.

“All the way down both sides of the course there are objects called booms and piles,” he says. “On other courses there is one small buoy every 10 metres. Understandably, most coxless crews and indeed some with coxes prefer to steer towards the centre of the course rather than stay on their own side, which runs the risk of colliding with the booms and this makes the umpires’ task at Henley tricky.”

There is no appeal process for crews if they feel hard done by.

Mr Williams explains: “The umpire’s decision is final. Crews can, of course, make their point to the umpire to try to persuade them to change their mind but it’s not a successful strategy.”

Has he ever made a mistake as an umpire? “No,” he replies. “In about 17 years of umpiring I think I’ve had about half a dozen disqualifications.”

Mr Williams continues: “Henley is unique from an umpire’s perspective and having eight spectators sitting behind you in the launch helps to concentrate the mind when making decisions.

“It was made even more complicated last year when we had a television camera. As the senior umpire, all my races were televised. Before last year’s regatta took place we ran a number of test races with volunteer crews so the television production team could practise their camera positions and so on. I did the first of these races and was concerned to see the drone about 10m in front of the crews we were following and 3m above the water.

“Afterwards I was told that the drone operator was the most experienced drone pilot in the country, which gave me some reassurance but I still thought the proximity of the drone to the crews would be extremely off-putting. The drone thereafter was much higher above or behind the crews.”

Mr Williams’s last race as a Henley umpire was the final of the Grand Challenge Cup last year between the Great Britain eight and the German eight, which the former won by almost three lengths. “It was one of my most memorable races,” he says. “It was featuring two of the best eights in the world. Great Britain were the world champions and Germany were the Olympic and European champions.

“I was expecting a close race although it didn’t work out that way. Perhaps the British were relishing the home waters and they had the massive crowd on their side. Not a bad race to go out on.”

This thrilling climax was a world away from when he first started at Henley and was given an unfortunate nickname.  

Mr Williams explains: “I was umpiring the coxless fours races in the Wyfold Challenge Cup. It was a windy day and conditions were difficult. I earned the nickname the Grim Reaper after no less than five crews clattered into the booms.

“The way that umpiring works at Henley is, if you have done it for a long time you are in either launch one or two, which is mainly for the eights races. Because they are coxed, they don’t provide much incident.

“In launches three and four you get the quads and the fours. Ironically, the least experienced umpires deal with the more difficult races but it’s probably just as well as they are younger and their reaction times are a bit faster.”

Mr Williams says one of the reasons he loves Henley Royal Regatta is its traditions.

He explains: “It is unique in the sense that it has survived as a top regatta, attracting many of the world’s best crews despite not conforming to modern standards of 2km racing with six lanes and despite having water which is difficult to row on because of the other traffic on the river, which disturbs the water.

“The reason it has survived is because it is so well-run and offers the crews something a bit different from their daily grind of training.”

Mr Williams hopes to remain on the committee of management until he is 70 when, under another unwritten rule, he must step down.

With his umpire’s licence due to expire at the end of the year, he is now training to be a launch driver so he can continue to work on the river.

“It is the best place to be,” he says.

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