Please find an extended version of an article about the 2013 Scullers’ Head below. An abridged version of this article appeared in the January/February edition of Rowing & Regatta magazine. Enjoy!
Scullers’ Head celebrates 60th anniversary
The weather was kind to the autumn scullers’ head – perhaps the ultimate test in boat moving on the Tideway. Vesta’s Alastair McCormick reports
This year’s Vesta Scullers’ Head was the 60th edition of this unique and historic event. Held on Saturday 16th November, on a lovely autumnal afternoon, 378 hardy souls lined up in Mortlake to race their single sculls over the world famous championship course from Mortlake to Putney. First held in 1954, Vesta is proud to continue organising a race which is rooted firmly in the club’s history. Captain, Aga Siemiginowska, explains that “it is about bringing the club together to run a fun, competitive, large scale event.”
The Scullers’ Head is normally the largest single division race for singles in the world, however, this year – due to a cap on entries – this accolade was claimed by the Silver Sculls in Turin, Italy. The event is for all single scullers and has been previously been won by Olympic and world champions. Vesta’s Honorary Steward, Dick Welch, sums up why the Scullers’ Head holds a unique place in the rowing calendar: “Competing in the Sculler’s Head is a rite of passage for all scullers, if someone has taken the trouble to teach you that art you really ought to do it at least once.”
There is a special camaraderie between single scullers’ which casts a warm glow over this special event. Vesta Veteran, Jock McKerrell , describes how “the race to me is the ultimate test of an individual’s ability as a boat mover.” Others talk of the Scullers’ Head as “the race of truth” with nowhere to hide and no one else to blame. Not only does the Scullers’ Head test competitors physical and mental strength, being held on the tideway also makes it a test of watermanship, ensuring that to win, competitors need to combine all these skills.
Vesta had always been an organising club when, in 1953, the Vest Open Events Committee (VOEC) discussed the possibility of a head race for single scullers. The great and the good of rowing were asked to contribute their thoughts – a novel suggestion came from W D Kinnear of Kingston RC who suggested that the race should be Putney to Mortlake and back! The first race took place on 10th April 1954, attracted 56 Entries and was won by Vesta’s A J Marsden.
The race has seen some change since 1954 – most notably the inclusion of women and a hugely increased junior entry – but many old hands say not a lot changes, although timing is definitely more accurate. Dick Welch added that “we probably raced it in much worse conditions than would be permitted by the health and safety elves today.”
Most of the major heads have morphed into committee led events, but Vesta is proud to have kept the Scullers’ and the Vets Eights heads in-house. Vesta is not widely known as a sculling club, but it must not be forgotten that the club’s most famous member, Harry Blackstaffe, was Olympic gold medallist in the single scull at the 1908 London Olympics. Blackstaffe is still a great inspiration to the club, with ‘Blackstaffe day’ held by the club every August to commemorate the achievements of the club’s most famous son. Aga added that “even though we’re not known as a sculling club now, our older members and retired senior squad members often make the crossover to sculling and continue to be engaged with the sport well after leaving the competitive senior squads.”
The Vesta membership take the race to heart every year, with 21 club scullers completing the race this year and over 60 members volunteering their time to make sure the event ran like clockwork. The Scullers’ Head reflects the special atmosphere of the club, with the event ensuring that Vesta is known throughout the rowing world as a generous and organised club, with arguably the friendliest bar on the Tideway. Chris Harrison, Chairman of the VOEC, said “when our members volunteers in such numbers as they did, it is a quietly effective advert for the community of the club.” As far as Vesta is concerned, organising races is fun and when they go well – like this year – the feedback from those involved is great to hear.
This year’s race passed as smoothly as any in recent history, helped by a bright day in West London. It was also aided by a slightly smaller entry than normal, due to a quirk of the calendar that caused Scullers’ and Fours’ Heads to swap around this year. Entries were about 20% lower than normal, but will be back to full strength next year. Chris was pleased to receive positive feedback on twitter about his quick turnaround on the results, although he says “we operate a relatively low tech solution, but it’s one that we’ve used for years with minor tweaking each year.”
The overall winner this year was Sigmund Verstraete from France who finished in 21:06.99 and represented Walton – a fantastic result for the club. Sigmund said, “I was really surprised when they told me that I had won. I did not set a goal before the race. I just came to have fun.” His shock was in plain view at the prizegiving as he took in the illustrious names on the trophy, including Sir Steve Redgrave and Alan Campbell.
Louisa Reeve was the overall women’s winner and 41st-placed finisher in 22:14.41, who opted to miss the GB Rowing Team 1st Assessment to compete. She said that she had wanted to compete in the Scullers’ Head for a few years.
The 29-year-old Olympian competed in the Wingfield Sculls in October but admitted that it “didn’t go amazingly”, so was pleased that this race “was a definite step on.” She added, “I really enjoyed the race. The weather was some of the best I’ve seen on the Tideway and seeing that many singles out at the same time is very impressive! I’m really pleased with my result and the trophy is one of the best around!”
Other results of note included fifth-placed junior Sam Meijer from Westminster School who took home the J18 pennant after finishing in 21:21.66.
Another winner who deserves a mention is Guy Pooley who finished 21st in 21:58.29 and won the MasC pennant. Guy is one of the most prolific winners in the race’s history and has won the MasC pennant six years in a row.
Vesta’s hard work to host this famous event, was rewarded in style this year as Harry Bond brought home the IM1 pennant, finishing in 15th place. It is particular poetic to see another Harry B following in the footsteps of Harry Blackstaffe in winning in club colours on the Tideway in a single scull. Harry previously won the old Sen2 Lwt pennant in 2006, but since then in his own words has “done very little sculling or racing (in a single).” Harry concedes that, due to missing GB trialists, “I undoubtedly finished a little higher than I could have otherwise expected to.” Harry’s achievement has brought a lot of pride to the club and it builds nicely on his win in Sen 2- at Pairs’ Head with Si Woodfine. As he puts it: “winning can be a nice habit.”
Along with the 60 or more volunteers, another unsung Vesta hero is Jock McKerrell who has taken part in Scullers’ Head more than 20 times and was at 73, the second oldest competitor this year – the oldest was Frank Webb from Quintin, aged 75. Jock says sculling is “easier on the back” and at his age “there is nobody else who wants to continue with a view to racing.”
Let’s look forward to another 60 years of the Scullers’ Head, run in a unique and special way by Vesta.
Check out the full results here.