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Henley Royal Regatta: An Insider’s View With Mahé Drysdale

There is little that personifies the class and eclecticism of the British social calendar quite like Henley Royal Regatta. Not only a firm fixture in the international rowing calendar, this exclusive event is also looked upon as a hive for socialites, personalities and spectators alike. With a reputation that precedes it, Henley Regatta is renowned across the globe for bringing together some of the best elements of British sport, entertainment and cuisine, all with an elite feel that is unmistakably characteristic of the event.

As a matter of course, alongside an elite sporting event comes elite athletes, one of who is Mahé Drysdale – a five-time world champion in the men’s single sculls event as well as the reigning Olympic champion, having won gold in Rio last year and London 2012. Mahé speaks exclusively to The Sybarite, offering an insider’s view into the event and his top tips of how to spend your time at Henley Royal Regatta.

mahe drysdale henley
Mahé at the Henley Royal Regatta in 2009
Starting with you personally, what has been your highlight of Henley Regatta over the years?

For me, a personal highlight has been racing so close to the crowds. It’s something that is totally unique in rowing, as the end of your blades can be literally one to two metres away from some of the spectators, which makes for an amazing atmosphere. I remember racing late one Saturday evening and having the crowds celebrate towards the end with champagne sprayed in my direction!

In your view, what makes Henley so special and unique from other regattas?

Undoubtedly, the history and tradition is a big part of what makes the regatta special. As I said before, the proximity to the crowds is is something that cannot be found elsewhere and is very exciting as a competitor, but probably the biggest difference from other regattas is that we are racing one on one with big booms separating you from the spectators, which are very unforgiving if hit. It makes it a little more gladiatorial, especially in the single scull, and changes it to a much more tactical race, which is the part I love the most.

If you were attending as a spectator, how would you spend your time at the event?

There are so many things to do! My perfect day would be to arrive early to soak up the atmosphere before it gets too busy, before heading over to the Stewards’ Enclosure – if I am fortunate enough to have passes – to walk around and enjoy seeing it before the crowds arrive. While you’re in there, you’ve got to sit in the deck chairs and the grandstand to watch some of the racing, as well as going for a drink of Pimms and soaking up the atmosphere!

At lunch time, the best spot is the car park, where everyone goes for a picnic (or a boot party as we would call it) to enjoy some good food, Pimms and champagne. I would then head for a walk down the river bank to see what else is going on. If you are really keen and have comfortable shoes, you can walk the 2km up to the start to see some races at the beginning of the journey. Alternatively, if you have a contact with a boat and you don’t fancy the walk, this is a good opportunity to take a boat trip up the river.
After this, make sure you head back to the Stewards’ Enclosure in time for afternoon tea. Enjoy a refreshing glass of Pimms and a scone with jam and cream, and then rest the legs in a deck chair and watch some of the races come past.

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At the conclusion of the day, it’s great to head back across the bridge into town for dinner, although it is worth booking in advance due to the number of patrons leaving the regatta. If you are really keen, you can make a night of it and venture to the night clubs up the river bank or find a pub in town. Otherwise, take the sensible option and head home so that you are ready for the next day’s racing!

Most of all, while you are at Henley you must take the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the day.

henley royal regatta spectators

Do you have any special memories of Henley or any particular moments that stick in your mind?

I have plenty of memories and enjoy competing most years. Unfortunately, I don’t usually get to enjoy the off-water activities as much I would like due to resting and racing. I love catching up with so many people I know, as well as enjoying the event and the unique atmosphere. The racing is always fun and I have been lucky to have a few trips in the Umpire boat during Saturday racing, which is great to do some people watching! Although, what I probably like best about Henley is hearing all the stories of those that have come before me, and being part of such an incredibly historic event.

This year, Henley Royal Regatta takes place from 28th June to 2nd July and there is still some availability for those wishing to buy tickets, including space in Mahe’s recommended spot, the Stewards’ Enclosure.

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