Saturday, 31 July 2021

Rowing club celebrates 50 years

UPPER THAMES Rowing Club was founded 50 years ago with the goal of competing with the best.

UPPER THAMES Rowing Club was founded 50 years ago with the goal of competing with the best.

Its crews have competed at almost every Henley Royal Regatta since and are now a force to be reckoned with.

Peter Sutherland set up the club with his wife Diane in 1963, the year after they were married. The couple bought the club’s first boat — an old coxed four — for £15 but because they didn’t have a boathouse, they kept it in the living room of their home in New Street, Henley, and had to keep the French windows open in order to fit it in.

This meant the winters of 1963 and 1964 were particularly harsh for the young couple.

Mrs Sutherland, who lost her husband in October, recalls: “Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I put up with it. Peter told me to just wear a coat when I went into the living room.

“Despite the cold, it was exciting to be building something out of nothing.”

When the boat was needed, a delicate operation was needed to bring it out of the house.

Mrs Sutherland says: “We had to stop the traffic, feed the boat out of the front window and walk down to the river at the bottom of the road.

“In those days, the house was full of oarsmen most of the time.”

The couple then bought an old Oxford eight which was kept on trestles against the wall of Leander Club in the regatta fields.

This was joined by a coxless pair used in Tamahine, starring Dennis Price, which was filmed on the Henley reach. Mr Sutherland coached the actor and when the filming was finished, the couple accepted an offer to buy the boat.

At the very beginning, the club had just eight oarsmen and a cox. In 1964, Upper Thames entered its first crew in Henley Royal in the Thames Cup and the club has competed at every regatta since.

The Sutherlands looked to recruit people from clubs in the Thames Valley to compete with the best crews from London and the lower Thames.

With help from sponsor George Robinson, whose brother founded Robinson College, Cambridge, the club was able to find a permanent base — a boom shed next to the Remenham Club.

The makeshift boathouse had no electricity, water, toilets or changing rooms but boat racks were installed and a river frontage established from which the crews could launch their boats.

In 1982, Mr Sutherland was able to buy the parcel of land where the boom shed stood and extensions were built in 1985, 2005 and 2009.

The last extension was in fact a new £1million boathouse for which it took just a year to raise the money. It was opened by opened by Sir Steve Redgrave.

The five-times Olympic champion had been involved in a project to train youngsters from Liverpool at Upper Thames and praised the all-inclusive nature of the club.

Speaking at the time, Sir Steve said: “We were welcomed with open arms and I shall always be grateful for that. Upper Thames is what it’s all about.”

The club now has nearly 400 members, 100 of whom are female, and there are successful junior and veteran sections.

The current club captain is Justin Sutherland, son of the founders and a winner of the Wyfold Cup at Henley in 1998.

He says: “We have had some good results in the last few years, which have had a positive effect on our recruitment. The men’s squad has grown to more than 30 and there is a renewed sense of purpose at the club.

“My goal has always been to establish Upper Thames as a top domestic club rather than a flash in the pan. As simple as it sounds, that is a difficult goal to achieve as it requires building a durable culture.”

There are some promising signs. Mr Sutherland says: “Our women’s squad has had considerable success in the last couple of years and our veterans are one of the leading squads in the country.

“The elephant in the room, though, is the absence of a win at Henley Royal and I would be thrilled if we could pull it off in our 50th year.”

Unlike the elite athletes of Leander Club, members of Upper Thames’ men’s squad are self-funded part-timers with regular jobs and children or other commitments.

Their normal regime consists of training on rowing machines and in the gym for up to two hours each weekday and rowing between 30 and 40 miles every weekend from September until July.

Mr Sutherland says: “One of our members lives in Bournemouth and works in Reading so he catches the train every morning from the coast, works a full day, cycles from Reading to Henley in the dark four days a week, trains for two hours, cycles back to Reading station, gets the train home to Bournemouth and repeats the process every day for months on end.

“He got married in November but, because we had a race the following Saturday, he decided to defer his honeymoon until July. Before you ask, he’s just a normal guy — not a weirdo!

“You have to be humbled by that level of commitment. There are quite a few like that. It’s infectious and it makes you want to try harder.”

Upper Thames will be represented at this year’s royal regatta in the Thames Cup, Wyfold Cup, Britannia Cup, the double sculls and diamond sculls.

More News:

POLL: Have your say