The race of 255 eights - Head of the Yarra
The largest ever contingent of rowers in an Australian rowing race - nearly 2300 competitors in 255 eights - took to Melbourne’s Yarra River for the 58th edition of the Head of the Yarra.
Dubbed Australia’s rowing classic, the event saw some of Australia’s best rowing talent take on the 8.6km winding, tidal Yarra course from Birrarung Marr in Melbourne’s CBD to Hawthorn Rowing Club.
Competitors range from school students, club and masters rowers to Olympians and Paralympians coming from throughout Australia, New Zealand as well as a crew from Japan. This year saw the premiering of para-rowing’s LTA mixed eight and LTA men’s eight as part of the race programme.
“The idea was to create more racing opportunities for para-athletes,” says Rowing Australia’s para-rowing talent development coordinator and FISA para-rowing commission member, Tara Huntley. “We have been working with the organising committee over the last 12 months on this and knew we had enough athletes throughout the country to make a crew.”
A para LTA men’s eight raced in the master’s boat class, while a mixed para LTA eight, including Rio 2016 Paralympian Jeremy McGrath, raced alongside 62 other mixed eights.
“8.6k is a hard distance compared to a 1000m race. But it’s really good for the development of our para sport and to get some new people coming through. We had experienced rowers in the stern of the boat and in the bow we gave some developing para-rowers a go,” says McGrath, who was a member of Australia’s first LTA mixed four at the Paralympic Games in Rio.
“Getting more events where para-rowers can compete will hopefully attract more athletes into getting competitive and motivated for Tokyo 2020. That’s the big aim for the next four years. If we have a big group of athletes, we have a good base to make a strong four and to be better than in Rio,” says McGrath.
In the open boat classes, Rio 2016 Olympic Champion Kim Brennan and silver medallist Joshua Dunkley-Smith headlined along with other Rio Olympians who competed for their club.
“It’s very special to row for your club. We have a lot of club pride, a lot of rivalries which go a long way back, which makes it really special,” says Brennan after winning the open women’s eight with her Melbourne University Boat Club (MUBC). The MUBC crew, stroked by Olympian Lucy Stephan, took line honours clocking 29”36’ and winning the event for the first time in six years.
Experienced head racer Brennan, who also competed in the “Great Eight” at this year’s Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, United States as well as at the Head of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, ranks the Head of the Yarra among the world’s top events.
“It’s hugely exciting and a really challenging course,” says Brennan who hopes to see more internationals attend in the future. “It’s a lot more than just rowing 2k in a straight line. It’s highly, highly enjoyable.
“I enjoy the head races overseas. It’s fun to jump into the Great Eight and get to know your international competitors, but here it’s also very special to represent your club and the people who helped you along the way.”
Dunkley-Smith agrees: “It’s a great honour to represent your club at an event like this. I was talking to a guy who said he won in 1958 and 1959 for Mercantile (Rowing Club), so it’s a really traditional race and has a great history and it’s always good fun.”
It was also a chance to remember Mercantile team mate, Olympic medallist Sarah Tait who died of cancer earlier this year aged 33, with Mercantile rowers wearing green ribbons in honour of Tait. Tait’s last rowing race was the Head of the Yarra win in 2013.
Mercantile’s open men’s eight, based around Dunkley-Smith, won in a time of 27”03’. The crew also included Olympic gold medallist David Crawshay, Olympian Nick Purnell as well as members of this year’s under-23 men’s eight.
Rio 2016 Swiss Olympian Nico Stahlberg raced for MUBC finishing fourth. “I missed the Armada Cup back home, which is a bit similar, just in the single, so I’m very happy I had the chance to compete here instead and I can definitely recommend this regatta to anyone,” says Stahlberg who arrived in Australia four weeks ago “to escape European winter, train and work on my English skills.”
Racing also included a 70+ category. Eight crews of Septuagenarians and Octogenarians, saw MUBC win ahead of North Shore Composite (Sydney) – the oldest crew in the race with 87-year-old 1956 Olympic medallist, Neville Howell in the bow seat.
Winners: Female Open Eight: Melbourne University Boat Club - Alice McNamara, Hedda Cooper, India McKenzie, Alice Arch, Elise Franetic, Katherine Michelmore, Kim Brennan, Lucy Stephan, cox: Sarah Ben-David
Winners: Male Open Eight: Mercantile Rowing Club - Alexander Wolf, Callum Nott, Nicholas Purnell, David Crawshay, Tom Hunt, Josh Dunkley-Smith, Liam Donald, Angus Widdicombe and cox Annabelle Orr.
Mixed LTA Eight: Balmain Composite - Matilda Slater-Phillips, Sara Waitzer, Narelle Burnside, Ruby Sutherland, Alistair Chong, Jeremy McGrath, Kevin Wall, Mac Russell, cox: Josh Neil