When they were not gawking at the Princess, the spectators were appreciating the scenery, animate and otherwise. Young girls, with complexions of milk and roses, strolled along the banks. Their men were in white, blue and straw—pants, blazers and boaters. And everywhere along the shore there were boats. But what boats! Ancient skiffs, all rich dark browns, gleaming and thick with a century and more of varnish, and reclining within, women with parasols and lace-trimmed summer dresses. Flat little punts, with men on their sterns in blazers and club ties, poled lazily up and down the river. On the other side, less than 100 yards away, an ancient brick wall, built by Oliver Cromwell in 1643, stood thick with roses. And behind it stretched the sculptured gardens and croquet lawns of the Phyllis Court Club, which, it is said, kept the bombs off Henley during the war: one of Hitler's henchmen had seen it years earlier (so the story went) and wanted it intact for the boss, but their plans fell through. So that is Henley.
Everyone seemed to have a favorite race or two to watch and then turned away from the water. But the oarsmen were all seriousness ashore and on the river. The only evidence of American college silliness seemed to come from the University of California's four-with-cox entry. Under "occupation," the female coxswain was listed as a "body demolition specialist."
As usual at Henley there was much talk about the course, of how it runs upstream against a considerable current. As if that were not enough, it is just 80 feet wide, so only two boats can race at a time. And the edges are marked by log booms, against which each day a few oar blades were cracked or smashed. People are always saying that one lane is better than another, and others are always denying it. It is more a subject of amusement than concern. One amiable member of the stewards, the regatta's ruling body, said, "Old-timers will tell you which lane is the best, but I've always said, 'If you don't like the course, don't row here.' " Then he winked.
The only one who seemed seriously concerned about the current was Dick Erickson. Early in the week he paced the path beside the course; flipping twigs out near and far and studying their meanderings. But he discovered nothing of importance. On Sunday, long after the twigs had been carried out to sea, Erickson stood on the dock at Henley as the crowd thinned. Coach Blackwall came over and shook his hand. "You're a pro," Blackwall told him. "And I'm an apprentice." It was frosting enough for any cake.