And so the final weekend of the National League was upon us. There were 24 crews on the race program for Albert Docks, including 6 scratch crews. After 8 previous events, we were sitting 5th in the league and there was everything to play for - BA and Thames were only 3 and 2 points ahead of us respectively. A comfortable victory over them and we'd be able to secure third place in the league!
The local teams had outdone themselves with the venue, managing to provide a kit supplier, a burger van, an energy drink stall and a full time commentator! All that as well as proper toilets, changing rooms and working showers... How could it get any better? Oh yes, I forgot to mention that there was glorious sunshine all day and not a breath of wind! Apparently there was some racing too...
The racing started off in the usual vein with the last minute panic about the whereabouts of some of the crew. We really must take the directions for Surrey Dock off the website, as for the second year in a row a proportion of the crew ended up there by mistake. There were other last minute panics with various people being ill, all of which led to us drafting in a willing volunteer from the spectators (thanks Bharti!)...
The rest of the crew having finally arrived, it was straight into heat 2 up against Thames Titans, Secklow and Islington Chinese Association. We knew this would be tough as Secklow have equalled / beaten us in some of the earlier events this year, but as we charged off the start line we ended up most of a boat length ahead before we even finished the start sequence. By the finish line it was nearly a boat length's lead and a respectable time of 50.47 for our first race.
As heat winners we went straight through to the semi finals, where our time (6th fastest heat winner) put us up against the fastest heat winner - Batchworth, who managed their third league appearance of the year. We also had Worcester and Wraysbury trying to challenge for a spot in the major final. The semi winner would go through, with one fastest loser spot from all 3 semis. For everyone else it would be a lunch break as there were no other finals.
The race plan was simple - go with Batchworth. Despite some jeering on the start line (no Batchworth, Werner is one of us now!) we got into our racing mindset and tried our best to stick with them down the course. They finished about 3 seconds ahead of us, but how did we do compared to Worcester? As we later learned, the line was angled in their favour and what looked like second place for us turned to third.
Our time was another respectable 50.47 - yes, identical to our original time in the heat. Not only that but also identical to the time posted by BA in their semi. That gave us a position of 7th equal in the 200m. As the placing would affect our start position in the heats for the 500m it was time to draw lots for which team took which position in the 500m. We lost the draw, which put us into heat 2 against Typhoon, Typhoon Fury and Plaza.
After a decent break we were out on the water for the heat. The same as the 200m, we needed to win it to go straight into the Cup semis. Typhoon had consistently been several seconds faster than us in the morning and that's how it started in the 500s as well; after the start sequence they were nearly half a boat ahead but slowly and surely we pulled it back. By the 250m mark we were level and we didn't stop there. By the 400m mark our dragon's nose was out in front and at the finish line we'd beaten them by exactly half a second. An amazing performance and probably one of the best races we've had for years.
This great result gave us an incredibly long break before the next race; it was a great feeling when we were told we had an hour and a half off before the next warm up! In the break we got chatting to Kathy Birch, a former member of Henley, who has established a ladies dragon boat team based at Wokingham Canoe Club. It's an amazing achievement to have a whole team of ladies out on the water and we hope to see them at the Henley Winter Series, if not before!
Anyway onwards with the racing. After the glorious break it was time to load up for the semi. This time we were taking on Worcester (again), Thames and Kingston P's. Same as last time, it would be semi winners and one fastest loser making it through to the major final. We knew all those teams were beatable, as we had shown in previous events, but every race is different. Knowing this was the most important race of the day, we cruised up to the start line ready to blast down the course.
The time was upon us and after a short delay we were ready to start. Thames were having a great day and it continued as they got to the finish line nearly 4 seconds ahead of us, securing themselves a place in the major final. Again it came down to Henley vs Worcester, but this time it went our way finishing nearly 2 seconds ahead. Unfortunately it wasn't enough and we were the second fastest loser overall, putting us into the minor final.
After another short break the minor final was upon us. Lane 1 - Worcester, Lane 2 - Henley, Lane 3 - Typhoon, Lane 4 - BA. All 4 crews had posted times within 2.4 seconds of one another in the semis, so it was going to be a close one. With the possibility of 5th place overall we knew we had to be fast. The race plan was the same, but only time would tell whether it was enough.
Are you ready? Attention! GO! And about 2 minutes later it was all over. It was so close between us and Worcester as we crossed the line that we had no idea what happened. On the way back to the bank, there was time for a quick rendition of 'Happy birthday' to Derek and then before we knew it the ladies found themselves back on the water for the ladies race. Still nobody knew what had happened in the minor final!
Eventually the results were up and we'd finished second, 0.4 seconds behind Worcester. That gave us 6th place in the 500m competition.
So how about the ladies race? After our recent ladies training sessions it was looking good, but some last minute changes to the crew meant our original plan went slightly out of the window. However our new additions did well and we stayed within a boat length of Kingston, still a vast improvement on last year! Thames Amazoons took second place with us in third.
Overall league placings for 2009? Our provisional estimates put us in 4th place for the 200m and 5th place for the 500m. An amazing achievement from a crew that has been constantly improving throughout the year!
So now we're just left with the National Cup. This evening the local weather forecaster said "This lovely weather will continue until around Thursday when the weather will break and the temperature will drop, so dig out your winter clothes.". Let's face it, the Nationals wouldn't be the same if it weren't cold, wet and windy like every other year ;-)
We look forward to beating (err, I mean meeting) you there!