Of the thousands of people who attend Henley Royal Regatta each year, Umpire launch driver Dan Wood has one of the most exclusive seats in the house. Following the races from start to finish, there’s arguably no better view of the action than from one of the iconic launches, though only a lucky few ever get to experience it. Dan, who has been driving launches at Henley Royal Regatta for roughly 25 years, is one of only six drivers and is responsible for the first launch, Boadicea.
Dan, Director of Henwood and Dean boatbuilders and Operations Manager at 3D Marine, has worked in the boating industry for his whole adult life. He acquired the revered role of HRR Launch Driver by chance over two decades ago after another driver fell ill during the Regatta and was forced to drop out. When the driver in question then retired the following year, Dan was invited to stay on.
In 2019, after the retirement of Colin Hinton, Dan took on the task of driving the ‘number one launch’ — then Artemisia, and now the two year old Boadicea. He explained, “number one launch is the same as all the other launches, but the difference is that everyone comes to me. The Committee, the Stewards, the Umpires, they speak to their own drivers but if there’s anything that needs sorting out to do with the launches, they automatically come to me.”
On top of being responsible for the launches as a whole, Dan also has to follow twice as many races as the rest of the team due to the live-stream camera being strapped to the bow of his boat. The first launch is currently the only boat to capture footage for the televising of the Regatta. Dan said, “there are six races before a timing gap. I do the first race and the sixth race, and then there’s a gap and the rotation starts again. It’s so that the camera on the launch gets the most amount of races it can physically do. It means you end up doing more, which is a blessing and a curse.
You’re not sitting around ever, especially on finals day when there are fewer races, but it means you do a lot. You tend to start and finish the racing, so you’re the first one out but the last one back.”
Even without the first launch’s doubled up timetable, the work of an Umpire’s launch driver is still demanding, with the day starting as early as 6:30am and often finishing well past 8pm. Traditionally, there have never been any reserve drivers, with only six people on site to operate the six launches (five in rotation, and one spare). This year, however, the team are training up a new driver to help alleviate the work load, and to start preparing the next generation.
Dan said, “The Regatta is finely timed and driving the launch is only 40% of it. Knowing what is going on and the timings is another 40%, and 20% is real fine tuning: being bang on a minute before the race, not making too much wash on the way down, knowing the tricks to get through the navigation channel in a timely manner, being smooth for the passengers and Umpire and Commentator, and being efficient. If you do the same thing enough times, it becomes robotic and second nature, but you can fine tune it all the time. My idea is that we have one person who is a spare and they go and learn every different launch position in case someone is ill. We’re training drivers for when people retire as well.”
After 25 years of launch driving, Dan Wood still looks forward to working at Henley Royal Regatta. Despite the long hours, he tells us, “I like that you get to see lots of people. I know a lot of the people, so I see the same coaches, like Ross Hunter from Leander who does Swan Upping with me. By the time we get to finals day, he probably has three or four crews in. Or, Rob Baker from Cambridge. I get to follow their races and it’s nice to have a chat on the way down. It’s nice to see everyone you know out on the river.”