It might not be as well known as the tennis at Wimbledon or the North London soccer derby, but the Head of the River Race is one of the oldest and most prestigious sporting traditions in London. And this year, it happens on March 29. Here is our guide to this highlight on the British capital’s calendar.
The Head of the River Race was founded by rowing coach Steve Fairbairn in 1926. It was conceived to give rowers an opportunity for competitive distance training during the winter, as preparation for the summer regatta. The first event took place in December 1926, with a mere 23 entrants, and it proved to be such a success that it was very quickly decided to make it an annual occurrence. By 1939, there were 154 entrants in the competition, and since its return in 1946 following a break during the Second World War, the number of participants has continued to grow year on year. Eventually, in 1979, the sheer volume of applications, and the consequent safety concerns, led the organizers to impose an upper limit of 420 crews. It’s a limit that still stands today, meaning only the world’s greatest crews line up for this race.
The race is an international affair. Hundreds of boats containing eight-man crews from across the world tackle the 4.25-mile championship course from Mortlake to Putney. It is customary for the previous year’s winner to start first, and that crew is followed at 10-second intervals by other teams (in the order they finished the race the previous year). The new entries follow them in alphabetical order. But as last year’s event was canceled due to adverse weather conditions, the leading crew will be the 2012 winners, the Czech Rowing Federation. Others will follow in an attempt to claim the Head of the River trophy — a bust of Fairbairn — and try to beat the record time of 16 minutes and 37 seconds, set by the Great Britain National Squad back in 1987.
How to Watch
The race is free to watch from the riverbank, so the route, from start to finish, will be brimming with spectators. Deciding where to base yourself depends on which part of the race you wish to see. Find a spot on Chiswick Bridge to watch the competitors set off one-by-one. Head a little further along the route to Barnes Bridge to witness the rowers settling into their rhythms and gathering pace. Or plant yourself on Hammersmith Bridge to spy the crews approaching the line and clocking their finishing times. To get a good view from any of these places, you’ll need to be there at least 45 minutes before the race’s 2:15 p.m. start time. Alternatively, if you are unable to get to any of these spots early, try to find a river-facing seat in one of the many cafés, restaurants and pubs lining both sides of the riverbank.
Photo Courtesy of John Teslade