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Umpire Launch

See details of 1902 Consuta constructed Umpires Launch click here 

Rowing 8 Umpire Launch Henley-on-Thames

Since the very first rowing regattas at Henley there has been the question of how the umpire, and race officials can keep up with rowing eights. The fastest rowing eight travels just under 14 mph. In the early days the umpire was seated on a horse, and charged down the footpath. You can only imagine how dangerous this must have been to the spectators lined along the riverbank, as well as to the umpire himself, who had to keep an eye on the boats and where he was going. So it was not  too long before the umpire followed the action inside a row boat manned by professional rowers. But as the regatta developed over the years and presumably as the racers became faster and more competitive event , then even these professional rowers may have lagged behind the action. 


The answer came in 1869, with the use of the first steam launch and steam launches continued up to the turn of the 20th Century, with various launches being provided first by the famous firm of Thorneycroft of Chiswick for Regattas 1871-1876 and then latterly by the firm of Mr Des Vignes between 1877 and 1898 and Des Vines Hibernia was used up to 1908.


The early Thorneycrofts were fast, indeed very fast and produced what had been thought an impossible speed of 18 knots for a boat which was less than 50 feet in length. As the maximum theoretical hull speed for a displacement boat is directly proportional to its waterline length you will appreciate the other notable design aspect of a truly successful umpires launch is that it should be long and narrow. 


Some of these early steam launches did suffer from notable drawbacks and that was at their top speeds they produced a large bow wash and also they were a bit slow to get up steam at the start and end of races causing some delays. One of these steam driven launches the Eva (44'6" length, 6’ 4" beam, draft  2’) can still be seen today in the Henley Rowing and River Museum.  It was in its retirement converted to include a very pretty little glassed cabin and was employed for a number of years on lake Windermere as a steam launch. 


In 1898 a new launch Consuta (51’ long and 7 ‘ beam) was provided by the Mr S.E. Saunders boatbuilder of Goring, which had the innovation of a tunnel stern which greatly reduced the wash from the stern of the boat. It was steam powered and capable of 27.5 knots, with a laminated hull much lighter than the previous steel ones.

Thelma,, having gone through recent renovation is probably one of the finest examples of these consuta style launches and is available for sale here.


As we move in to the 20th Century then we see the inevitable move from steam power to the internal combustion engine.  Enchantress from Hobbs Of Henley took over duties in 1912. The umpire launch has by this time also reached its zenith in design. Sleek and long,  and fast, the designs produced minimum bow wash and wake even at speed. There was alsoo a number of 40 foot vessel produced.


So to see one of these umpire launches is to witness a beautiful effortless gliding vessel. They have highly polished wooden decks and deep comfortable upholstered recessed seating. Due to their size they are ideal pleasure craft and can seat typically up to 12 people and so are popular for excursions along the river. 


If you are interested in the history of the Umpire Launches at Henley then please obtain a copy of book “The Umpires Launch at Henley Royal Regatta, an Historical Review by Richard Goddard 1997”, where I found the above details.  

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