The Biggest Sporting Event You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

On Saturday the banks of the Thames will be packed with rowing boats as over 2,500 female rowers and 320 coxes (some men, some women) gather for the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race. This is certainly the biggest female-only rowing event in the world and it must be one of the biggest women-only sporting events in the world.

WEHORR is remarkable in its longevity and its popularity. The race first took place in 1927 as a side-by-side derby, and in 1930 became a processional ‘head’ race over the full Mortlake to Putney course. There was a period of over 20 years when the course was shortened – officially due to rationing – but for the last four decades women have gathered annually to race the 4 1/4 miles. Helena Smalman-Smith recently wrote an excellent blog about WEHORR and women’s rowing featuring Thames RC’s Pauline Rayner, looking at the changes over the years.


My first WEHORR was in 2001. I was living in France that year and rowing with the University of Nantes. It was a nightmarish experience; we’d driven in an old, mouldy minibus from Nantes to London, couldn’t find the place we were supposed to be staying and ended up sleeping in the minibus on a freezing night outside Emmanuel School BC. In the morning we picked up our brand new boat, and discovered we couldn’t rig it in the same way we’d been training back in France. On the water our cox wasn’t listening to the marshals or my translation of their orders, and by the time we raced I was so stressed I caught two crabs. We finished an inglorious 124th out of 221 crews.

I didn’t race it again until 2004, by which time I’d picked up an undergraduate degree and a journalism diploma, broken my leg, got a job and moved to London. I stroked the Thames novice boat to 83rd place, losing the novice pennant to a fast junior world-class start crew from Reading. But now I knew the river, where to push and that Hammersmith did not mean the end of the race but the point where you sit up and absorb the cheers from the bridge.

This year will be my 10th WEHORR. I’m racing in an intermediate boat with some of the fantastic novices I’ve been coaching, and we’re back in the solid old Empacher, Noel, in which I raced in 2004. And while the lead-up this year has been very different, with more time spent driving a launch than rowing, I’m still just as excited about the opportunity to be part of the race. There’s something unique about being on the water at the same time as women aged 16 to over 70, with experience ranging from a few months to decades, all there united in a bid to get from Chiswick Bridge to Putney Pier as fast as possible. These women will push themselves to the limit, in all likelihood fighting not only the physical challenge but also the environment – wind, waves, and cold – and they’ll do it because they love it.

In 2012 my friends and squadmates from Thames won the Headship at WEHORR. They recorded the race on a GoPro, and perhaps this video is the best illustration of what racing WEHORR means.

Bring it on.

This article was originally posted at

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