The bells of Worcester Cathedral could be heard chiming in the near distance as the organizers, teams and supporters gathered on the eastern bank of the Severn for the day’s event. There was an energy in the air amongst those assembling on the green, untempered by the slightly chilly and overcast weather on a morning that would soon change to a beautiful summer’s day. The day would be broken down into two sessions. First come two time-trial heats, where all boats race twice, and their aggregate times used to determine whether they would participate in the subsequent higher tier Cup races or the lower tier Plate races. Each race would be a three-way challenge, with 26 boats in total competing on the water.
Malvern Panalytical Crew 2, captained once again by Irina, was the first of our teams to race. The boat hosted a few crew changes since practice and the arrival of seasoned paddler James Hyland, fresh from Almelo to participate that weekend. After a team photo, the crew took their positions in the boat and eased away from the bank, heading downstream to assemble with the other boats at the start line. Each boat was helmed by a member of the Worcester Dragon Boat Club who would steer the boats safely down the river, and often give words of encouragement and last-minute tips and reminders ahead of the race. Despite the adrenalin and nerves that comes with a first race, and those small crew changes, Boat 2 worked perfectly; the timing was consistent, the pace controlled by the front row of Joana and Diogo and communicated brilliantly, and it must be said very enthusiastically, by new drummer Beth. The boat cruised over the finish line in first place with a season’s best time of 1:12, a full second quicker than the nearest rivals. First race and first win for Malvern Panalytical.
As Boat 2 was finishing MP Crew 1 were already embarking onto their boat for their first race of the day. This was the more experienced and faster crew, albeit with a new front row of lead strokes comprising of Matt Young and Lara Lockley, captained expertly on the day by the composed Richard Ashton and with Rebecca Bennett again providing the rhythm with the drum. All of that experience and pace came together to produce another victory, with Boat 1 coming home nearly 2 seconds quicker than the second-placed boat in an incredible time of 1:07, faster than any time set by our teams in practice and one of the quicker times of the first session.
Unfortunately, owing to the running order the second time our teams would compete it would be against one another in the same heat, nearly an hour later. As some of the team used that time to wind down, others went to watch and support some of our other colleagues who were competing for their own clubs or local associations. For apprentice Matt Jones, paddling with his Shushinkai Karate Club, his first race took a literal unexpected turn. After his team pulled ahead to lead by almost an entire boat length, and within meters of the finish line, the rigging that supports the steering paddle the helm uses to control the boat malfunctioned. The boat started to violently veer into the other lanes, drifting sideways across the water. All crews had to desperately brace and slow their boats to avoid colliding. Thankfully all boats and crews emerged unscathed, albeit a little shaken up following this incredibly abnormal event.
Soon it was time for both Malvern Panalytical crews to get back into their boats. Despite the very friendly rivalry between the crews, both teams were fully aware that it was not the position but the time to the line that mattered most. Despite being the underdogs Crew 2 knew that another composed run would give them the time needed to progress to the next stage, while Crew 1 were keen to push and perhaps improve their already fantastic time. As the teams set off evenly from the start, Boat 1 eventually started to pull away from Boat 2, but for both crews the focus was on their own boat and not the opposition.
Boat 1 easily won the second heat with another time of 1:07, while boat 2 followed behind, improving on their previous time by a second and finishing over 2 seconds quicker than the third boat in the race. After all the other teams had competed, we learned that both crews had made into the higher tier Cup races, comprised of the top 15 teams on the day. Crew 1 achieved the 7th fastest aggregate time, while Crew 2 achieved the 14th. Unbelievably though, the draw of the subsequent Cup quarter-final races would mean the two crews would have to race each other once again!
Before that race there was a break for lunch; a time to get some refreshments and relax. The sun had now fully emerged, so while some chose to cool off in the shade of the gazebo for others it was a chance to sunbathe and enjoy an ice-cream or two; serious fuel for an important sporting occasion! The atmosphere was fantastic and while people socialized and played games to while away the time, friends, colleagues and relatives dropped by to give support and often stay to cheer us on.
Soon, the second head-to-head was upon us and the crews made their way again to the waterside to board the boats. The winners and fastest runners up from these quarter-final heats would proceed to the semi-final races, although all teams would compete again to finalize their places in the field. In this race Crew 1 showed their class, narrowly beating the second-placed “Pitmaston Paddlers” with a day’s best time of 1:05. Crew 2 followed not too far behind in third, but with another consistent time of 1:12. From this point on the two crews would not race each other again.
Crew 1 did not get much time to recover before they were back on the water for their semi-final match against local scientific arch-rivals QinetiQ and local engineering company Mazak. All of these teams were extremely capable and had been snapping at each other’s heels all day with similar times. Unfortunately, Mazak showed their overwhelming power and stormed the race with an incredible time of 1:04; they are, and indeed the competition’s second-fastest time of the day. QinetiQ and MP 1 were in a tight battle for second, but ultimately QinetiQ beat them to the line. The day was not done yet though, and these rivals would ultimately face off again!
Soon came Crew 2’s last run of the day. Determined to finish on a high, and despite arms, backs and legs starting to feel the fatigue from the efforts of the day the crew were undaunted by the boat allocated to us. All the boats have names and their own characters and “Chili Lemon” was perhaps the most characterful of the lot. A bright red and vivid green hull, bright yellow interior and an appropriately fire red dragon head, this was a racing boat used by the Worcester Dragon Boat Club themselves. The boat could be fast but also twitchy. If the timing was even a fraction out the boat would sway and bob like it was in the North Sea!
It had already caught the team out in one of the earlier heats, but the lessons had been learned. In a desperately fought race Crew 2 pushed themselves hard to a personal best time of 1:10, but it was unfortunately not enough for the win. The valiant crew were just beaten by the Worcester Chinese Society (who counted among the crew the familiar faces of Ben Cai, Xiaowei Fu, and Min Ross) by a narrow margin of only 0.4 seconds. At the end of the day, Crew 2 finished a highly credible 14th out of the 26 teams. The helm of the crew, a man noted for being most direct when a team had not performed to their best, reassured the team that they had clearly put the utmost effort into the race, had worked well and with good technique, but had unfortunately just been beaten by a stronger team on the day. This was high praise and despite the placement, the team rightly felt proud of their achievement. Now to cheer on Team 1 in their last race.
The fight for the top three had narrowly slipped out of Team 1’s grasp, but could they claim 4th? All eyes were on the river as the boats slowly made their way to the start line. A few seconds to position the boat in the lane, take a breath, focus. With all boats in position, a short pause, paddles buried in the water, all crew leaning forward, taught and ready. “Go” and the first sharp, short strokes to accelerate away from the line. From the outset, it was clear this would be a close race between our Crew 1 and QinetiQ, but QinetiQ got the better start and by the middle of the course, over 100 meters in, QinetiQ were ahead. The race was not yet done though. Crew 1, drawing on all their reserves, working together, pushed hard and started to close in, closer and closer they got until the noses of each dragon figurehead alternated for the lead as the strokes hit the water. An air horn sounded twice in quick succession to mark the arrival of each team at the finish line, but who was first. From our vantage point it looked like Crew 1 may have put themselves in the lead and it was a rush to the marshal’s station to get confirmation of the order and time, but only heartbreak awaited them: QinetiQ had just pipped them to the line by 0.4 seconds. Despite the clear disappointment, the team had excelled themselves to finish 5th overall in the upper tier Cup event.
The final contest of the day finished with an exciting race as the top three teams rowed superbly to cross the line with barely over a second between all three, Mazak emerging as the overall and worthy victors of the day.
Our teams would not leave the event empty-handed, both receiving trophies to commemorate their hard work and achievements on the day, not bad for teams that had only received 3 hours of training each!
The day was not all about the competition either. Money was raised for local charities and also the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who would be receiving £1,300, a fantastic sum of money for a worthy charity supporting the brave volunteers who risk their lives to protect and assist all those who find themselves in trouble on the water.
And after the race time to relax at one of the riverside bars and contemplate on the day’s events. I can neither confirm nor deny whether any drinks may or may not have been sipped from the aforementioned trophies. The evening was also tinged with a touch of sadness, as it was effectively the last day for two keen members of the crew. Year in Industry students Kessigen Mooroogen and Kate Burgess had thrown themselves into this event, and indeed their work at Malvern Panalytical. Moreover, they were also, as all of this year’s students have been, instrumental in other sports at the company such as the mixed netball team, rounders and other social events as well as outreach through the STEM program. There were, therefore, some poignant goodbyes as we waved off Kate and Kessi as they return to their university studies, but perhaps we will see them again for next year’s event.
A tremendous amount of thanks are also deserved for every member of the teams for giving up their evenings and weekends for the training and event and making the day such a huge success and joy for everyone, for our captains Irina Stan and Richard Ashton for leading the crews so well, and a special thank you to Caroline Finch for energising and organising everyone for the event! Thanks also to Malvern Panalytical for sponsoring us again this year, hopefully, next year we can bring back a bigger trophy!
If you missed the whole preparation, you can still read it!